Neighborhoods First in Haslam's Budget

Knoxville Works! is the moniker for Mayor Bill Haslam's "strategic plan" for the city that enunciates four goals:

• Stronger, safer neighborhoods

• City services you can count on at a competitive price

• An energized downtown; everybody's neighborhood

• More and better jobs

In his annual budget address last week, Haslam clearly evidenced that neighborhoods and services head the list, at least for the fiscal year ahead. "In our most recent city survey," he told an audience of several hundred at Fountain City Park, "you ranked our services and you told us that sidewalks are your No. 1 priority . So, we're investing almost $1 million to build and repair sidewalks." New sidewalks around selected schools will be the top priority, but the project list extends throughout the city.

Moreover, the $1 million total doesn't include the sidewalk components of two other neighborhood initiatives that Haslam highlighted in his speech for Lonsdale and Burlington. At a cost of $600,000, "Lonsdale will be getting a complete facelift," he said. For Burlington, $150,000 is earmarked for new sidewalks and lighting as well as grants to businesses for rehabbing their buildings.

The mayor also heralded nearly $2 million in his budget for addressing drainage issues, the majority of which would go for First Creek improvements. And along with all these mostly new outlays, the budget includes a slight increase to $3.2 million in funding for street paving.

All of these are worthy endeavors. But speaking as someone for whom an energized downtown is central, I felt that element of Knoxville Works! got only peripheral attention. To be sure, the budget included a long-promised $3 million for the city's share of a Gay Street movie theater. But most, if not all, of that money is supposed to be derived from reductions in the original $14 million cost of a garage just west of Market Square that was initiated when Victor Ashe was mayor.

About the only new downtown initiative in Haslam's budget (leaving aside the World's Fair Park) is $525,000 for the Jackson Avenue Redevelopment Area. That designation

Last fall Haslam named a Downtown Advisory Committee and charged it with recommending the next steps needed to augment downtown's vitality. The committee made retail revitalization of Gay Street and Market Square its top priority. Among other recommendations, its report called for establishing "a set of economic development tools consistently available for retailers, with a commitment of funds adequate to aggressively pursue prospects." It also urged that "public streetscapes connecting Market Square to Gay Street, particularly Wall and Union [Avenues] should be improved."

But no funding for any of the above was included in Haslam's budget. Nor did the mayor heed another recommendation stressed by the committee: namely, the appointment of a senior director in his administration to concentrate on all facets of downtown redevelopment. "We do not have in the budget funding for someone at the senior director level who's going to solely focus on downtown, but there will be someone whose primary job is downtown redevelopment," Haslam says.

It needs to be borne in mind, as Vice Mayor Mark Brown pointed out at one of the DAC's meetings, that "the public needs to see successes downtown—the cinema, the Mast General Store—so they won't start saying, 'I don't want to spend any more public money downtown.'" A $162 million new convention center has so far been a huge white elephant, and even the $8 million that went into the redesign and resurfacing of Market Square is viewed as a boondoggle in some quarters.

So a lot is riding on the success of the movie theater and the extent to which it serves as a catalyst for other restaurant and retail activity in the now-vacant buildings that will adjoin it and on Market Square. If and when the city can show that it's starting to fill the potentially big pot of state sales tax dollars that it's allowed to recapture on incremental sales downtown to go toward paying off convention center debt, then support should grow for public investment in downtown projects that promise a return to taxpayers.

In the meantime, Haslam has further evidenced his commitment to downtown by taking the lead in two private fundraising efforts. For one, he's personally heading a $2 million campaign to get the Bijou Theatre back on a sound footing financially and structurally. At the same time, he's committed to selling $3 million in what amounts to junk bonds (with no city backing) to cover one-third of the cost of the new movie theater.

And while downtown itself may be getting austerity rations in the new city budget, the adjoining World's Fair Park is not. The $1.8 million proceeds from the sale of the Candy Factory and Victorian Houses is being dedicated toward restoration of the Sunsphere as a Knoxville icon and creation of a concert venue on the park's south lawn. Beyond that, the budget includes $2.7 million for a highly appealing landscaped greenway along Second Creek connecting the park with Volunteer Landing on the waterfront (with all but $137,000 of the funding coming from federal and state grants).

Haslam makes the point that "the thing people care about most is where their home is." But Knoxville Works! tries to and will hopefully succeed in providing a transcendent path to progress for the city as a whole.

—Joe Sullivan

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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