City Council Candidate Q&A: Tierney Bates, District 2

Our complete interviews with 2009 Knoxville City Council candidates

Tierney Bates, 32, works in the Development Office for the University of Tennessee's College of Engineering. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Bates has a bachelor's degree in mass media communications and a master's in higher education administration from the University of Akron. He has lived in District 2 since he moved to Knoxville four years ago.

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?

Bates: I would definitely support a repeal. One of the reasons why is we're talking about city sidewalks. This is just putting a Band-Aid over a bigger problem. I firmly believe we need to stand up as a community, get more buy-in, more communication to all residents how this affects us, how this affects the community as a whole. I think that's the thing that's lost here.

I've been taking time during my campaign to actually go and spend time with the homeless. I wanted to find out why this is such a big issue, to raise some issues. I've talked to people. Now, I'm not sure if my opponents have. When you talk to a man who's homeless and he tells you, "Tierney, I have a job. I go to work every day. But with my pay, and child support payments, I cannot afford housing. So I find myself using the areas where most of the homeless are in the city for a place to lay my head at the end of the day. Between that, I'm working most of the day." He told me how much he makes, and he said that he has $600 to his name. He said if he could find affordable housing, he could find a better job or go back to school. I think going after these people punitively is handling it all wrong. We need to be able to communicate.

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?

Bates: I am one of the people who's said we need to spread it out. We do need to spread it out among the community as a whole. We need to look at viable areas all throughout Knoxville. We've got to house people.

Now, I'm not a huge fan of housing 80 or 90 people in a particular location. But if we could house 24 or 25 somewhere, that would be different.

One of the areas I would think of, being in District 2, is around where we're building the Brookview community out there by Bearden Hill. That area right there would give people access to transportation. It's close to jobs in that community. When you go out east, maybe something toward Asheville Highway. There's an opportunity for jobs out that way, transportation. That's how you have to look at this. Transportation has to be considered. Access to jobs, because if people are given this opportunity to have housing in a community, they should work in that community, too.

I think people in the neighborhoods are going to react the way they did to Flenniken. If this started coming out West into my district, there'll be some pretty strong opposition, too. The things I like to ask people are "Where is our sympathy?" and "Where are we as a community, and how can we go from being a good community to a great community?" If one part of the city gets better, all the city gets better. Flenniken School, if we're able to build that structure, provide economic development that can help that area, then that is better for the city.

The key here is communication, overcoming stereotypes about homelessness. Now, a lot of chronically homeless people are mentally disturbed or may have a drug problem. But if you've ever seen people have an opportunity to come up from that, and all they needed was a hand up, not a handout, they become contributing citizens.

You, myself, everyone, we all live in our own little world sometimes. I think we have to really realize that we're part of a greater society and know we have an impact and we play a role within it. I think when you look at the opportunities we have to really spread this out throughout the community and truly engage people—when you have residents who are truly informed and truly engaged, it makes a difference.

Nobody wants their property value to go down. They don't want to live near something that could be negative. We don't know unless we try. Look at the situation off of Middlebrook Pike, the girl's shelter right [Columbus House]. That was a bad area, but look at it now. It's thriving. We have to think positive about this kind of thing.

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?

Bates: One of the things we going to have to look at is long-term planning of our growth as a city. We're going to have a demand for certain things. We're going to have a demand housing, a demand for jobs. We're going to have to look at economic development in all of those tax bases. One of the things we talked about in the forum was public transportation. There's no need to talk about public transportation if we don't see the city growing at a rate we'd like to see it. Do we fight the growth of our city? Or do we say that we want to grow, but we want to control our growth.

We have to look at how we can grow in a city in such a way that we don't put ourselves in a bind over the next 10, 15, 20 years. And it's going to be this new City Council, the next mayor who will be key to that.

When we talk about the city handing out these incentives to projects like Citywalk or other South Waterfront projects, we have to look at the issue of Knoxville. Knoxville was never a waterfront city. I don't know if people understand that. When Knoxville's downtown was built—we have a river here—but we're not a waterfront city. There was never any true development off the waterfront. It's a great idea, I really think it is. I think we need to grow that way, but here's the biggest thing: the buy-in from the rest of the residents. I think in some ways, the city missed the boat years ago, developing the waterfront. Are we at the right point right now considering a situation like Cityview? That's horrible and I hate to see that. That area should have been developed 20 years ago not just recently. So we have to look at how we want to grow because something like that backfiring and the economic situation right now. We have to start asking ourselves, "Okay, what are we going to do with this South Waterfront?" Are we handing out the right amount, the right kind of TIFs for that? I would love to do more for the waterfront, but right now, it's difficult. Right now, I think I'd like to see smaller units—maybe houses, smaller condos—maybe people would be more inclined to buy those. The thing about Knoxville is that for so many years, so much money was going out into the suburbs. Now people are starting to come back, and I think developing that area is good. We just have to think about the impact.

