Metro Pulse sent the following questionnaire to all candidates for Knoxville City Council. Candidates' responses have not been edited in any way.
BILL OWEN, candidate for At-Large Seat B
1.) The city of Knoxville holds less than half the population of Knox County, and an even smaller percentage of the total metropolitan area. Why does the city matter? What role does city leadership play in setting or shaping an agenda for the region?
Knoxville has always been an important city in the history of East Tennessee. It’s the home of the area’s finest medical facilities, a symphony, an opera company and is the retail capital of the area. While county government has expanded its services and its influence in recent years Knoxville remains the more efficient vehicle for providing urban services, fire protection, an excellent police force, urban renewal, codes enforcement, sanitation services. Its parks and greenways are excellent and I want to make them even better.
In short, Knoxville is the education center, the cultural center, the medical center, and the governmental center of the region. I think overall the city has provided better leadership on public policy issues and will continue to do so.
Originally, people located in cities for protection, trade and manufacturing opportunities. In today’s world, manufacturing plants are locating outside cities and cities are becoming education and cultural centers. This is happening in Knoxville. Knoxville is a strong education center. Knoxville is the cultural center for East Tennessee. City of Knoxville residents are aware of the type of 21st Century Community they want and it is one that embraces the ideas I am championing in this campaign.
These ideas include promoting Knoxville as an education center, making Knoxville a Wi-Fi City, supporting the City’s Energy and Sustainability Program, supporting the City’s Pedestrian Connectivity Program that is re-vitalizing the Cumberland Ave Corridor, the Magnolia Ave. Corridor, Old North Knoxville, and the South Knoxville Waterfront. Continuing and extending Knoxville’s Greenways, Blueways and Bike Trails add to the cultural attractiveness of Knoxville.
2.) Name three specific ways you would like the city of Knoxville to be different after your term(s) in office.
A. I want to expand existing businesses and recruit the headquarters of more national companies, like Regal, Bandit Lites, Pilot Corporation, Clayton, and DeRoyal Industries because we are known for our quality of life and a great place to do business. We need to sell this idea locally, regionally and statewide.
B. I want Knoxville to be recognized regionally and nationally as the education center it is. I want the students at all the higher education institutions in Knoxville to view the entire city as their campus. The most recent issue of Atlantic Magazine highlights the value of education to maintaining middle class incomes and jobs. Promoting Knoxville as an education center will result in greater investment and will bring new, good paying jobs to Knoxville.
Along with Knoxville as an education center is my goal of seeing Knoxville as a Wi-Fi City. This will help existing businesses and encourage the recruitment of new businesses. It will help create a city full of interesting things to do and wonderful places to live, with trolleys, and bike trails and ways to get around. I want Knoxville residents to see their hometown as an exciting place to stay here, to work here, to start a business here and to start a family here. We need to support and expand on events like Sundown in the City, the Rossini Festival, the Dogwood Arts Festival and make Knoxville itself a destination attraction.
C. I want to help locate more retail businesses in downtown. The residential side of downtown development has been a great success. We need more retail to serve downtown residents and we need retail sales tax to pay down the cost of the convention center. (Any increase in state sales tax in the downtown business district can be kept locally and applied to the debt.)
3.) About one out of three children in Knoxville lives near or below the poverty level. What specific things can or should the city government do to serve their needs?
The best thing Knoxville can do is to support our schools by improving the neighborhoods around them, make them safe and provide an environment where the children can learn. Additionally, I am on the board of Genesis Rock, which is an effort to start a charter boarding school at Knoxville College for At-Risk Youth to provide educational opportunity. This idea is based on successful boarding schools around the country that have a proven ability to “change lives in one generation.” This idea will help individual students and will help the City’s investment in Knoxville College.
We need to ensure that our code enforcement efforts keep the housing stock in good shape and prevent low income people from having to live in substandard houses and apartment. We need to have a city wide program to encourage Section 8 housing by private developers and help promote Habitat for Humanity projects. Council members can encourage volunteerism in these efforts and work through city churches to organize and coordinate these efforts, with support from city staff.
