Commissioner Richard Briggs asked an interesting question during the discussion leading up to last month’s vote on the East County Sector Plan: “What do we want Knox County to look like in 25 years?” He talked himself into voting for the Midway Business Park by imagining future Knox Countians with no vacancy in their business parks glaring back at us through time and wondering, “What were they thinking?”
If Knox County continues to pursue unimaginative, sprawling development strategies, those future residents are more likely to wonder, “Why weren’t they thinking?” Treating what is left of county farmland as nothing more than bait with which to lure jobs will result in a county without character. As experience proves, businesses attracted by the infrastructure and incentives that local governments like to dangle in front of them will just as readily move on to the next shiny opportunity, whether it’s in an adjacent county or state with lower taxes or in another country with cheaper labor.
Trying to stay ahead in this race to be cheap undervalues the resources we have and renders all things as nothing special. We can level our rolling hills and plop subdivisions down in every pasture, but it will leave each corner of the county forgettable and interchangeable.
A better economic strategy is to focus on what makes our region unique. As we transition from an expansionist economy, businesses that can serve as a cornerstone for a sustainable economy will be those that depend on local resources.
Water is a critical resource that can be used to generate power, cool machinery, and transport goods. Obviously it is also a key ingredient in food and drinks. Instead of trying to recruit businesses that want easy access to an interstate highway, we should be looking for industries that need water.
Alcoa is an important local manufacturer, but they came to East Tennessee because they could dam our rivers and get cheap electricity. Aluminum is smelted from bauxite ores, a mineral mined out West or overseas. So it is not the mines that keep Alcoa here, but our water.
However, our leaders should also be working to keep our waters clean and navigable.
Forests are another resource we have in abundance. Lumber is a sustainable product, and flooring, cabinetry and other uses add value, particularly if we were to develop regional branding like France has with wine. The most diverse temperate forests on the planet ought to be known as the home of the finest hardwoods.
Our forests once provided an inexhaustible supply of chestnuts, but a tree collector who fancied the exotic Chinese version doomed that industry and brought the tree to the verge of extinction. Early naturalists described ginseng as one of the most abundant plants in the Appalachians, but we were poor stewards of that bounty. Now we spend as much battling poachers as the meager remaining harvest is worth.
Both examples teach lessons about the value of what we have versus the siren song of exotic wealth, and we could use economic planners who understand the risks and values of each. We have to learn to use what we have without squandering it. We should recruit industries because they need us, not because we are desperate.
Fortunately, there are plenty of people in Knoxville envisioning a proud and sustainable future, and the East County Sector Plan, minus the Midway Business Park, is a fine example. It calls for innovative development standards, conservation corridors, and historic preservation. These are the kinds of strategies that keep and enhance regional character.
Many companies can locate anywhere, and it would great to bring more of these to Knox County. If we lure them here with publicly funded business parks, how do we keep them here? If Appalachian beauty brings them here, why would they leave?
Commission’s vote against the business park was a sign that Knox County is ready to move beyond the cheap sprawl of the past 25 years and toward a more durable, enduring economic future.