Gerry Holman, 66, is a native Knoxvillian. He graduated from Central High School and the University of Tennessee. Now semi-retired, he spent his career in advertising and marketing, working as vice president of timeshare corporation Fairfield Communities. Holman is married, has one son and five grandchildren. He’s lived in District 3 for 25 years.
Read other candidate interviews at our 2009 Knoxville City Council Election Guide.
On July 14, the city passed an ordinance making it illegal to sit or lay on public sidewalks downtown. One month before that, Judge Stephen Bushong in Oregon ruled that a similar Portland law was unconstitutional. He based his ruling on Oregon state law, but he also told the city’s attorneys that enforcement of the law could very well be challenged as a first amendment violation. Similarly, the lawyer arguing against the ordinance and citizens seeking its removal said that it was discriminatory, since it was specifically designed to target the city’s homeless population. If you are elected, will you support any action to repeal this ordinance in Knoxville?
Holman: Nobody wants to be in a position as coming against the homeless. That’s a given. In my experience in the past, in what I call a faith-based situation, we had to take people in this category on a case-by-case basis. It’s very difficult for me to say that just because you label somebody homeless, that that gives them carte blanche to do anything they want to do. Certainly to put them in the category of being discriminated against. I don’t know. It seems to me to be a stretch of the law. I would have to talk to the police department and see how they would apply that law because they have the latitude of taking action if they feel it’s necessary or not taking action and just making a warning.
Understand I come from a family of entrepreneurs—except for myself. Businesses have rights, too. And certainly a judgment has to be made that if a type of behavior is driving people away from a business, then you have two sides to consider and not just one. It’s a very complex issue that really requires talking to the police department, talking to the people in business, and talking to people who have a lot of contact with the homeless. Then you make a decision based on that information. I’ll be honest with you. There’s such a latitude there that I’d hesitate to make a generalization that would be unfair to any of those groups at this point.
This homelessness thing is a big issue in Knoxville. There are certain areas where people have had to put up with a lot for a long time. But I’ll be honest with you. I haven’t made those calls or talked to those people. It really is serious, and I would really have to study it.
Converting South Knoxville’s Flenniken Elementary School into a supportive housing facility has been a controversial project since its inception. In the candidates’ forum on August 27, many candidates said we ought to, so to speak, “spread the burden” of supportive housing throughout the city rather than concentrating it in a few core areas. Do you have any ideas as to places where we could put more supportive housing? What happens when its neighbors almost inevitably have the same concerns? Does the need for this type of housing and the fact that the Fair Housing Act does not seem to permit the city to deny this type of housing simply based on these types of objections outweigh business and political interest here?
Holman: Once again, we get into some details that require study because they have to be on bus lines. It has to work with that. This is an enormous—I could start out by saying that in the context of the program, it kind of takes my breath away. See, it’s not just a matter of placing people in housing. It’s a matter of keeping them up from then on and being very supportive in a number of areas where they can’t support themselves. It’s such a broad-based program, it frankly takes my breath.
We have citizens in this city and business owners and people who own homes. They’re living in their biggest investments. They pay taxes, and they are the ones who are footing the bill for the homeless to be supplied with what they need. I don’t think there are many of us that wouldn’t want to see a better deal for the homeless, but there’s a balance to be struck. I don’t think we want to rob from the rich to give to the poor so that home values would be impacted adversely. That’s going to impact the amount of money that goes to the homeless. Since I am a homeowner in the Third District, I’m very sensitive to anything—including the encroachment of developers—that would impact our equity value and our property value.
Preserving neighborhoods is the main reason everyone’s concerned. Particularly here in District 3. We’re a bedroom community for Oak Ridge and for Knoxville. We’re neighborhood oriented here. I have to say the word is balance. It has to be negotiated, and it has to be negotiated very carefully. Considering the fact that I think it could be negotiated, I’m not too worried about finding a solution.
You’ll be coming in to an iffy real estate market if you’re elected. Foreclosures continue to be high in the area and around the country, and recently, City Council lowered the property tax rate from $2.81 to $2.46 so as to be in accordance with state tax equalization law. On top of that, a lot of people continue to be unemployed or at least a bit more careful with money, leading to decreases in sales tax revenues. All of this seems to spell potential revenue issues in the future. Given all that, are local incentives, particularly for higher-end projects, a wise idea right now, especially considering the recent foreclosure of a partly TIF-financed project like Cityview at Riverwalk?
