Ken Knight is the general manager of the Crowne Plaza Hotel. He has been in the hotel business for 25 years. Originally from Sioux City, Iowa, he's been living in the Knoxville area since 1993 and has been living in West Hills for the past two 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?
Knight: I'd have a very difficult time supporting anything to repeal it. My first thought when that whole issue came up was, well, what about the rights of those people? But then I thought, what about the rights of the rest of the people who have a right to be able to walk down a sidewalk without having to go out into the street to get around the people who are lying there? What about the rights of the people who own a business who have a right to have their customers enter and exit a business without stepping over people or being afraid?
I don't see it as a discriminatory issue against the homeless. I see it more as just a right for people to have a right to use the sidewalks. The sidewalks are there for people to move on, not sleep on.
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?
Knight: I don't have any ideas for specific locations. I think it's important that we spread these permanent supportive housing locations everywhere in the city. I think everyone needs to share in it. Where possible, I think we want to keep the numbers of people at these locations manageable.
My concern with the South Knoxville issue is that's a very, very fragile neighborhood. I went to a meeting just this Monday night with homeowners there who were opposed to it. We need to make sure we're not forcing this down people's throats. I can almost guarantee you the people in that neighborhood are not going to be supportive of the people who end up living there. So that makes its likelihood of success far less. But I think you need to keep them in areas that are far more densely populated than that neighborhood so, regardless of the people that we're putting there, they're more easily absorbed into the fabric of the neighborhood. If you and I walk into a crowd of 1,000 people, nobody's going to know we're there. If we walk into a crowd of four, we're going to be 50 percent of the crowd there.
I think the way to get around another controversy like this one is to make sure people understand and are comfortable with the Ten Year Plan. I think most people's initial reaction is to be against it regardless. We need to do a better job on the front end, educating them, talking them about facts and figures and statistics and exactly the safeguards that are there for the individuals who'll be living there as well as the individuals who are going to be living around them. If we do that, there might not be that immediate fear on the front end to keep them from supporting it on the back end.
We may have to you make the decisions about these locations based on the facts at hand and make it for the right reasons and let the chips fall where they may, for lack of a better term. [In reference to the FHA] I think we have to worry about what's best for Knoxville, and worry less about what's being mandated to us by someone a long way from here who knows absolutely nothing about us or our people or our city.
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?
Knight: I still think that there's a place for them in specific instances and in specific locations. Using downtown as an example, I think that in the beginning when downtown was very depressed, they were a real catalyst in making some things possible and getting downtown to where it is today. Now downtown can kind of stand on its own two feet and they're less of a necessity, and maybe they're being used or requested by some developers to take the risk out of a project. The risk should be with the developer not with the taxpayers of Knoxville because if it does very well the developer gets all the good stuff, so it's not fair for the taxpayers to shoulder that burden.
In downtown it made a lot of sense because we had buildings here. We had infrastructure here. The buildings weren't generating much revenue because they were falling into disrepair and they weren't being used. I think it makes a lot less sense for a new project. If the new project doesn't stand on its own, then it probably shouldn't be built.
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? What about non-essential services and budget items like, say, parks or the city's nonprofit grants?
Knight: I would say it would have to be basic services of safety. I don't think we want to cut the size of our police force. I don't think we want to cut the size of our fire department. We have to pick up the trash. Those are probably the three best examples of things that have to happen. We can't let the city fall into disrepair or the streets not to be safe or those types of things. Obviously, on the other hand, I would not raise taxes to cover grants for nonprofits.
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?
Knight: The HOPE VI project is a good project. The type of project that they're talking about works much better than the old way of doing things. So, I think if the money is available, that's a good project for the city.
I'll be honest I've never thought about keeping the level of housing the same. I think that everything that KCDC has is being utilized, so I we probably need to do everything we can to keep it at at least that level. I wouldn't want to do anything that would people out on the streets.
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?
Knight: It's important that the city spreads its dollars throughout the community. No community should be left behind. Yes, I like the Magnolia Avenue plan. I like the North Central plan, the Cumberland Strip. Magnolia is a key artery in and out of our city, and it should be a part of the city's long-range plans. If the city does that, I think that it, in itself, will go a long way toward the redevelopment of that area.
At this point, there has just recently been started a Magnolia Avenue Business and Professional Association that had their inaugural meeting a few weeks ago that I attended. I don't know if that organization would have been formed were it not for the city's plans to improve things on Magnolia Avenue. I think that adds some life to that business community and brings them together for a common cause to improve things because the city can't do it all. Each of those individual business owners has to do his or her part.
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?
Knight: I'm not sure what role the city could have played in that. I'm not sure why the folks in Bearden would be opposed to that facility being there. I think that's an issue where the sides are so far apart, and they've been far apart on it for a long time, and they're going to be far apart on it long after me and you are long gone. So I don't know how you mediate that. I don't know what role the city could have played in that. They don't really have any authority to do anything. I don't know if that's something the city should be involved in.
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? [Note re: Mayor Haslam's gubernatorial campaign. For whatever it's worth, Ken Knight is on record as a $1,000 contributor to the Haslam for governor campaign, according to its most recent filing with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.]
Knight: I have no idea. I think the current mayor is a good man and has, overall, done a good job. As far as to whether there's pressure to vote his way, I think that can best be answered by the nine people who are currently on Council. From my own perspective, if I'm elected, I have to live with each and every vote. So, I'm going to make the vote that is the right vote for the people I represent.
I didn't really understand the purpose of the question at that forum. To me that's a way of being critical of the administration without actually being critical. It's being critical of the administration by asking 14 people who have nothing to do with it. It's kind of a back-handed slap in the face.
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?
Knight: There needs to be another conversation at the same time. If memory serves me, the plan that's currently on the table affects roughly 60 percent of the land in Knox County. Now, it obviously doesn't take all that land off the table, but it's going to take a substantial portion of that land off the table. And I think that's all a good deal. People visit our area, people move to our area for this. And part of what makes our quality of life is the mountains, the streams, the lakes. This all works together. That green space plays a huge role in the quality of our life. But if we're going to take property that currently has the ability to produce property taxes off the table, then we have to have the conversation of, "We know you want to save the ridgetops? But at the same time, are you willing to do it if at some point we have to raise the tax rates to make up for the taxes we're not going to generate from that ridgetop."
I think far too often, we make decisions based on the argument, that, yes, this makes perfect sense. It makes perfect sense to do that. We are fools to cut off the tops of mountains in our area. That is total neglect. Yes. But I think we need to understand the long-term consequences of doing that, and we need to have that discussion as part of the other discussion. People need to understand that in order to build up tax revenue and keep the tax rates low, we are going to need to have more density in the areas we are going to develop. That's just doing the math.
In my personal case, I would like to talk to the people I represent and say that this is a good idea, but here's what it might cost down the road.