Haslamic Fundamentalism

Some reflections on the last seven years

I've known our new governor since we were both kids squinting in the sun on the same baseball diamond—he was much better with both glove and bat than I was—and have watched his career with interest. It seems funny now to remember, eight years ago, when local skeptics ridiculed the mayoral candidate Bill Haslam as the lesser Haslam, the underachieving little brother who didn't have enough administrative experience to lead an entity as big as Knoxville. I believe he will be a good governor.

For evidence of Haslam's aptitude, more than one community leader has gestured to a downtown street and said something like, "Just look around." To be fair, I haven't heard Bill himself claim that he was behind downtown's revival. He's been a good leader in that regard, sure enough. Unlike too many civic leaders in the past, Bill regarded downtown as more than just a 9-5 workplace. In the evenings, I often saw Haslam jogging down Gay Street, or dining with his family at a Market Square table.

His unusual leadership on the 500 block of Gay, especially the Regal Riviera project, made a big difference, even if a large part of his influence was as a major private investor. Describing his influence, just on that issue, is pretty complicated. A city cinema project on that block predated his administration; the consensus of Gay Street watchers is that without Haslam, we'd almost certainly have a cineplex there by now, but it wouldn't have been Regal, it might have remained coupled with the transit-center project, and it would likely have resulted in demolishing more historic buildings, perhaps including the S&W.

And thanks to a Haslam initiative, the 100 block of Gay, which was already popular with developers and tenants, especially residents, got a makeover, in connection with major subterranean infrastructure improvement, resulting in broader sidewalks and trees and benches. It has never looked prettier. On any ordinary day it looks like a set for a patriotic advertisement made to convince commies that America's a great place, no matter what you've heard.

Haslam had the good fortune to become mayor when sprouts were beginning to bud. Tax-increment financing and facade improvement grants were already part of the landscape. When Haslam was inaugurated, on Market Square, in early 2004, the old Square—which had been an emphasis of the Ashe administration for 10 years, as well as Knoxville's Community Development Corporation—was nearly finished, after an already planned and financed major rebuilding campaign. The place was just starting to bloom, and Haslam was there in time to cheer it on, and oversee the construction of the adjacent parking garage, which made a big difference.

The city has made some noticeable if not dramatic strides in making Downtown North, especially along North Central, more amenable to redevelopment, and there are new businesses there. Happy Holler is happier than it's been since the days when it was full of bars. But generally, Haslam has maintained a light touch.

Though Knoxville has enjoyed some good public leadership, the critical ingredient in downtown's revival has been the emergence of a cadre of imaginative and community-minded private developers—whose investments over the last 20 years have been sometimes encouraged, but hardly guaranteed, by city initiatives. All that private initiative may have encouraged Haslam's worldview when he looked out his office window across the river. In its earliest days, Haslam and his staffers talked as if the single greatest legacy of his administration would be the thoughtfully progressive form-based plan to more or less build a new downtown on the blighted south side. It seemed feasible. But Haslam wanted to do it gently, without coercion, or much public money.

Thanks to a few unbudging major property owners, followed by a recession, all that planning left little to point to. We heard in 2005 that it had a 20-year timetable; maybe it'll still happen, but if we had known that six years hence we wouldn't even have good sidewalk connections over there, some would have been pretty discouraged. The recession, which commenced about three years into the effort, didn't help, but without a major deliberate infusion of tens of millions in public money—coupled with the option of eminent domain—it's seeming harder to picture.

Haslam's been, first and foremost, a fiscally responsible mayor, and his light-handed approach to south-side development was an expression of conservative values, and no liability to any Republican gubernatorial candidate, but it has not been effective in actually building stuff.

Both public funding and eminent domain are hot potatoes for someone with Republican gubernatorial ambitions. If Haslam had pushed hard enough to show something on the south side, would he be governor now? This might make an interesting advanced civics debate.

Several community leaders have been frustrated with the last two years, especially concerning any subject that came within a shouting distance of the phrase "eminent domain." Much of what needed to be done on a city level would have required a governmental firmness that would have been a liability for a candidate running for governor of a conservative state.

The remaining McClung warehouses, for example, are still standing derelict, still owned by the same guy long criticized for neglecting them. The fire that destroyed most of the historic buildings cost the public hundreds of thousands of dollars. No one expected that four years later, nothing would have happened, and that the same guy then accused of neglect would still be, at least nominally, in charge of the property. He's bankrupt, though, and it may be auctioned soon.

But any stronger-handed solution would have provided ammunition for Haslam's statewide rivals, in appealing to a conservative statewide electorate. As did his modest one-time tax increase; gubernatorial campaigners who didn't live in Knoxville complained about that much more than Knoxvillians ever did.

Politics is weird, and I suspect it's altogether better if your mayor isn't also running for governor. Then again, it doesn't hurt to have one of your own in the governor's office.