Bill Baxter's Sour Grapes

His recent put-downs of Bill Haslam reek of peevishness

Bill Baxter's disparagement of Bill Haslam in a recent guest column in the News Sentinel supporting Zach Wamp for governor reeks of peevishness on Baxter's part.

In case you haven't heard of him, Baxter is the owner of Holston Gases, a business located on prime real estate on the city's South Waterfront just east of the Gay Street Bridge. What gives him enough stature to warrant a column in the daily paper is that he's a former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority who previously served as the state's director of economic development.

So he's a big-wig, yes. But what belittles him and anything he has to say about Haslam is petulance arising from his failed attempt to get private development rights for his waterfront property that would have undermined the exemplary public process by which the Haslam administration shaped its South Waterfront master plan.

For more than a year, Haslam's deputy Dave Hill and an eminent consulting team engaged every segment of the South Knoxville community in the formulation of that plan. There were at least six public meetings, at which input was sought, along with monthly meetings on the part of a 32-person oversight committee that included representative large property owners and businesses as well as neighborhood groups.

It took every bit of this to overcome initial apprehensions on the part of residents of the John Sevier and Scottish Pike neighborhoods that large-scale commercial development would threaten them. And then consensus had to be molded on all elements of a vision for nearly $1 billion in private investment over 20 years supported by $150 million in public sector amenities and infrastructure funded largely, at Haslam's insistence, by tax increment financing derived from the private property enhancements. And where was Baxter while all of this was going on? "We didn't see hide nor hair of him," says one member of the oversight committee.

According to Hill, "The neighborhood groups embraced higher densities far more than other neighborhoods." A form-based zoning code recommended by the oversight committee also minimized restrictions on property usages and in no way infringed on Holston Gases or its expansion.

The zoning code did, however, impose some limitations, including one on building heights. This was intended partly to prevent obstruction of waterfront views and partly, Hill says, to keep development commensurate with roadway capacities.

In the case of Baxter's property, the height limit was 60 feet—not from the base of the hillside where Holston Gases is located, but from the midline of a roadway well above it. But without ever revealing what sort of future development he envisioned, Baxter adamantly opposed the height restriction. When appeals to the mayor were unavailing, he managed to get the Metropolitan Planning Commission to recommend raising it to 120 feet. But when the zoning code came before City Council, it unanimously restored the 60-foot ceiling.

In a revealing interview about the gubernatorial race with Metro Pulse's Jesse Mayshark, Baxter says, "Zach will lead the charge and get things done; Bill will ask the crowd where they'd like to go."

Yet when former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe attempted to launch a South Waterfront development plan from on high in the early 1990s, it met with a firestorm of protest from residents and was quickly shelved. The lesson that Baxter failed to learn is that a participative approach to planning works more effectively than proclamations.

In his News Sentinel column Baxter asserts that, "In the critical area of economic development, during his six years as mayor, Haslam's record is anemic. His ‘crown jewel' is a taxpayer subsidized movie theater downtown—a movie theater!"

Once again, Baxter can't see beyond the end of his nose to recognize the vision embodied in Haslam's grand design for taking a downtrodden section of the city just across the river and transforming it into a vibrant extension of downtown. Granted, the severe economic downturn has put a hiatus on development in the short run. But this was a long-range vision, and developers including the South Waterfront's largest property owner, Mike Conley, have by no means given up on their plans, developed in concert with the city, for large-scale residential and mixed-use complexes.

Where downtown is concerned, getting the cinema built while preserving the historic 500 block of Gay Street was a remarkable achievement in its own right. But it was just a means to an end. Downtown's retail revival wouldn't have started with the Mast General Store without Haslam's active involvement, including his commitment to the cinema. And it's safe to bet that Urban Outfitters wouldn't now be planning another downtown retail anchor without the cinema's pulling power.

Beyond that, Haslam has succeeded in filling the big gap along the city's I-275 northern corridor with his recruitment of Sysco Corp. and its $50 million investment in a distribution center with more than 300 jobs. And Haslam worked behind the scenes to enable Scripps Networks to acquire the additional property needed for expansion of its Knoxville headquarters—that might have otherwise moved elsewhere.

In sum, Baxter's attempted put-downs are the product of ignorance, arrogance, and the same sort of overbearing style that makes Zach Wamp such an unattractive candidate for governor.