Holman: I’m not against developers, but you can make a deal with a developer that only works for the developer and may not work for the city. It could delay taxes so long that taxes may not ever come from that piece of property, and the developer may sell the whole thing and get out of it and never answer for it. I’m very skeptical of anything that is that open-ended. It has to work for the city, and it has to work within the context of the economy we’re in now. So, carte blanche for developers? No, nowhere near it.
Now I think [South Waterfront Director] Dave Hill is overpressed as he’s in charge of the South Knoxville Waterfront. That’s his job. I would like to talk to Dave Hill about anything that comes up and just make sure that this deal—whatever is being presented—would work for the city. Tax revenue is a big issue. We are required by law to balance the budget.
I am for bringing in more business, not just more developers. I want more industry to come up for this city. That is the main thing that I’m concentrating on, that Knoxville be presented as a very business friendly city. I’d like to see a whole new stream of revenue coming in from new business, new industry, and not leaning on these TIF deals with developers that are too iffy. That to me is too iffy. There are too many things all the way up to Wall Street that are too shaky right now. We need to stand on very solid ground.
Give us a for instance: What would have to be on the chopping block in order for you to support a tax increase in a budget?
Holman: I would cut services before I would ever go near a tax increase. What services would I cut? It would probably be a little here and a little there. You can’t go in and just start chopping stuff. Then you get into an area where you disable a department. First though, I would want a freeze on new programs.
In the city budget, I think there’d be less room to cut than in something like the county budget. Frankly, I’ve talked to [Knoxville Police Chief] Sterling Owen, and he runs the biggest department in the city. But, understand, he is the first line of defense against crime. After spending more than an hour with him, I’m convinced that he’s doing his very best in controlling spending. I’m very convinced that Chief Owen is an example for every other department in the city.
I think I’d have to talk to every department to see that we could find a little here and a little there. Now I don’t have any department in mind. Now, here again, we’re getting into the nitty-gritty, where it would take an enormous amount of time, talking to every city department.
Now, understand, I think the mayor and the current City Council have done an excellent job of balancing this budget from year to year. I agree with you that this could be a more challenging year, but I don’t have a simple answer.
What about non-essential services and budget items like, say, parks or the city’s nonprofit grants? Are those ever worth a tax increase?
Holman: There are certain things I think in the long run need to be—now understand, we’ve got the biggest park in the city here in the Third District, Victor Ashe Park—I’m pro-park. I’m pro-greenway. It takes some money to fund those things. But that would be an area we might have to look. If we had to delay building a new park or a new greenway—a project that would add on to what we have now—that would have to be delayed. Another area you might look at is freezing hiring in certain departments, and I think that could be done.
Is the city’s plan for a HOPE VI replacement for the Walter P. Taylor homes a good one? Is it a priority for you to maintain the same level of KCDC housing units as we have now?
Holman: I have seen so many areas around this town transformed by what the mayor has in mind, and I am for that. I understand where he’s coming from. So far, the pattern, we’ve seen a lot of places where that’s been successful. What it does is change the atmosphere of that area, and, in Mechanicsville, it’s been dramatic.
As far as keeping the same number of units is concerned, we may not be able to do that as quickly on the financial end as we’ve done in the past. Things might have to slow down a bit. Heading in that direction long-term, that’s one thing. Heading into that direction short-term, I don’t know how fast we can do that. We’ve got to balance it out with our revenue stream and all that other stuff. But, bottom line, yeah I like what the mayor’s doing there?
Is the Magnolia Avenue Corridor plan a positive sign that the city is putting its attentions toward an area that has arguably been politically neglected? What else can or should be done beyond Magnolia to improve infrastructure, the economy, or simply the standard of living in this part of town?
Holman: This has to do with the economic impact. Every city looks for a way to build a corridor through a certain section of the city that transforms that area into a place with higher property values, less crime, more involvement with investment. So, you can’t argue with success that’s already there in other places.
As to neglected in the past? Yes, to some degree. There are other areas of the city that have gotten more attention than Magnolia Avenue. I think that’s a fact. Now, there’s a lot of areas out there, like the zoo, or Chilhowee Park, that area of town has every reason to expect that they should benefit.
As to what else we could do beyond that corridor, I would have to go out there and talk to people.