One of the things I'm not sure has been mentioned enough is we have an opportunity to encourage the University of Tennessee to build over there. Build condos, build housing for students, things like that. I think that would offset more of the city's costs, and it would get people engaged in that area. If we look at benchmarks set by schools and cities working at this—I'll give you an example of where I'm from—Ohio State in Columbus. They built a whole new area designed around not only quality of life for students but for faculty and staff. I know that if the University of Tennessee were offering housing in that beautiful South Waterfront area right across the bridge, that's a unique opportunity. There's a lot more we need to fit into our discussion. More university involvement should probably be a part of it.

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?

Bates: We'd have to look at city services, and how we can be more green, more energy-efficient, before we talk about tax increases. That's one thing I'm talking about a lot—going green in terms of energy use, expanded recycling—and it's something that could potentially reduce our costs. I think we really ought to be a leader when it comes to that, especially having a major university like UT in our backyard.

What about non-essential services and budget items like, say, parks or the city's nonprofit grants? Are those ever worth a tax increase?

Bates: I'm a taxpayer, and I don't want to pay any more taxes. To say we'd have to increase taxes, I'd have to see what I'm getting for it. What is my return on my taxes? Without a specific situation where I could see and I could demonstrate to people what we get in return, I wouldn't want to say.

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?

Bates: It's a good idea. Personally, I've seen the Mechanicsville project, and that's worked out very well. What I've heard from people in that community is that some people are 50-50 on that. Some people are saying it's a great opportunity for that area, some people are more on the fence about it.

Again, we need that buy-in from the community. I know, for example, when Five Points Village Plaza was built, that was such a big, big push, and then it plummeted. One of the biggest things to make sure of is that if we do something, we do it right.

We've seen it with Mechanicsville. At first, a lot of people were worried or discouraged about it, that it was going to displace a lot of people, and that didn't happen. And I don't think it will here. I think that's a great opportunity to jump-start that neighborhood. I think there are going to be more developers, more realtors wanting to go into that part of town if they see new, nice housing.

But yes, I think it's important that when we build these new housing developments, we try to maintain the same amount of housing units.

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, if anything, should the city, as a public entity, be doing beyond Magnolia to improve infrastructure, the economy, or simply the standard of living in this part of town?

Bates: Well, come on, we know it's been neglected. The timing is right for the city, if we're going to grow the city, to grow in all directions. We can't just grow west. We have to grow north, south, and east. When people drive in from North Carolina, or drive through the city period, Magnolia is one of the most important corridors. We want people to stop there, spend money there. We want more restaurants, more business in that area. I think this corridor project is something we've needed because, like I said before, when one community gets better, the whole city gets better.

We have to get over stereotypes about that area. East Knoxville is a hidden gem. There's a lot of history. East Knoxville, Holston Hills in particular, used to be one of the really premiere parts of the city. We have to get a lot more buy-ins, make sure when we market this city, we market the whole city, not just West Knoxville. I live in District 2, West Knoxville. When I first moved here, not a soul told me about anything else other than West Knoxville. They didn't tell me about North Knoxville, Fountain City. They didn't tell me anything about South Knoxville, and they didn't tell me anything about East Knoxville. We have so many distinct communities. We cannot just concentrate on one part of the city.

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?

Bates: I think the city should have stepped in more than they did. One thing I've thought about, though, is why not put a service like that downtown? Why not have certain things we're putting in certain parts of the city, we could have them downtown. Planned Parenthood is one of them. These things could drive the economy of downtown, as Mayor Haslam said, the heart of the city.

Like you said, what these protestors did was legal, what Planned Parenthood does is legal, but I think this did present a unique opportunity for the city to step in and maybe help Planned Parenthood find a location downtown.

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?

Bates: I'll say this. What the mayor has done is something we've needed, which was to bring some visionary leadership and management to the city. There's not much more we can say. He's only got two more years here, maybe less depending on the gubernatorial election.

This Council, which will only have one or two years to work with him, will have to concentrate on how to carry that torch but also be our own independent thinkers. Now, I got into this race without anyone trying to recruit me to run, like one of my opponents. I got into this race because I care about where this community is going. I've made a home here. I've seen where this place can go if we have the right, visionary leadership to manage it. No one had to twist my arm. No one had to convince me to run. I didn't have any back door politics going on. I'm independent. I think independently. I not only think independently, but I think about my district's residents as individuals and, of course, as constituents who vote.

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?

Bates: Yeah, I think so because when we think about what's important to us as a city, development has to be closely watched. I'm also a fan of impact fees. If you're going to disturb the environment, develop on hillsides, I think we have to think about impact fees. If you're building in my community, you are impacting my community. And we should do what we can to make sure that it isn't negative. There are things that are more important than the bottom line.