Haslam: A Self-Assessment

We ask Bill Haslam what he learned from his first four years as Knoxville mayor, and what he plans for his next term

When Bill Haslam first ran for city mayor in 2003, his campaign theme was “It’s Knoxville Time!” Which begged the question: Time for what? Haslam’s priorities and accomplishments during his first year in office have gone a long way toward answering that question. Now, as he prepares to take the oath of office for a second term Dec. 15, the questions become: What are his goals for the city over the next four years, and what challenges does he face in trying to fulfill them?

To get Haslam’s answers to these and other questions, our contributing editor Joe Sullivan interviewed the mayor. What follows is an edited transcript.

What would you consider to be the most meaningful accomplishments in your first term as mayor?

I would think of four or five things. First, I think that we do have some momentum downtown. And some of that, quite frankly, preceded us, whether it be the Miller’s Building or Sterchi. But I think we’ve benefitted from things like getting the Bijou reopened, the Riviera theater going, getting Mast open, which I think was a big deal because it finally brought some shopping of any size back to downtown. You know, I talked to somebody the other day that lives out in Farragut who said, “I never thought I’d ever come downtown to spend a day shopping and going to a movie and eating.” So I think that’s success for us.

I think secondly, the South Waterfront process; while we have a long way to go, I’d call the process that got us to the plan a success. I think World’s Fair Park, when we came in, it was losing money for us. The two major structures from the World’s Fair days were closed—the Sunsphere and the Tennessee Amphitheater. And we were able to come up with a plan that really revived it at no cost to the taxpayers. Now there was a cost of the Candy Factory not being a public building anymore, but we were getting ready to have to put major money in that to make it ADA-compliant. We were able to sell the Victorian houses, take that money to reopen the Sunsphere and the amphitheater, and I think the park is going to be, along with Market Square, a second kind of focal gathering point for downtown.

Another thing, I think, is the financial condition of the city—we have now gotten our General Fund balance built back up to where we’ve always said it should be: 20 percent of our annual operating budget. We are no longer on any kind of emergency footing financially and are paying down our debt. So I think the change of financial condition is significant. Another thing I’d point out would be hopefully a different mentality about service from the city, not that we’re perfect, we’re not as good as I’d like us to be there yet. But things like having 311 in there, where people understand, “If I have a problem, I can call 311 and hopefully that problem will get addressed in a timely manner or I’ll know when it will be addressed.” And for point of interest, we had 1,800 people call there just this past Monday in one day. Eighteen-hundred! So, I mean, it is a service that people like and are using.

I think the last thing, I’m hesitant to say this one, because I don’t take credit for it. But I do think there’s a different spirit in Knoxville today. And I think it’s a more optimistic spirit of, “We can compete with the cities around us, with what we used to be losing people to and losing jobs to.” And I think people feel better about Knoxville, and like I said, I don’t take credit for that, because I think it’s everything from getting UT going in the right direction with some new leadership to some of the things happening in Oak Ridge to a lot of other things happening around town, but I think that’s a significant change.

Are there areas where you didn’t get as much accomplished as you would have liked?

Yes, I think there’re several areas. And I’ll go back to downtown where I think we’ve had success in some areas while in others we’ve made slow progress. I’d love to see stronger office demand for downtown. We’ve made some headway there, but not nearly as much as I would like. The South Waterfront, we have a wonderful plan, but we’re still struggling to put that plan into reality, and we can talk more about why that is. Another is that while 311 is a great accomplishment, one of our challenges is to use that data we now have about, you know, how long is it taking us to get leaves picked up, how long is it taking us to get a pot-hole fixed. One of the purposes was not just to have this expensive concierge service, but to have it create data that we could use to manage the city business. And we’re starting to do that, but we still have a way to go. I think the other thing we talk a lot about is kind of a culture of performance and accountability in the city. And we’ve made some headway there, too, but again, it’s a little harder. We’re not manufacturing widgets here, so we can’t mark our progress in the way some businesses can.

What about the Convention Center?