4.) Do you support the goals of the Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan? More broadly, how should the city balance long-term concerns about sustainability with short-term demands of developers or builders? What does "sustainable development" mean to you? What are some specific ways the city can encourage it? (If you don't think the city should encourage sustainable development, you can say that, too.)
A. The Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan is an attempt to deal with the problem of broad brush one-size-fits-all regulations. It has been somewhat misunderstood. The plan was developed by a citizen generated group and is widely supported by neighborhood associations. Nevertheless, many business organizations have voiced opposition to the Plan because they feel it goes too far in restricting development.
I have always been a “neighborhood guy.” I am the only homeowner running in this race. I am the only candidate who lives in an affected neighborhood. I am concerned about downstream effects of developments. However, in conversations with both neighborhood groups and developers, I think this is a plan that is crying out for a compromise. The “Committee of the Whole” composed of all Members of Knox County Commission and Knoxville City Council is currently meeting to work out an acceptable compromise.
A related problem seems to be the need to change state law to more easily amend recommendations from MPC. According to the City of Knoxville Law department, the current plan cannot be amended, but must be voted up or down. I understand the reasoning behind this limitation, but I think in this instance it would be better to allow council to amend the recommendation if an agreeable compromise could be worked out. We have MPC and City Council to examine projects individually to determine if they are appropriate. I think we need to look at regulations about density. If we don’t want urban sprawl and want to preserve areas, like ridge tops, then we may need to consider more units per acre, smaller yards and lots, and more open space which is included in the plan. I think all parties may agree that this approach could make for liveable communities, be profitable for developers and preserve more open space for greenways, parks and commons areas in neighborhoods.
B. Sustainable development is based on three pillars:
a. Economic. A project must make economic sense or it will be a burden on the community in the way of a failed project that must be dealt with by the City in some capacity.
b. Environmental. A project needs to be cognizant of its environmental presence and take steps to reduce its environmental footprint. It should have some type of acceptable LEEDS rating.
c. Community. A project should have a positive impact on the community that is win/win for the owners, the employees and the customers/users of the project.
Chapter 5 of Knoxville’s Energy and Sustainability Workplan goes into much greater detail about sustainable development, but the details are based on the 3 Pillars listed above. I support Knoxville’s Energy and Sustainability Workplan in most instances.
5.) What is the proper role of City Council in dealing with the mayor? Should Council members mostly let the mayor lead and react to the mayor's initiatives, or should they take leadership roles themselves in setting the city's agenda?
It is the Knoxville Mayor’s responsibility to prepare and present an annual budget. The first role of a City Council member is to be a good steward of each taxpayer’s money. The second responsibility is to be responsive to the voters. I think a close study of the budget is essential. We have to be sure we don’t raid the “rainy day fund” and that the city is being well managed fiscally. I have projects and ideas I want to present to the mayor and fellow council members that I think will help Knoxville. I am also open to helping them with their ideas. I see it as a collaborative relationship, working together to solve problems and move the city forward. I would always hope that I can support the mayor and the council’s agenda, as long as it’s good for Knoxville and is acceptable to the majority of voters and residents of Knoxville.
6.) Is it a priority for you to make Knoxville a more "green" city? If so, name three specific ways you would pursue that goal.
Yes. I support Knoxville’s Energy and Sustainability Workplan. Susanna Southerland and her office have made strong recommendations about how we can make Knoxville more “green.” However, as she notes, “We need the political will” to succeed in making Knoxville green. This is a critical time. From my experience in Washington, I foresee federal funds for green way projects drying up or being shifted to highway projects.
a. Support for Knoxville’s Energy and Sustainability Workplan.
b. I want to continue the strong green way program we have in Knoxville; we can’t give up on it, we have to keep the program alive. I’d like to see the greenways connected to provide a continuous trail throughout the City. Obviously, this will depend on available funding, but we need to keep the goal in mind.
c. Support for Knoxville’s recycling program
7.) The University of Tennessee sits within city limits, but has often seemed like kind of an island, culturally and geographically. Are there any steps the city can take to more actively engage the University's leadership, faculty, and students in the daily life of the city? Do you think that's important? Why or why not?