I was talking to a woman last night. She told me that what she dislikes is when a bunch of City Council people come out and have a forum, and they ask a question to people, they take notes, and everything else. It was her impression that they were just going to do whatever they wanted to do. They were just there to make nice with people in the neighborhood so they wouldn’t feel left out. We really need to respect people in every part of the city and take their concerns to heart. I know some people out in that area I could talk to, and I have no reason not to expect candid answers, but they live with those problems. But I don’t pretend, especially in the Sixth District, I don’t pretend to know what people’s concerns are. I would need some education there.
Planned Parenthood recently backed out of a move to move to a facility in Bearden following a large and well-organized movement protesting its move there. Now, before I get to the question, let me present two givens so they will not have to be included in your answer. (1) People have every right to protest Planned Parenthood if they feel that what they do is wrong. (2) What Planned Parenthood does is perfectly legal. So should city government have taken a greater role in perhaps mediating this dispute?
Holman: I know both sides really well on that issue. I don’t think bringing anyone to the table is going to solve any problems. I see that nationally, and I see very little chance of that ever being negotiated.
An attendee at the August 27 forum expressed some concern that, as she sees it, City Council is too often a “rubber stamp” for mayoral policy. It was a comment that really seemed to resonate with the audience. In your opinion, have what some have categorized as an overly friendly media environment when it comes to the mayor, as well as his family’s deep and significant connections, and now his gubernatorial campaign, produced a situation where it is politically difficult for City Council to go against mayoral policy? In other words, is it at all possible that the mayor's too popular for our own good?
Holman: To begin, I think the mayor’s an excellent ambassador for the city. I think he’s done a lot of good things. I’m going to the City Council meeting this week to personally thank him for all the good he’s done. And frankly, I would love to see a governor from East Tennessee. I would like to see that set a precedent, a pro-East Tennessee governor. But I think you separate things in your mind that the role of City Council is to be a check and balance on the mayor. I think you can love the mayor and disagree with him. I saw Orrin Hatch on CNN the other day. He loved Ted Kennedy, but he disagreed with him. I think that’s the balance you have to strike. You don’t disrespect people, but that doesn’t mean you bow to everything they suggest.
I think that’s the role that we should play, the role we have to play, and I don’t see any problem with separating those things in your mind and being able to do that on a regular basis.
I’m glad that Pilot Corp. is here. They’re a big corporation. They employ a lot of people across the country. I’d like to see more company headquarters here. I’m the last person who’d be upset that we’d have something as big and successful as that. I don’t think that should be a problem.
Now, I remember when this question came up. I remember the lady asking it, and I know there are some council members who have that reputation. But from what I can see from the candidates that are running this time, I think it’s clear that across the board, we’re independent. We’re independent thinkers.
Have you seen the Hillside-Ridgetop Task Force’s preliminary recommendations? Would you be in support of policies that, in the interest of the long-term benefits of environmental stewardship, might limit a property developer’s ability to “maximize” a hill or ridge property?
Holman: I haven’t seen it, but I am a personal friend of [City Councilman and Task Force co-chair] Joe Hultquist. I talk to him all the time, and I know what they’re doing. He and [County Commissioner and Task Force co-chair] Tony Norman are doing an excellent job.
You see, you can word a law any way you want to, and it has some latitude within it. In general, I come in on the side of the environment. I lived in Los Angeles once, and they have some of the worst problems concerning hillsides. It gets burned off on a regular basis. They can’t reforest it fast enough, and then they have rains. And I’ve been there and seen the mud on the streets. You will not find a better example of what we’re trying to avoid here than Los Angeles County. My concern about developers is they deforest an area and just leave it, and we have these gully-washing issues that become a real problem. It can impact the purity of our water and our air. I think it is a very timely environmental issue.
As far as limiting environmental issues, we need to talk about what we’re going to say in this ordinance that may limit them. We ask, can we put a 12 or 14 story building on top of a hill? And that’s a good question. I am kind of a visionary person, and I’d like to imagine I could visualize what this law could look like. Maybe there can be enough latitude in this ordinance that wouldn’t entirely tie a developer’s hands. I’m not only concerned about that I’m concerned about what farmers are doing in these areas, when they use pesticides that may run down a hill. In general, I think it’s a very far-sighted thing they’re doing here, and I am definitely in favor of it.