I wouldn’t call it a monumental success or failure, in terms of our past four years. I think we inherited a situation where the Convention Center, everyone knew from the beginning it was going to lose money. But it was losing more than we expected, and we’ve been able to narrow that gap, and I think we’ll continue to do that. So I don’t know if I mark that as a great win or a great loss. I think there’s been some improvement in bookings, I end up just looking at the financial bottom line to us, and there’s been a meaningful decline in our loss, and so I think that counts.

What are your primary goals for your second term?

One is we obviously have spent a lot of money and time and participation on the South Waterfront, and we need to go make that happen now. I think number two is, I really want to continue what we are doing downtown. I think we have real momentum there, so the easiest thing in the world is to build on that momentum, but we need to expand on it. Again, I’d love to see office demand grow downtown, and there’s a couple of different possibilities for people to build new office buildings downtown, which if those could happen, if either one of them really happen, I think it would be a huge boost for downtown to get a new multi-story building.

Do you think that’s realistic?

Well, I think what you have are two different properties that are being looked at: the News Sentinel property, which the county put out for sale, and the group that has it optioned still sounds fairly optimistic they can pull something off, and then we have the proposal to acquire the old State Supreme Court block and are seeking proposals for its redevelopment.

When are the responses due on it?

I think they are due sometime in the next couple of weeks, and we’ve had a lot of interest so far. I mean, we’ll know when the bids come back, but we’ve had a lot of interest. So I personally am optimistic. Now, I will say the market’s gotten a lot harder in the last little bit, and my guess is that all those proposals are counting on some residential component. And the residential market has gotten a lot tighter. So I think that can end up having a big impact on it.

Any other goals?

Another big priority is the 10-year plan to end homelessness. It’s a big issue for us in terms of what we want to do as a city that’s compassionate and also in terms of the fact that the negative impacts do hit some of our near-to-downtown neighborhoods and for some of our businesses that’s costly right now. Other cities have tracked people who are chronically homeless and looked at the total costs to the community. If you add in the cost of the mission, the cost of police force and jailing those people, and their emergency hospital room visits, the estimates come up close to $30,000-$40,000 per year in cost to somebody in that community.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

I think it’s with both the South Waterfront and downtown, particularly the South Waterfront, which is going to be market driven; and you know when the real estate market slows up it slows up everywhere. Even when somebody thinks, “Oh man, I really should buy something there,” they’ve got to sell what they have first. Real estate demand has been our friend, and fortunately for us there was a great demand downtown and it’s been there for a long time on the South Waterfront as well.

Do you see any major development that is close to coming?

I think that there are a couple that we aren’t ready to announce yet, but I would be disappointed if we didn’t have one or two to announce in the next two or three months. I mean, it’s still riverfront property within walking distance of downtown, and I think the amenities we’re going to add in terms of infrastructure can help sell that. The wind is in our face a lot more than it was six months ago, but I still think that can help.

What do you foresee over the next four years by way of implementation?

I would hope, I mean again, we’ve broken it up into sections and projects and infrastructure and all that, I would hope that at least two or three of those section plans could happen in terms of infrastructure and the development to go along with it. I think that’s realistic.

A river walk?

I don’t know if we’ll have the river walk done the entire length because in some of those places you have some businesses that will have to leave before you can put it in. Holston Gases, as long as they’re in business there the river walk can’t go because of what they do and how the property lays out. But long term, I think there will be a river walk that goes the entire stretch, and I hope to have several good pieces of that done by the time we leave.

What’s been the most satisfying or enjoyable part of the job?

The best thing about being mayor is that this is a job you can wrap your arms around and make a difference. You really can. So it’s like, alright, gosh, it’s a lot harder than I thought but we’re going to figure out a way to get a movie theater built, or we’re going to figure out a way to get Mast General built, or we’re going to come up with a plan for South Waterfront and it can happen. It’s not like being a senator or a governor where things are years away from happening. The second thing is the variety of issues. I like the fact that sitting in your office in any two-hour period you’re going to have people walk in that have issues with everything from drainage plans to homelessness to downtown business recruitment. Maybe it’s my short attention span kicking in, but I like all the different issues that come up. I think that’s critical for a mayor. You don’t have the luxury of saying, “I’m only going to focus on these things.”

