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February 04, 2013 | Tom Ballard

Cliff Hawks brings love for mud, dirt to Cherokee Farm project

Cliff Hawks is a guy who laughingly says that he loves the mud and dirt that come during a massive new land development project.

He should know what it is like. The newly named President and Chief Executive Officer of Cherokee Farm Development Corporation previously was involved in two large developments in Middle Tennessee.

As Director of Nashville’s Sports Authority, he was in the center of the development of the stadium that houses the Tennessee Titans. Later, as Vice President and General Manager of the Nashville Superspeedway, he spent 11 years overseeing the development and operations of the track in Wilson County that hosted NASCAR races.

“The Superspeedway (site) looked just like this when I got here,” Hawks observed.

Today, the Humboldt native and David Lipscomb University graduate is the point person responsible for filling the highly visible Cherokee Farm development that formerly housed the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Dairy Farm.

We toured the 177-acre site with Hawks when he had been on the job just four weeks, but it was clear that he is passionate about the opportunity that he has embraced.

“I was here in August to interview and can’t get over all of the progress that has been made since then,” he said, referring to the infrastructure work – roads, sidewalks and utilities – underway and set for completion in March.

“There’s a lot of attention that has been paid to aesthetics,” Hawks said, citing everything from brick paver sidewalks to “nice green space that divides different buildings,” an amphitheater for use by the tenants and others, building design and height restrictions, and plans for parking in a single location near Alcoa Highway.

“We want to position Cherokee Farm as a catalyst for economic development in the region,” he says. UT’s research and academic programs and the partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) are extremely critical to the goal, but so, too, are many other organizations.

“While we are focused on promoting and developing Cherokee Farm, we want to be one of the many voices (for economic development) in the region,” Hawks explains.

In the short time he has been here, Hawks already knows the alphabet soup of acronyms for organizations other than UT that will be critical to his success and has met with many of them. He cited Innovation Valley Inc. and its partners, Tennessee Valley Corridor, East Tennessee Economic Council, UT Research Foundation, and Tech 20/20.

“There’s real synergy in the vision at UT,” Hawks says. “Everybody at UT is on the same page as to what this (Cherokee Farm) is going to be.”

About one-half of the property – 88 acres to be exact – can be developed. The balance will be devoted to “open space to eat and mingle, to facilitate interaction with tenants in different buildings,” and to bike trails, Hawks says.

The first building under construction is the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials, a three-story structure that Hawks describes as “a tremendous selling point” for Cherokee Farm. The building will highlight the materials expertise that exists at UT and ORNL.

As other buildings emerge, they must fit within the design specifications for the property. Hawks says Cherokee Farm has 16 one- to two-acre plots that will accommodate anywhere from 80,000 to 140,000 square foot buildings, depending on size of the plot, location on the property, and height (two to five stories).

Hawks also has a vision for Cherokee Farm in the context of the local community that draws on his two previous experiences bringing people to a venue.

“I see Cherokee Farm being a property the local community can enjoy,” he says, citing opportunities like events in the spring with the Knoxville Chamber and other organizations as goals.

For a guy who admits that he was not sure what he wanted to do when he graduated from college in 1991, Hawks appears to have found his niche – turning mud and dirt into successful developments.

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