CHATTANOOGA -- Once a place where neighborhood kids caught bugs and hikers admired birds and wildflowers, this wooded nature preserve along South Chickamauga Creek now is littered with trash and overgrown with weed-choked trails.
Looking around last week, activist Sandy Kurtz blamed two sources: Wal-Mart and Bob Corker, a self-made millionaire who until last year was Chattanooga's mayor.
Kurtz and other activists unsuccessfully fought plans by Corker's private companies for a now-thriving Wal-Mart Supercenter, built in 2003 in this protected watershed. Now, three years later, the controversy is roiling again, just as Corker heads toward the home stretch in his bid for Tennessee's open U.S. Senate seat.
A lawsuit by Kurtz that Corker's lawyers had succeeded in getting dismissed has been reinstated, and, just last week, a judge issued an order that keeps private some records connected to the suit.
The controversy is spinning off new allegations.
A Nashville lawyer pursuing Kurtz's suit says he's bothered by records that show how a Corker real estate company collected $4.6 million by selling the Wal-Mart land just weeks after Corker's public works administrator signed off on a construction easement.
Responding, Corker campaign manager Ben Mitchell said the Wal-Mart was approved in a transparent, open process involving several local, state and federal agencies, much of it occurring before Corker became mayor in April 2001.
So, you tell me.
Will this be a huge campaign issue? I'm thinking a very big yes.The timing does indicate it might be political but welcome to the world of running for senate. There is more:
Corker's actions rankle environmentalists who say he ignored them as mayor. They allege in a Hamilton County Chancery Court suit that the Wal-Mart construction ignored a pre-existing conservation easement, helping ruin the protected 7.8-acre nature area.
"What they did was outrageous. They just ran roughshod over this public property for private gain,'' said Joe Prochaska, an attorney representing Kurtz and the Tennessee Environmental Council.
The site was dedicated for public use in 1996 by a company Corker later bought.
He owned the company in 2003 at the time of the Wal-Mart development.
As mayor, Corker should have disclosed his interest in the property and the adjacent land where the Wal-Mart was built, Prochaska says.
"Why did he allow his monetary interest to trump his commitment to the people of Tennessee?'' the lawyer said.
Mitchell noted that the Wal-Mart controversy was well publicized in the Chattanooga press at the time, and it was understood Corker had an interest in the property.
He also questioned the timing of the revival of Wal-Mart controversy, which comes as Corker, the Republican nominee, faces Democrat Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn).
The timing is questionable yet there is no doubt that there is some things going on here. I'd like to hear what the folks from the east side of the state are saying. Of course, anytime I hear anything about Wal-Mart, it gives me the wiggums.