Metropolitan? Knoxville MSA is Now Nine Counties—But Not the Ones You Think

If you've been feeling a little more metropolitan lately, you've got some numbers to back it up. The Office of Budget and Management in Washington just announced the Knoxville Metropolitan Statistical Area is a lot bigger and also more oddly shaped than it used to be. Recently just the five counties—Knox, Blount, Anderson, Loudon, and Union—our MSA has somehow accumulated four more: Grainger, Roane, Campbell, and Morgan. A few weeks ago, metro Knoxville was just shy of 700,000. Now it is now about 840,000, a 20 percent jump.

We're now, if I'm reading the figures right, the 64th biggest MSA in the nation. Is that good news for Knoxville? If it is, it comes with quite a few footnotes.

As the Metropolitan Planning Commission's Terry Gilhula explained it to me, the designation isn't based on cultural similarities or even shopping and entertaining patterns—though marketing people and journalists, the ones who refer to metropolitan areas most often, tend to think of them that way. Nor are metropolitan-area counties the most populous counties in a region. It's all based on commuting patterns to "urbanized" sections associated with each other. It's all about who drives to work where.

Our metropolitan area used to be such an easy concept to understand. The Knoxville MSA was Knox County and a few familiar counties that touch it on all sides. It started smaller. When Knoxville was designated as an official "metropolitan area" in 1950, it was just Anderson, Blount, and Knox. For decades, it seemed only to grow in geographical size. By the 1980s, the Knoxville MSA included pretty much all the counties that shared a border with Knox, and no others.

Then it seemed as if demographers were getting stricter about what they called metropolitan Knoxville. In the 1990s, we lost Grainger and Jefferson, as they reportedly developed commuting patterns oriented more toward Morristown. Ten years ago, fast-growing Sevier County was deleted from the Knoxville MSA.

The rationale's sort of plausible. Fewer than 25 percent of Sevier Countians come to Knox County to work, and that's the cutoff. The subtext is that they have plenty of jobs there, and Sevier has grown a Smoky Mountains tourist-based economy no longer dependent on Knoxville.

That independence came with some ironies. Knoxville booster money and volunteer leadership was heavily involved in the development of Sevier's original tourism generator, the national park. Sevier County's second-tallest mountain is named for Gay Street druggist David Chapman. The old Knoxville Smokies are now the Tennessee Smokies and based in Sevier County; every game draws Knoxville fans. Meanwhile, thousands of Sevier Countians come to Vols games in Knoxville. Several of Knoxville's best known media people of the last century have been Sevier County residents. Dr. Bruce Wheeler, the author of Knoxville's best-known municipal history, Knoxville, Tennessee: A Mountain City in the New South, prefers to live in Sevier. From downtown Knoxville you can get to the Sevier County line in about 15 minutes.

But it's not in the Knoxville MSA. On metro-area maps, it's a foreign place.

Meanwhile, for the first time, the Knoxville MSA includes counties that don't even touch Knox. Campbell and Morgan aren't even in the expansive Nine Counties region we went through that visioning process with a decade ago. Campbell has a long border with Kentucky. Wartburg, the county seat of Morgan County, is close to 50 miles from Knoxville, farther away than any part of Sevier County.

Could be you've never set foot in Morgan County, but we'd better have a look around. It's part of us, now. In population, Morgan County's smaller than Farragut. But for a rural county, it's an uncommonly interesting one, with the remains of the Victorian English colony of Rugby, what's left of the old German colony of Wartburg, and Deer Lodge, which once harbored a Polish community. It's home of Frozen Head and part of Big South Fork, some of the most beautiful country anywhere. It's also home of the ruins of East Tennessee's most famous prison, Brushy Mountain, maybe the region's biggest historical-renovation challenge. Can we convert it to condos, now?

And there's Campbell County, from LaFollette to Jacksboro to Jellico, famous for its coal mines and unpredictable musicians, from eccentric jazz-blues performer Howard Armstrong to East Tennessee's greatest opera and musical-cinema star, Grace Moore. Its county seat is tiny Jacksboro. There's a piece of old Jacksboro Pike still there near Fountain City—I can remember when there was a scrap of it in downtown Knoxville. The Knox-Campbell connection might seem most plausible at Campbell's annual Louie Bluie festival at Cove Lake State Park in September. Go, and you'll recognize a lot of Knoxvillians on stage and in the audience.

Gilhula says Morgan and Campbell come to us courtesy of Anderson County, part of Knoxville's MSA for over 60 years that now employs many from both Morgan and Campbell.

Grainger's back on our east side, a little more populous than Morgan. But Roane tips the balance decisively westward. The most populous of the new additions, Roane has never come to our MSA party before, but it's named for a guy buried in West Knox, and since the busiest street in Knoxville is named for Roane's county seat, maybe it makes sense.

So the Knoxville MSA has grown, but through these seemingly capricious commuter patterns, it's also shifted northward and westward. We're now lopsided, with Knoxville now on its own metro area's eastern fringe.

Maybe it makes it more likely that we'll get a Macy's, say. But where would that land? To someone not patient about the math of population densities, the center of the newly giant Knoxville MSA might appear to be right around Clinton.

It makes the Knoxville MSA bigger, and that may be important to some retail marketing types. But we're also whiter, and sparser, than we used to be. As an MSA, we are, paradoxically, both bigger and just a little more country than we were.