Cornerstone Foundation Study on Knoxville's Potential Raises Interesting Proposals

"Greater Knoxville: Community Research 2012" is the latest attempt by the Cornerstone Foundation, one of Knoxville's major philanthropic organizations, to make some sense of this perpetually puzzling place. Though faith-based, the foundation's efforts are not often religious in nature, emphasizing community improvements. Since the 1990s, Cornerstone has conducted careful studies of metropolitan Knoxville's wants and needs. Though these studies, intended mostly for internal use to help direct Cornerstone's own efforts, have not been widely distributed in the past, this new one is getting wider distribution. It sums up Knoxville's status quo, along with its hopes and dreams, in a 90-page ring-bound report.

Cornerstone usually comes out with a report of this nature every five years but put this one out a year early, says Cornerstone Director Laurens Tullock, because some expectations have shifted since early 2008, partly due to the traumatic economy. Though the report's intent is general, it may suggest something of that well-endowed philanthropic foundation's priorities over the next few years. "We're in the process, as a foundation, to find the greatest opportunities for investment," says Tullock. "We want to identify where we can make the greatest difference."

The study incorporates comparative municipal data, plans and projections of major institutions, and interviews with 132 "community leaders" as well as written questionnaires and in-person interviews, and social-media commentary from close to 200 others, emphasizing a youthful demographic, between the ages of 18 and 42. (Full disclosure: This reporter was among those interviewed.) Most seem pretty optimistic about Knoxville's future. Exactly half of community leaders say they're more optimistic today than five years ago, outdone by the youth sample, 62 percent of whom say they're more optimistic.

Of course, many of the report's suggestions are so vague they could apply to nearly any city. Everybody wants "globally competitive schools" and would like to be "the best place in the country to start a business." And some of its recommendations are yawners: for example, that the University of Tennessee become a "Top 25 Research University" through "recruit[ing] world-class research faculty" and "top-flight graduate students." It sounds like a goal for all universities.

But read carefully, the report does crystallize some of Knoxville's assets; describing Knoxville's economic potential to strangers at a cocktail party, it might be handy to point to this report.

It pictures Knoxville as a "Clean Energy Capital"—an old ideal, going back to the 1982 World's Fair, but the report gets a little bolder. "Clean Energy Capital—Claim the title and realize the potential," it exhorts. It cites Innovation Valley Inc. initiatives and last year's report that metropolitan Knoxville was first nationally in green-job growth. "Plant the Flag at Cherokee Farms," it orders, referring to UT's new developing public/private research community on the south side of the river, in which Cornerstone stakes much of the city's economic future. Innovation Valley, the Knoxville-Oak Ridge technology-corridor initiative led by several of the area's most prominent businessmen, gets a lot of attention in the report.

The report refers to "clusters" of "media production and radiological sciences," seemingly disparate fields, but they're both high-technology-related fields requiring educated talent that seem to have accumulated in the Knoxville area. Tullock is careful to acknowledge the difference: These are mentioned together, he says, only because they're "areas of talent and economic strength...positioned to yield high-quality jobs for the region." CF commends proposals to boost them both, the latter with a (proposed) Joint Institute for Radiological Sciences and Advanced Imaging at Cherokee Farms.

Outdoor recreation gets much stronger emphasis in this report than it has before. "Develop a bike trail from Cherokee Farms to the Smokies," it suggests. It's been an ideal for greenway advocates for more than a decade, but with so many unusual outdoor-oriented attractions booming—notably the ambitious Legacy Parks Foundation project, which the report praises, it seems almost feasible.

The 2008 report proposed Knoxville as a prospective national "home of Americana music." Since then, Tennessee Shines, the popular but financially challenging monthly live-music show that Cornerstone sponsored, has sputtered; after more than a year on ice, the show was reborn just this month as a more-modest studio project. The new report doesn't mention Americana or any arts genre so specific, but it does raise a new proposal, ascribed in part to artistic metalworker Preston Farabow, to create a place called "the Orchard—a living and working space for artists downtown, perhaps in old industrial buildings in the Downtown North area near Central and Broadway (which happens to be near Farabow's studio), something perhaps comparable to Atlanta's The Hub or Chattanooga's Create Here.

"Our creative arts community is no longer just ‘a nice thing to have,'" states the report, "it is an economic-development imperative." Following the lead of proposals by the Arts and Culture Alliance, the CF report mentions a proposal to levy "a penny on the tax rate leveraging matching contributions from businesses and institutions" to form an Arts and Heritage Fund.

One surprise in the report is also place-specific: "Build a Buck's," it suggests--that is, establish a sort of high-tech third place, something comparable to of Buck's of Woodside, Calif., an eccentric and unpretentious eatery in Silicon Valley that has become a magnet for high-tech entrepreneurs who meet, theorize, and deal. The idea is that innovation and startups depend on smart people not spending all their free time at home. "‘Build a Buck's' may be the most important piece in making sure the jobs stick," reports the study. "Creative people have to interact socially to spawn innovation, and business development is part of that creative process." The report suggests such a haunt be established at Cherokee Farms.

Repeating the phrase "foot in both worlds" in multiple contexts, the report praises Knoxville as a city with rare potential to excel both in job opportunities and family appeal. One of CF's correspondents described Knoxville as "a little big city," reversing the old "biggest small town in the world" tag. According to the report, Knoxville is "Big enough to have urban problems but small enough to have the opportunity to solve them." With four pages of color graphs, the report highlights Knoxville's crime rate, showing violent crimes at rates almost twice the national average, larceny more than twice that. "Could public safety be Knoxville's Achilles heel?" the report asks. "The violent crime rate was the only key variable on which Knoxville ranked relatively poorly."

Tennessee as a whole has one of America's highest state crime rates, it notes, and the city of Knoxville's crime rate is higher than that of its metro area, or any individual county within it. Crime rates, naturally, can dampen a city's reputation for creative growth. Knoxville's crime rate seems to place it in the bottom half of the study's career and family-oriented case-study cities: Austin, Cambridge, Des Moines, Honolulu, Madison, Ogden, Omaha, Provo, and others whose high appearance on magazine lists of "best places to build a career" are sometimes based partly on those cities' unusually low crime rates.

However, while Knoxville's crime rate does compare poorly to the nation as a whole, which includes lots of rural, suburban, and economically homogeneous regions, what the report doesn't say is that it compares well to most cities—if not the ideal cities the study emphasizes. Knoxville's consistently the least-violent city in Tennessee, for example, and though there are cities with lower crime rates—like Raleigh and Asheville, in our region—most American cities have higher crime rates than Knoxville does, some much higher. But no one could argue with the study's recommendations, vague as most of them are, to address the issue.

"None of these are Cornerstone proposals," says Tullock. The study is just their analysis of the community's needs, highlighting the community's own best proposals to address them.

You can read the whole thing at knoxvilleresearch.com.