Have there been any frustrations?

Yeah, a couple of things come to mind there. I think one of the frustrating things about government is this: You’re in a world of competing valid constituencies. In other words, the things that people are beating on you to spend more money here are all about, should we have sidewalks at every crosswalk? You bet. Should we pay our employees more? Yeah, I’d like to do that. Should we pave streets more frequently? All that’s true. On the flip side of that, we have a limited budget and we say, well, this raises taxes, and people already question whether it’s worth it to live in the city for the taxes I pay, and we’ve got to keep that price competitive. So you have competing constituencies, all of which are valid. That’s one.

The second is that it sometimes gets frustrating dealing with people’s expectations of the mayor. People expect the mayor in a town like Knoxville to personally address their problems all the time. So they want to call and be able to talk to the mayor on the phone, or they want the mayor to come out and look at their drainage problem or whatever it is. And I can understand that, but if that’s what the mayor did, they wouldn’t like the way the city ended up looking, because you never would be able to address the sort of things that the mayor needs to be talking about. So that’s frustrating just because I am not the kind of person that likes to say, “I understand that you have a real valid issue but I can’t deal with it now. Now, we have somebody that can, but it can’t be me.” And after a while that wears on me.

Talk about decision making. Do you feel we’ve made positive changes process-wise?

Yes, I think one is in the way that we work with City Council. You know, everything from how we get their agenda to them earlier with information to the way Council works itself in its meetings. Sometimes we’ll say, “We’re not saying here’s the only way to do it. Here’s two or three alternatives. Here’s our preference.” We did that with the Tennessee Amphitheater. We said, “We can either tear it all down. We can spend $6 million to totally renovate it. Or here’s the plan that partially does that. It doesn’t buy you the whole enchilada but it gets it back in use.” So being able to work with Council to give them some alternatives rather than just saying, “Here it is, take it or leave it.” I think second thing is the whole process in which we’ve engaged people. South Waterfront I’d use as a primary example, and the Fifth and Broadway area, where we had lots of neighborhoods upset about issues with mission agencies and homeless problems in kind of a concentration there. So we really went into it with them and of course the issues were bigger than just that. It was, “Well, we want more attention paid to our part of the city.”

The transit center is another one. I don’t think anybody could say we didn’t have a process that showed everybody what the alternatives are and what the issues are with each one. Finding a location for the transit center was one of the hardest things we’ve done, and nobody really gives you much credit for it because it was one of the things that everybody said that, “Oh, yeah, we should have one, and we want it to be right in the middle of town with two city blocks that don’t take any existing business out.” And you just take that criteria right there and you come up with zero. So I think we went through a process that ended up with a location of the transit center that’s a great one, and it expanded downtown and in a way that caused a minimum of dislocation.

Is it firmly set to go now?

Yes, it’s firmly set. We got all of our approvals, all of our federal approvals and that was a major deal too because you’re dealing with everybody from Federal Highway Administration to TDOT to EPA. I mean with the agencies, it was alphabet soup that you were wrestling.

What else would you like to see accomplished downtown, and will it take further investment and/or incentives on the city’s part?

I think two things. There is a retail strategy that we’ve talked about, and what are valid incentives to do there, and we’re wrestling with that. I don’t think we know the answer yet. I think the other challenge is to expand downtown when we have such a small footprint. We’re boxed in by UT, James White, the interstate, and the river, and that’s not a very big downtown. So how do we expand that? I think we’re taking the first steps to do that so if you look at each direction. We’re expanding across the river with South Waterfront. We’re expanding hopefully across the chasm that was created by urban renewal and James White Parkway with the transit center and hopefully bridging that so that it doesn’t seem like any big deal to walk from downtown to the Civic Coliseum. We’re going west with some of the efforts we’re doing on Cumberland Avenue, turning it into more of a pedestrian-friendly area with wider sidewalks, three lanes instead of four lanes, taking utilities underground. We’re going north with some things we’re doing around Fifth and Broadway and the Central Avenue Corridor plan. When MPC came up with a plan, we talked to MPC about how plans are great but all they do is create unrealistic expectations unless we’re working with you on them to make sure that we can implement it. For instance, it talks about how Central Avenue is a wide road. So can we increase the on-street parking there? Can we change the lines so it’s not designed for a superhighway in a way that it doesn’t need to be? And there’s a lot of other infrastructure type stuff that we think we can do there.

