coverstory (2007-46)

Master Planner

Feature Story

Working behind the scenes, Mike Edwards has been a major architect of Knoxville development. So who is he?

by Barry Henderson

Mike Edwards promotes Knoxville every chance he gets, and he does it with gustoâ"though you may not see him working at it unless you are a business development insider. A devotee of Gen. George S. Patton and George C. Scottâ’s portrayal of the general in the classic film Patton, Edwards used to don the uniform and spout lines heâ’d memorized from the movie at costume parties at UT 30 years ago. Now he plays the general without the uniform in his role as the premier soldier for the cityâ’s establishment in its pursuit of community growth. And he works to keep the troops as well as the general staff on his side, just as Patton did during World War II, but Edwards does it more quietly.

Heâ’s able to keep friends and allies both among the conservative old-urban and suburban suits and the liberal, progressive, new-urbanist types like downtown architect Buzz Goss, who says he stays on friendly terms with Edwards and admires him in spite of the fact that â“weâ’re sometimes at cross purposes. Heâ’s advocated things I was dead-set against.â”

How does Edwards manage to bridge the chasm between conservatives and progressives? â“Itâ’s the force of his personality I guess. Heâ’s sort of an enigma in some ways. Iâ’m not sure how he does it,â” Goss says.

Itâ’s fair to call Edwards â“Mr. Developmentâ” in Knoxville and Knox County. He has laid claim to that title through decades of participation in the field. His position as president and chief executive officer of both the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership and the Development Corp. of Knox County cements that lofty title, which generates both good and bad reaction in a community that harbors a dichotomy of opinion toward the concept of continued development, which some perceive as progress and others see as unbridled sprawl.

Open and up front in his personal style, Edwards is both praised and condemned for his demonstrated effectiveness behind the scenes, where deals are conceived and consummated, sometimes without apparent regard to public sentiment. Business recruitment and retention, a major Chamber responsibility, is conducted in confidence. Prospects for new business or industrial investment demand secrecy as they pursue their plans, and Edwards knows the importance of passing their confidentiality tests. It doesnâ’t always make him popular.

The same kind of confidentiality affects his role as chief of the Development Corp. The institution is a 16-year-old public/private partnership that works with the city and county Industrial Development Boards and the areaâ’s Health, Educational and Housing Facilities Board to identify and fund land acquisition, stimulate infrastructure improvements, and develop buildings to realize commercial and industrial opportunities and promote long-term goals to enhance the communityâ’s economic climate.

Taken along with his Chamber Partnership presidency, the two jobs have vested in Edwards considerable power over development decisions, governed only by the boards of directors under whose authority he serves. He says he sees every development issue in terms of what it can do to help strengthen the regionâ’s workforce.

â“My vision is that I really believe this region can have the strongest workforce in the nation and be known throughout the world for its skills,â” he says. â“Itâ’s an incredible opportunity for Knoxville to succeed, and itâ’s all based on education. We donâ’t have the workforce. The good news is nobody else has either. And every day Iâ’m more convinced that we can attain that level and achieve the unbelievable prosperity that goes with it. Itâ’s worth getting up for every day and coming in to work on it.â”

Edwards is an imposing figure, tall and stoutly built, with an aquiline nose that would be his most prominent feature, if it werenâ’t for his permanent smile and a pair of knees that hop and jiggle constantly, and noticeably, in his tailored trousers whenever heâ’s seated. He looks the part of the general, though he doesnâ’t play it as ardently as he once did.

Witty, conversationally adept, and ordinarily able to relate easily to establishment figures, white-collar, blue-collar, or no-collar workers and their wives and children, Edwards has made relatively few enemies along his merry way, although heâ’s run afoul of a contingent of East Knox Countians opposed to a new Midway Business Park heâ’s helped engineer into approval by the Metropolitan Planning Commission and Knox County Commission.

Itâ’s a controversy that is raging now, and Edwards is squarely in the middle of it. Riled by either the prospect of new industry near the I-40 Midway interchange, or a proposed sewage treatment plant emptying into the French Broad River nearby, or both, leaders of a couple of neighborhood associations view him as a veritable satan of sprawl, threatening their bucolic lifestyle and the quality of their river.

Elaine Clark, president of the French Broad Preservation Association, terms Edwardsâ’ and the Development Corp.â’s tactics â“underhanded...pitting neighbor against neighbor,â” and Donna Bohon, president of the 8th District Preservation Association, says Edwards has â“gotten away with a lot. He does everything legal, but only just. Heâ’s very arrogant. His whole stance is, â‘Iâ’m going to do this.â’â” Clark agrees. â“What we thought didnâ’t matter,â” she says.