Integrating higher education students into the Knoxville community is a major theme of my campaign. I am proposing a Town and Gown Council, made up of council members, the mayor’s office and faculty and student representatives from UT and our other higher ed institutions. I began my political career as a student at UT and more recently I have been instrumental in locating LMU’s Duncan School of Law downtown. I know first hand the value that integrating the Universities and colleges in Knoxville with the policies and efforts of the City.
I see this Town and Gown Council as a clearinghouse for what the city can do to improve campus and city communication. Some of the issues would include my goal of citywide Wi-Fi, essential to the new economy and higher education. I want to make sure we have efficient trolleys and convenient bike trails to get students out into the community. I think there are a lot of professors at UT who could be a tremendous resource for the city. We have had some in the past and we need to foster such relationships in the future. Sometimes you can get things if you just ask – I’ve always found academics to be passionate about their disciplines and willing to share information.
I also support the efforts to make Cumberland Ave. more pedestrian friendly, calm traffic, and make it easier for students to walk around and get to downtown. Sundown in the City and the downtown movie theater are excellent draws for students, as well as plays on Market Square.
8.) Knoxville remains a difficult city to get around via any means other than automobile. Is it important to you for the city to become more accessible via public transportation, bicycle, or foot? Why or why not? If so, name three specific transportation-related programs or projects you would like to begin or expand on.
Yes. Public transportation makes sense in many ways: a. health; b. economic; c. environmental; d. social.
1 Calming Cumberland Ave.
2. Ensuring that the KAT and the trolley system meet the needs of UT students and downtown hotel guests as well as area residents.
3. Expanding greenways and bike trails. (and don’t forget the Blueways)
9.) Fifty years after the Civil Rights movement, Knoxville remains fairly segregated in terms of where people live, work, and play. What can or should At-Large Council members do to encourage more communication and connection between races, communities, and neighborhoods?
Prior to my election as State Senator, the Tennessee State Senate failed by 1 vote to create a Martin Luther King holiday. After my election to the State Senate, I became the “swing vote” that passed the Bill and recognized the MLK holiday. I have consistently worked to improve communications and understanding between races, communities and neighborhoods.
As former NAACP President Dewey Roberts says, “Bill Owen has worked with the African American community for many years to improve relations. No one has worked more than Bill Owen in this area.”
As a Member of Knoxville City Council, I will continue to encourage communications and connections throughout all neighborhoods and communities in Knoxville.
It is essential, given the existing housing patterns, that we have equal delivery of city services in ALL neighborhoods. We have had a pretty good record of seeing to it that all city boards and commissions and task forces have African American membership, and I will be vigilant in seeing that continue.
As an At-Large member of Council, it will be my privilege and responsibility to foster and promote understanding by all groups of people regardless of race, color, creed, national origin or other self identifying traits.
We have made progress in recent years with relations between the city police force and minorities. We can make sure we are color blind in the areas we control, like services, hiring and facilities.
10.) What are the most important lessons from the successes of downtown development over the past decade, and how can they be applied to other parts of the city?
Through the use of an alternative building codes, facade grants, parking concessions and working with a core group of dedicated urban developers we have had much success. The role of the city is to help build the necessary infrastructure and let the private sector take over from there. The city needs to ensure that city staff is standing by to help, not hurt, and to provide any enabling ordinances that we need. I think more could be done with the code enforcement program, looking at sprinklers for older buildings rather than requiring many outdated requirements. I worry about the housing stock in the northern part of the city. We have neighborhoods between Old North Knox and Fountain City that have been neglected and there are a huge swath of people there that need the kind of attention other neighborhoods have received. We have a base in Fourth and Gill, Old North and Park Ridge that can be expanded outward. I support the effort of KCDC to tear down Walter P. Taylor and replace it with new housing, repeating the success in Lonsdale and Mechanicsville.
BONUS QUESTION: Can you read, write, or speak any language other than English? (Even partial proficiency counts, but please indicate your level of ability.)
Yo hablo espanol un poquito. I can read and decipher Spanish much better than I can speak it. However, for what it’s worth, my daughter Abigail speaks Spanish, French and Portuguese, and works for a translation services company managing translations for global companies.