Madeline Rogero Makes Her Mark

Knoxville's development director demonstrates some mayoral qualities

If Madeline Rogero lacked experience managing a complex organization when she accepted the post of director of the city's Community Development Department in late 2006, she's certainly got it now.

In her three-plus years on the job, Rogero has mastered the intricacies of the myriad of federally funded programs that account for the vast majority of the department's $12 million budget for the current fiscal year. She's also brought harmony to the 25-person department, which had been discordant, as well as to its relations with other arms of city government and other governmental entities with which it interacts.

Rogero clearly has a passion for the department's primary mission, which is addressing the needs of lower-income neighborhoods and lower-income residents. But when asked to list her major accomplishments, she starts by citing what she's done to strengthen her department:

"I've rebuilt/stabilized the Community Development Department. Despite the turmoil that had happened in the department there were talented people on staff when I arrived, and I had the opportunity to bring in additional talented folks to fill vacancies. We have a good, strong team that works together extremely well on 80-plus projects and hundreds of activities (home repairs, problem properties, etc.), utilizing 11 different funding sources (federal, state and local). Because of the vast HUD regulations...we must invest in a significant amount of training for staff."

A complete listing of the programs Rogero oversees would take far more space than this column's constraints allow. Their primary emphasis is on improving the housing stock and hence the character of targeted neighborhoods, and include:

• Low-interest loans of up to 20 years to homeowners to rehabilitate their houses to meet city-set standards. Grants of up to $5,000 for emergency home repairs are also available to low-income residents.

• Acquisition of blighted or unsightly vacant properties whose owners have failed to respond to citations for code violations and/or are chronically delinquent in payment of property taxes. These properties are then sold to developers who commit to build new houses on them within a year that meet city standards of affordability, appearance, and energy efficiency. Zero-interest short-term construction loans are provided to the developers, and down-payment assistance is also available to qualified homebuyers.

There are hundreds of parcels in the city that fit a definition of chronic problem properties. But funding constraints limit the city's acquisition to about 20 a year. "We try to be strategic about where we invest, concentrating on the worst of the worst in targeted neighborhoods and making the minimum investment required to maximize private-sector investment," Rogero says.

When asked whether use of eminent domain to acquire the properties infringes on property rights, Rogero responds, "We're worried about protecting property rights that are being destroyed because someone else will not take care of their property."

A particular source of pride is the row of five new LEED-certified houses that have recently been completed on a previously blighted block of Chestnut Street in the Five Points area. City funds for new sidewalks and fixing up nearby Union Square Park will also contribute to private investment to further improve the area, Rogero believes.

In addition to its many residential programs, the Community Development Department is also actively engaged in supporting commercial development, with a primary emphasis on fostering or bolstering center-city businesses and on job creation. These efforts are funded primarily by what's left of the $26 million Empowerment Zone award the city received from HUD a decade ago and which must be spent in toto by June 30 or else forfeited. These efforts include:

• Facade improvement grants (actually forgivable loans) to spruce up businesses located primarily along the stretches of Broadway and Central near their intersection but recently extending eastward along Magnolia. Over $6 million of EZ and other HUD funds have been committed to upwards of 100 of these grants (typically $50,000 each), and the department claims that nearly 400 jobs have been created as a result of strengthening the businesses that have received them.

• A $1.2 million grant toward the financing of a commercial development in Lonsdale that had long been on the drawing boards as an integral part of a redevelopment plan formulated by a neighborhood group during the Empowerment Zone planning process. Work is now well under way on the commercial strip on Heiskell Avenue that will house a convenience store, a deli, and a gas station—all minority-owned.

• A $450,000 low-interest loan to the Three Rivers Market food co-op to fill a gap in the financing (totaling $2.3 million) of its plans for expansion in a new location at the corner of Baxter and Central. The new store, which is due to open in the fall, will triple (to about 6,000 square feet) the co-op's size and is expected to double its work force to more than 50 full-time jobs.

• A small-business loan program that was foundering when Rogero assumed her post has begun working well since she turned to the Knoxville Area Urban League to manage it. About 30 loans totaling $1.4 million have been made to mostly fledgling enterprises, resulting in the creation of 72 jobs by Rogero's count.

In total, the Community Development Department is now servicing a $21 million loan portfolio with more than 1,500 borrowers—most of whom probably wouldn't have qualified for bank loans, especially under present circumstances. A loan committee that includes several bankers assesses the creditworthiness of each borrower, and only slightly more than 5 percent are failing to make regular payments on their loan.

For her efforts in managing this diverse array of activities, Rogero gets high marks from top city officials. "She's done an outstanding job. I've been impressed with not only her individual skill but also her leadership skill and the team that she's assembled," says Larry Martin, the deputy to Mayor Bill Haslam who has become the city's chief administrative officer following his retirement as president of First Tennessee Bank.

If all of this sounds like a testament to Rogero's qualifications to become the city's next mayor, perhaps it is. The next mayoral election is set for the fall of 2011. If Haslam is elected governor this coming fall, City Council will appoint one of its own members to serve the balance of his term.

"I am definitely planning on running in 2011," says the 58-year-old Rogero, who narrowly lost to Haslam in 2003. "But that's a year in the future, so I'm just trying to do my job as best I can for now."