Clark decries the fact that the business park â“goes against the sector plan,â” which was approved by the county for the area surrounding the Midway exit. A suit filed in Knox Chancery Court to block the proposed development has yet to be heard in court, but Clark says the MPC position is that it amends the sector plan all the time and that this kind of decision is not new to the MPC board or County Commission.

In the Midway brouhaha, Edwards has been lampooned personally, with the Development Corp. depicted as run by a pig or a fat cat in cartoons appearing on websites devoted to opposition to East Knox development. Responding, he says he understands the frustration felt by neighbors of the project. But, he says, the problem of early secrecy on the proposed business and industrial park was out of necessity.

â“There are two ways for the public to buy land,â” he says. â“One is by condemnation, and you can be very open about that. But, in this instance, condemnation was never considered. The other way is to tie up land through options without stating your intentions. Otherwise the public would have to pay a prohibitive premium price for the land.â”

Edwards says the Development Corp. went to MPC and asked it to identify sites suitable for such a park, and the MPC came up with three. â“Two were too small, and this one was not. It was 380 acres under eight owners, and we went out and secured the options before we announced the park proposal. It had to be that way.â”

The arrogance cited by the Midway neighbors has not been a charge made often against Edwards, whose former boss, Jim Haslam III, the Pilot Oil Corp. founder and former chairman of the countywide Public Building Authority, describes him as a man with â“no ego.â” Edwards was executive director of the PBA for 19 years, from 1981 to 2000, and while there were grumblings that he was demanding of his staff in that job, he was deemed successful in managing the City County Building property and overseeing construction of such projects as the Dwight Kessel Parking Garage and the Womenâ’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the redevelopment of the old Millerâ’s Building into an office showcase on Gay Street. He also performed preliminary oversight on the Knoxville Convention Center, but left the PBA at about the time of the convention centerâ’s groundbreaking to go into the private sector in the development of Turkey Creek, the shopping mecca in far West Knoxville.

Bob Talbott, who was a PBA board member when Edwards was there and who hired him to help with the Turkey Creek project on which Talbott was a principal, says Edwards brings a quality to business decisions thatâ’s not always always present.

â“In business,â” says Talbott, â“you think in two dimensionsâ"from A to B, but he thinks in 3D; he considers the political ramifications of business decisions.â”

When Edwards left that job at Turkey Creek in 2001 to join the Chamber Partnership staff, he was named chief operating officer under former president and CEO Tom Ingram, whose position he inherited when Ingram left to join the campaign of Lamar Alexander for U.S. senator.

â“Ingram did a lot for the Chamber,â” says Edwards, who describes Ingramâ’s achievements as bringing the partnership together and committing the Chamber to taking an activeâ"rather than its prior passiveâ"role in the business community.

Yet, when he took the reins of the Chamber Partnership, it was broke. Raja Jubran, then the Chamber Partnership chairman, recalls that for three months in Edwardsâ’ first year as chief executive, he drew no salary, waiting for the financial crisis to be overcome. â“That showed his commitment,â” says Jubran

At the time, Edwards says, he â“hated the job.â” Running the Chamber, he says, was discouraging because â“It was like a great big Baptist church and nobody tithes.â”

But he stayed with it and his leadership in moving the partnership to its less expensive Market Square offices from the old City Hall space it had leased from TVA was instrumental in getting the partnership back on sound financial ground. â“It saved money, and it helped the downtown,â” says Jubran. He points to Edwardsâ’ strong recommendation of the move as making a statement toward renewing business vitality on Market Square. The Chamberâ’s presence also stimulated additional foot traffic on the square at a time when it was in the throes of redevelopment pains.

Membership and dues participation fund the Chamber, and the partnershipâ’s executive vice president, Rhonda Rice, says membership has been on the rise for the past few years, with 410 new members in 2006 alone and a much better retention rate. Along with that growth has come an increase in the dollar value of members, she says. It pays the bills today.

Edwards now has a $216,000 annual salary. Last year he collected a 15 percent performance-based bonus on top of that, but his contractual relationship with the Development Corp. has him serving in that capacity for a nominal $10 per year.

Edwards took a flier at running for mayor of Knoxville four years ago, before he settled in the Chamber office. He says heâ’ll not consider another bid for elective office, though heâ’s often mentioned as a potential candidate. At 56, he says he wonâ’t be up to â“knocking on doorsâ” when the next election season rolls around and heâ’ll have turned 60.

