insights (2006-01)

A New Glow on the Knoxville Horizon

The Knoxville community hasn’t been growing in any linear, clearly directed way in the past year, and this coming year doesn’t promise much more in the way of organized movement. Still, the momentum the community is riding, both in the central city and in the suburbs, feels steady.

Nothing should be more comforting or exciting to the city as a whole than the demand, which shows no sign of waning, for more and better residential and retail opportunities downtown. The chicken-and-egg thing, where commercial development awaits residential impetus and vice versa, is behind us. Both measures of a thriving city core are leaping ahead, as are the dining and nightlife choices downtown.

And, while redevelopment prospects for the South Knoxville Waterfront are moving toward the drawing board in a more ordered fashion than the fad that has grabbed the downtown proper, the more expansive westward growth along the Interstate-40-75 corridor, Kingston Pike and Northshore Drive, continues willy-nilly. So do development patterns in Karns, Halls and Powell and along John Sevier and Asheville Highways to the south and east of the city.

Whether planned growth is preferable to unplanned, both are likely to continue. For that reason, we should be hopeful that the South Knoxville project, which is relying on consultant guidance, city support and public input, will demonstrate how well a careful, planned approach can function in taking a whole neighborhood from marginal utilization of its property and its advantages into a model application of new urban design.

On another front, the University of Tennessee’s flagship campus here is becoming an ever-more-sophisticated academic environment, as the aspirations of the state’s best and brightest high school graduates to join its student body grow and their college entrance-test scores keep increasing, year on year. It’s a very good, if underfunded, university, and motivated students will keep improving it regardless of what we perceive as state apathy toward all but its sports programs.

Meanwhile, our city and county governments are showing that at last they can work hand in glove toward improving the ambience of the total community. There appears to be no crippling rivalry between Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale. Such conflict has stifled communitywide progressive thought and action in the past.

Each of the mayors has been successful, for the most part, in leading their legislative bodies toward more productive city-county cooperation. In the absence of a single metropolitan government, which has consistently failed in referenda, that’s the best we can hope for, and we should expect much more of it, including the combining of more service departments and responsibilities to reduce waste and duplication.

Some more of that merging of services is on the city-county agenda, we believe, and it should make the discharge of our government roles go more smoothly. Law-enforcement officials, though distinctly separate within the city police and county sheriff’s departments, are working together better than they have in decades, and they should be exploring more ways to prevent crime, maintain order and perform investigations jointly, with squads composed of officers from both departments.

We want that style of working together harmoniously to become contagious, so that all Knoxville and Knox County citizens can view in a spirit of solidarity such important aspects of urban vitality as industrial and commercial development, historic preservation and understanding, educational, artistic and cultural institutions and their stimulation, communitywide transportation needs and priorities, and indeed all public utilities and services and their efficient delivery. There are no longer the institutional, professional and personal barriers to such a shared viewpoint that once existed.

Even though disagreement and debate are inevitable, this new year could hold the first chance the leadership has presented this community in what seems like eons to exercise the give and take, and to create the compromise that restores and confirms Knoxville’s position as the undisputed and essential hub of East Tennessee.

Remember that the leaders can’t do that alone. They need support and encouragement—and challenges when they go off track—if the community is to keep up the pace it has lately adopted.

We aren’t a homogenous group here, but most of us think of ourselves as Knoxvillians, and we should put that feeling to the best possible uses.

As we look toward the months ahead in 2006, we should be thinking of new ways to embrace our racial, ethnic and religious diversity and make our differences, subtle and not so subtle, work for us in securing an even more appealing community than we’ve already begun to build.

If that last two or three years have begun to illuminate the vast unrealized potential of our community, this could be the year that historians cite in proclaiming the moment that Knoxville truly turned the corner and entered the 21st century on a footing equal to that of its peer cities across the Southeast.

The glow is gleaming out there on our horizon. Shall we go?