When it comes to strengthening neighborhoods that surround downtown, are there other elements of stronger, safer neighborhoods?

One of the things I’ve learned with city government is that there’s an incredible interconnectedness in government. So for those neighborhoods to be great neighborhoods, our Knoxville Police Department needs to do a great job. The 311 needs to do a good job. But some of the tougher things are chronic-problem properties in neighborhoods, and so we have our chronic-problem property task force that puts people together from across the spectrum. There’s nothing that drags a neighborhood down like one piece of property that’s not being kept up. It can put everybody down. Or it’s one house that’s a nest of illegal activity. And so it’s focusing on those problem areas and really following through with what we’re going to do about it. We have a group now that spans the spectrum of those who deal with the homeless issue. Everybody from Volunteer Ministry Center to Knoxville Area Rescue Mission to Salvation Army to Helen Ross McNabb to the KPD, and they meet weekly and they literally go through on an individual basis what people’s problems are. So they might say, “Here’s Joe Smith. Here’s what his condition is. He has these mental issues. Who has last seen him? Who is going to be responsible for him?” When we find Joe, we are going to make sure we can say “Here’s where he’s going and here’s the meds he needs.” So literally, following up on a one-by-one basis. And you can do that same thing with pieces of property and neighborhoods.

One area that sticks out as most in need of help is the Five Points area. What can we do to achieve a transformational change there?

The first thing you can do is learn from your mistakes. So we look back, and the grocery store not working I think provided us with a couple lessons. Just because you want something to happen doesn’t mean that it’s going to. The issue there was that the city government can do a lot of things. What it can’t do long-term is be responsible for an operating business. It’s got to be a viable business that can really work there. There really wasn’t a plan in Five Points for if the grocery store didn’t work out. Do we have someone that’s deep-pocketed enough to withstand the first couple of hard years? I think the second thing is that you have to fix the housing problems first. So we’ve refocused our emphasis on Five Points with the housing around there with a redevelopment plan for it. Long-term we need to come up with some sort of answer for all the concentration that’s in Walter P. Taylor Homes.

What’s the likelihood that the city can go another four years without a tax increase?

We definitely would really like to do that. We’re working hard to make that happen. Like I say all the time, we’ve got to have a competitive price and our price is a tax rate. People who think folks don’t pay attention to what they pay in property taxes have not read the emails I get. So it’s contingent upon a couple of things. One is what continues to happen with the economy. I’m not saying we’re along for the ride because we can change some things and a lot of the things we’ve put into place, I think do long-term help the financial situation of the city. So I have reasons for optimism there unless the economy really turns around on us. I think the second thing is that the city is no different from any business. Your costs are all in personnel costs and, as I said, we’re currently doing a salary survey that shows where we are. If that shows that we’re drastically out of line and we have to make Council decide if they want to make really drastic changes in salary structure, that could change where we are financially.

The city’s debt has been declining. Do you foresee any major capital expenditures that would take our debt levels back up?

I don’t think so. When we came in, our overall debt was about $250 million. I would hope the next budget we propose it’s going to be under $200 million. That’s a significant reduction. And so that does leave us some room for making needed infrastructure improvements. I think we’ll continue to have to invest in the South Waterfront. What I just talked about—Broadway, Fifth, and Central—that’s gonna take some dollars. Cumberland, if Council ultimately agrees to put some focus there, I think will take some dollars. But I don’t have any projects up my sleeves that say, “Now that we’ve freed up this amount of money, we’re going to go build a...”

So there’s no Haslam monumental legacy project that has yet to be revealed?

No, I can promise you that. People ask me a lot of times, “Well, gosh, what are you gonna do in your next four years?” But if you’ve got something you think is important enough that it should be done, you should have already started on it. And so I think the next four years are going to be continuing to do what we’ve been doing, I don’t think there will be any huge surprises to people.

