Brother, Can You Spare $100,000?

New staff will find nothing happens without a stop at city hall for money

My favorite pitch when I was at the city was from a couple of gentlemen who proposed a downtown convention center hotel. Their idea was to buy a cruise ship down in the Caribbean and bring it up the river and tie it up on the waterfront. The staterooms would be refurbished to provide luxury rooms for conventioneers.

They did need about $100,000 for a feasibility study and up-front expenses and the city needed to deed them a place to park the luxury liner. I suggested I could save them the money on the feasibility study if they would just go down and look at the Chickamauga Lock near Chattanooga. Not even greasing the sides of the ship with soap would likely make the trip feasible.

Knoxville will have a new mayor soon and the city staff will have a new look, though depending on who gets elected some of the same faces will likely still occupy the sixth floor. Having someone with experience hanging around is helpful because you will soon find that few things happen in this town that doesn't involve someone showing up at the mayor's office asking for money.

At times you get someone like Ashley Capps proposing Sundown in the City on Market Square and you jump on it. Leigh Burch needs some parking help to make the Sterchi Building work? Hell yes. David Dewhirst needs something to make the Emporium cash flow? Sure thing.

But oftentimes you just need to learn to say no.

I still recall my first meeting when I went to work at the city. I was there to observe a discussion about spending a federal grant for, as I recall, $65,000 or $75,000. The discussion with architects was about putting signs up in World's Fair Park to identify the sites popular during the World's Fair. I'm thinking that seems like a lot of money to put up a few signs. After a few minutes I realized the grant wasn't for putting up the signs. It was to pay someone to decide where to put the signs.

I had covered or directed coverage of local government for 30 years before I took the job as deputy to former Mayor Victor Ashe. I stepped into a slot in a well-oiled machine. I found it confusing enough and can sympathize with a new administration deciding who will do what, procedures to follow, protocol. Who deals with what issues? You discover quickly that your portfolio soon gets jammed and you reach a point where there is simply no senior staff time left for anything new.

That's why a mayor (or governor, or president) has to set priorities. You can't let other people do it because the swarm of people who want money, time, and city staff resources will far outstrip your ability to provide it.

You also may be limited in new initiatives because the city is committed to ongoing projects that have to be completed. When Bill Haslam arrived at the mayor's office, the revitalization of downtown was well under way, with facade grants, parking initiatives and tax credits. Haslam followed through on these proposals and added his own stamp with things like the downtown movie theater.

The development of the South Knoxville waterfront, the Magnolia corridor plan, the redo of Cumberland Avenue, and the expansion of downtown success up Central Avenue are enough projects to occupy the next mayor's staff in and of themselves.

I think this is a continuation election. Given voter turnout, it does not appear that there is a groundswell of dissatisfied people out there. And Mark Padgett and Madeline Rogero may have blockbuster-sized plans for our future, but I haven't heard them.

I think most voters in this city election are of a mind to elect someone with whom they are comfortable. Competence and continuity seem to be the themes of this election.

Knoxville evolves. It doesn't have revolutions. And we like it that way.

(FOOTNOTE: I want to send a shout-out to the Park West surgical staff and ICU nurses and technicians whom I have discovered are unfailingly kind and efficient even when the patient is often an insufferable prick.)