commentary (2007-01)

Hope Madeline Rogero’s good with band-aids

Interesting Development

by Matt Edens

"By default almost, the city’s redevelopment efforts must get leaner, more cost-effective and more dependent upon private dollars. Haslam’s business connections and track record as a non-profit fundraiser give him a leg up, but perhaps not enough to climb out of the city’s budgetary hole. Which makes coming to terms with the urban middle-class progressive folks, who made up a big block of Rogero’s support, crucial. Not only are they bound to remain the city’s key source for new middle- and upper-income homeowners, they also represent a small, but growing, source of in-house investment potential that the city has yet to capitalize on in any significant fashion.”

I wrote those words a little over three years ago, commenting on how Madeline Rogero’s overwhelming support among the progressive-minded middle- and upper middle-class folks moving into places like Fourth and Gill, North Hills and Island Home contributed to the narrower-than-expected results of Knoxville’s 2003 mayoral election.

It has taken longer than I would have hoped, not to mention a few unexpected turns, but I’d say that hiring the well-qualified Rogero as Knoxville’s Director of Community Development equally qualifies as “coming to terms.” It also speaks well of both the Mayor and Rogero’s professionalism that they quickly put the, at times, acrimonious election campaign behind them to work together—not just with Rogero’s recent hiring, but also with her prior involvement with the city’s ambitious South Waterfront Plan.

The new hire had been barely announced before some wags spun it as a savvy Haslam move to co-opt a possible reelection challenger or perhaps even position the Mayor for a shot at the Governor’s mansion. Such armchair campaign managing and election handicapping is the bread and butter of local political pundits, but I couldn’t care less (although I would argue that angering the entire East Knoxville political establishment is an interesting reelection strategy). Personally, rather than speculate on what Rogero’s hiring may mean for Haslam’s alleged Nashville ambitions, I’m more interested in what the move could mean for Knoxville.

In the past, the city’s approach to development has been oddly compartmentalized. Community Development, tasked with spending federal Community Development Block Grant funds on a variety of programs in various poor parts of town, was on an entirely different track from other initiatives like the redevelopment of downtown and the waterfront. The fact that all of the department’s program funds were federal dollars only furthered the disconnect. It also, as revealed by the controversy surrounding Renee Kessler’s departure as head of Community Development, encouraged an entitlement mentality among some community leaders that could easily be construed as patronage.

Rogero’s hiring is a good step towards changing that, but by no means the last. A serious rethinking of strategy is in order. As the recent failure of the Metro Village Market in Five Points makes clear, merely spending the money isn’t enough. The city must look beyond the ribbon cutting and pursue housing and development initiatives aimed at integrating Knoxville’s inner-city neighborhoods into the area’s overall economy.

The key, I think, is buried in that observation about how many of those Rogero supporters “represent a small, but growing, source of in-house investment potential.” Just today, I received a notice about an upcoming open house from “The Happy Holler Old House Restoration Group,” a bunch of Old North Knoxville neighbors busily fixing up seven rundown houses along West Baxter (with, as far as I know, no financial help from the city).

It is time for the city, as I wrote in that earlier article, “to tap into the resources of creativity and equity in neighborhoods like Fourth and Gill, Island Home and elsewhere” and “recognize how their incremental but ultimately entrepreneurial approach to community development can pay big dividends.”

Making peace with the progressive Rogero supporters who have put down roots in the inner city leaves the city well positioned to reap those dividends. Now Haslam faces what may prove a bigger challenge: reconciling the East Knoxville establishment and the changing dynamics of Knoxville’s center city.