When Plan East Tennessee—PlanET for short—kicked off last October, the three-year regional planning initiative for Anderson, Blount, Knox, Loudon, and Union counties drew comparisons in some places to the vague agenda launched by Envision Knoxville at the same time. Both are envisioning processes looking to better the community in as-yet-unspecified ways.
And when Metropolitan Planning Commission Transportation Planning Organization Director Jeff Welch talks about PlanET, he's apt to toss around some buzzwords, phrases like "more vibrant" and "better future," so you might be forgiven for sighing and thinking to yourself that maybe Knoxville could do with a little less envisioning.
But let's be clear—Welch really believes the PlanET process is going to change Knoxville and the surrounding areas, and it's going to change it for the better.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we have here," Welch says.
So what, exactly, is this opportunity? To start with, it's one funded by a $4.3 million grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of its Sustainable Housing and Communities program. Welch says the grant funds a process that gives the U.S. Census-defined Knoxville Metropolitan Statistical Area—i.e., the five counties involved—a chance to take stock and focus on the strengths of the region and the challenges facing it in the future, focusing on transportation infrastructure, economic job growth, housing, community health, and the environment.
"We will be focusing on areas of need while trying to build awareness," Welch says.
Knoxville mayor Madeline Rogero was instrumental in applying for the grant in her old job in the city's community development office, so it's no surprise she's excited about it too.
"I'm looking forward to re-engaging in the process. This is a great opportunity for us to work as a region to plan our future in a more sustainable way," Rogero says.
The PlanET website says the process will "develop a regional ‘blueprint' to guide development over the next decades," but Welch stresses there will be no actual "plan," per se, that comes out of the process—that is to say, nothing like the planning guidelines MPC creates, such as the controversial Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan. Welch says the process will give communities the tools to "work from the grassroots up and from the top down" to address future growth and development.
Julie Graham is the head of the Union County Chamber of Commerce and one of the members of PlanET's Community Leadership Team, which functions like a board. She says the process is an important one given the interdependency of the region.
"Sixty-four percent of Union County residents commute out of the county for work," Graham says.
John Lamb, the director of the Blount County Planning Department and another Community Leadership Team member, echoes Graham.
"We need to start thinking regionally in relation to what's good for Blount County," Lamb says. "I'd like to see discussions across county lines about thing that will help us individually and together."
Of course, something like this has happened before, and it was called Nine Counties, One Vision, but Welch says the smaller, tighter focus of PlanET will make this envisioning process likely more easily able to actually improve the quality of life in the region.
Yet how, specifically, can it do that? When asked what she would like to see come out of PlanET, Graham says, "A great goal would be to come out with an actionable plan to help the region achieve a livable community," which sounds pretty vague. But Lamb is more detailed. He says transportation, for one, is something that a regional focus could really help.
"There's linkages there [between the counties]. There might be alternatives for discussions to address the linkages more efficiently," Lamb says.
Okay, so it's still a little vague. But the suggestions submitted on the online MindMixer forum on the PlanET website (planeasttn.org) are anything but—Rails to Trails, high-speed rail, signage ordinances. People are slowly starting to get involved, which Lamb says is the most important part of the process, hands down.
"We want people to get involved directly in the process," Lamb says.
Over the next 18 months, there will be four more public forums, but you don't have to wait until the next meeting in April to get involved. Interested members of the community can host a "meeting in a box" with their church groups or neighborhood organizations.