Envision Knoxville Launches Vague Agenda

A new survey seeks youth input to move Knoxville forward, but no one seems quite sure what Envision Knoxville is actually doing—including the people behind it

There were about 60 people at the Envision Knoxville kickoff party three weeks ago, but not everybody knew why they were there, or even what Envision Knoxville was.

"I'm just here to find out what this is all about," said Grant Rosenberg, the head of Knox County's Community Development Department, who was there with some of his coworkers.

When asked what this was all about, Marble City Brewing Company's Johnathan Borsodi, who's on Envision Knoxville's board, said even he wasn't all that sure. "Ask Amy Gibson," he suggested.

Gibson, most recently the facilitator of Compassion Knoxville, is working in a similar capacity for Envision Knoxville. And so what is it, actually?

"It's a survey so we can better identify the priorities of young Knoxville," Gibson said at the launch party. "We want to catalyze the young to find out what they want to do … how they might get involved."

Let's be clear, though—Envision Knoxville isn't a survey about what cool things people 18 to 42 would like to see downtown. It is, instead, a survey sponsored by the Cornerstone Foundation, which has invested $25,000 in the project to determine "how Knoxville can better reach its full potential," Gibson says.

Gibson was hired by Alex Lavidge, whom Cornerstone contracted to spearhead the initiative. Lavidge is the founder of Knoxville Overground, which he describes on his LinkedIn page as "a nonprofit that serves startups, the self-employed, social entrepreneurs and the creative class"; the website touts, "Fast Company magazine, in its May 2011 edition, recently named Knoxville Overground as the representative for the State of Tennessee in its ‘United States of Innovation.'"

However, for an IT guy, the Knoxville Overground website is sorely nonfunctional—the most recent event listed is from June 23, and several of the pages have no information on them. Promotional materials from the launch party describe Envision Knoxville as a "social media campaign," but as of Tuesday, only 134 people liked Envision Knoxville's Facebook page and @envisionknox had just 109 Twitter followers.

A conversation with Lavidge went something like this: vitality, celebrating young Knoxvillians, great ideas, shape taxonomy, diversity, public sphere, blog, responsive, collaborative, brand, community, moving forward, top-down, relationships, conversation, overview, media brand, hyperlocal, social innovation, energy, grassroots, leadership. (We got a little lost.)

The Envision Knoxville program is modeled after a similar initiative in Chattanooga, called Chattanooga Stand. So we called Katherine Currin, who was in charge of that program. She sounded like Lavidge—lots of corporate marketing talk while being vague on specifics—but we finally got her to give us some details as to what actually has come out of the Stand survey. Currin said groups using data from the survey to determine community priorities had, among other things, launched a vacant-lots-to-parks project and are working to get a scenic viewshed ordinance passed. (Uh, good luck with that, guys.)

However, it's worth noting the Stand survey garnered 26,623 responses over five months in 2009. As of Tuesday, Envision Knoxville had just 64—and whatever you think of Lavidge's business-speak, this survey is important, Gibson says.

"This is a big deal," Gibson says. "If we do this report right, it's gonna matter."

But Envision Knoxville doesn't have five months, just three more weeks. And they only want 2,000 responses, not 20,000. So if you're young, and you care about having a say, and you want to show that Knoxville is too as awesome as Chattanooga, get hopping on filling those suckers out. (You can find it at surveymonkey.com/s/EnvisionKnoxville.) It is your city, after all.