Another area to which you’ve attached a lot of importance is attracting new businesses, creating more jobs. Beyond Sysco, there haven’t been any major new corporate locations that we have achieved recently. Have we fared as well there as you would have expected, and if not, what more can you do?

I think if you look at our overall job growth numbers, we’ve done really well comparatively. It includes a company like Protein Discovery who moved downtown, to JFG, to a big one, expansion on the part of the Scripps Networks, which has created a lot of jobs that could have moved away.

What role did you play in that?

Well, I really did put a lot into that. The Scripps issue was they knew they needed more room to grow, and yet they were trapped at their headquarters location. And what I was able to do was help work out a deal with their neighbor, Dead Horse Lake Golf Course, in terms of putting something together that works for them, the golf course and the city.

Scripps never came in saying “If you don’t work something out, we’re going to leave.” But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that’s the kind of company that other towns lust for. I mean, they are high-paying jobs, very environmentally friendly, and they’re growing. So keeping Scripps happy where they are and growing, I think is a really big deal. That being said, would I like to have had one or two more corporate headquarters relocations? Yes, those are just really hard to come by.

Are there any prospects?

I wish I could tell you I’ve got one in my back pocket I’m getting ready to announce. We have people that we talk to all the time, but you know, that’s a real tough market. What I’ve seen is that the best way to get job growth is to get the people who are here already to expand what they have. For two reasons: First, it’s always easy to sell more to an existing customer. Second, the people who are from outside of Knoxville don’t realize how great Knoxville is. The people who are here are like “Man! What a great place to do business.” Just think of how many businesses spun out of people who came here with Whittle and wanted to stay and started their own business because they knew what a great place it was. It would have been a lot harder to get those people to move to Knoxville from scratch and start their business.

Do you foresee city/county consolidation being addressed on your watch?

I’ll put it this way: It should be. I do think that it’s a more cost-effective way to do government. And then added to that, well, it’s a way to be more effective in terms of having one voice in Nashville and Washington and in recruiting businesses. Having two governments also provides an environment where you have to work out a lot of other issues as well, whether they be issues around annexation or stormwater policy or whatever. There are a lot of things that we work really hard to work with the county on, and they work really hard to work with us, too. But our purposes aren’t always exactly the same because we still are two separate entities. I’ve always thought it’s a good idea. Now I think it’s a huge no-brainer. That being said, there’s a lot of politically vested interest in having things stay the way they are. Is there a chance that it will happen while I’m mayor? I would hope at least there’d be a good forum for a discussion about it.

I was surprised when somebody did that poll that said a majority of people both inside and outside the city support it. But I think the more you define it, the more that number goes down. So OK, yeah, I love the concept of it, but is the top cop elected or appointed? Either way you’re going to lose some people. Every time you define it more, you’re going to lose some people. But I really think that we need to figure out a way to have a good community-wide discussion about it and somebody to do the work to say, if you did set it up, here’s what it would cost. I think in some ways, it’s crying out for somebody to stand up and say, “I want to champion that issue.” On the other hand, I think in the past, when people have felt like it’s this kind of top-driven process, it’s blown up; and like I said, there are a lot of people who would work hard against it.

The Urban Growth Plan moratorium on subdivision annexations has just expired and there may be some fear out there that this will spur more aggressive city residential annexations. Is that the case?

We obviously knew this date was coming. We’ve been discussing it with the county and the best way to approach that. There are some neighborhoods right now, where there’s some mixed service, where some people in that neighborhood are in the city, and some aren’t. We might look at some of those places. But I think our approach to annexation will always be more on the cautious side than the aggressive side.

Finally, are you giving any consideration to running for governor in 2010?

I do love doing this job. And I think once you are in a political office, and you like it, people start saying “Well, what else are you going to do?” The truth is I really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I think you get in trouble when you spend your time thinking about what you’re going to do next instead of being mayor, and there’s plenty to keep me occupied. Like I said, I do love this job. Will I ever consider running for something else? I might. I would never rule it out. But I really don’t spend the time thinking about it that other people might think I do.

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