Besides the gesture the Chamber Partnership made in settling on Market Square in the early stages of its booming redevelopment and the resurgence of the downtown residential and business market, Edwards says heâ’s proud of the way the Chamber and its partners have stimulated development in general. The Business and Technology Expo just concluded last week has grown in attendance and quality over the last four years, says Rice, whom Edwards credits with managing the partnershipâ’s outreach activities. â“She gets things done,â” Edwards says, â“and itâ’s made my job easier and more satisfying.â” He no longer regrets having taken its presidency, he says.

On the Chamber front, Edwards has led the partnership as a sponsoring participant in the business-financed Jobs Now! program that has campaigned to stimulate new jobs across the seven-county Knoxville Metropolitan Statistical Area. He also champions Chamber participation in the Knoxville/Oak Ridge Innovation Valley program, which works toward attracting or expanding high-technology research, service and manufacturing industries along the corridor and its periphery through a marketing plan coordinated by the state of Tennessee, TVA and regional development officials.

On Edwardsâ’ reputation as a demanding boss, Rice says, â“It gets pretty intense sometimes, but thatâ’s not necessarily a bad thing. Mike has high expectations. He wants things done, as he says, and the challenge is to do a lot of different things at the same time.â”

When problems come up, Rice says, Edwards is â“very good at working on solutions.â” But, she says, he doesnâ’t jump to conclusions or let his staff do that. She echoes the sentiment of Todd Napier, the Development Corp.â’s director of development, who says, â“Mike makes sure that what youâ’re saying is correct. Heâ’s not afraid to challenge what you say, and thatâ’s a good thing. Heâ’ll question what youâ’re doing. You have to think things out before you make a recommendation.â”

Randy Vineyard, the Development Corp.â’s director of administration, says essentially the same thing about Edwards, with and around whom Vineyardâ’s worked for 25 years, mostly when Edwards was at PBA and Vineyard was the cityâ’s finance director. â“He thinks things through, and he makes you think them through as well. Heâ’s a strategic thinker.â”

Thatâ’s one of Edwardsâ’ most impressive qualities, according to Napier, who says, â“He sees the big picture. He sees whatâ’s down the road.â” And Rice embellishes on that thought. â“Mike came from here and he chose to stay here. He wants to see this region grow and he wants whatâ’s best for the community,â” she says. â“Mike truly believes that regional growth and fostering the workforce for the jobs of the future is as important as anything we do. Itâ’s a part of his vision and heâ’s really pushing for it.â”

Jubran, whose Chamber chairmanship extended through two terms, says Edwards also â“knows how to manage a board [of directors] and how to respond to a board. He knows how to protect the chair. He gives his directors a heads up on everything important. There were no surprises, and we appreciated that.â”

Edwards himself does not like such surprises, although heâ’s given to practical jokes and stunts pulled on old friends, such as Dean Kleto, Edwardsâ’ best friend for almost 50 years. A Knoxville plastic surgeon, Kleto says Edwards grew up â“a lover, not a fighter. He was a smart-mouth, and heâ’d get us into trouble, and I had to fight us out of it. Heâ’d just be standing there, grinning.â”

The two met in the third grade at the old Park Lowery Elementary School in Knoxvilleâ’s Park City neighborhood, where Edwards was reared. â“The teacher locked him in the closet because he wouldnâ’t bring her S&H Green Stamps [popular trading stamps of the day] to help her fill up her books. I was the only one whoâ’d let him out of the closet, and heâ’s been loyal to me to this day.â”

Edwardsâ’ father was a public school industrial arts teacher who became a school principal, and the family moved west to the Bearden district when Mike was in junior high school. He went to Bearden High School with Kleto, whose family also moved west. Kletoâ’s dad and mom ran the Quarterback, a popular Greek-Italian Restaurant, first on the Cumberland Avenue strip and later on Papermill Road in Bearden.

â“He was a second son,â” Kleto says of his familyâ’s relationship with Edwards. â“Thatâ’s where weâ’d eat,â” he says of the Quarterback, where Edwards sometimes worked as well as dined. â“Mike invented the Greek Pizza,â” Kleto says of that Quarterback staple. â“He put feta cheese on his pizza, and, voila,â” Kleto says.

The two went on to UT together, where they were Sigma Chis. Some of the stories Kleto tells about their college years are unprintable. But when they graduated, and Kleto was going to medical school, he says Edwards determined his specialty. â“He got me to look in the Yellow Pages, where the fewest listed specialists here were in plastic surgery. So thatâ’s what I studied for,â” Kleto says.

Edwards says he entered UT as a pre-med student, but failed his first chemistry course and switched to political science, with a history minor. Before graduating from high school, he went to work for the city as an assistant playground director at Rocky Hill Park, then worked a summer in the city maintenance department, mowing grass and so forth. In college he worked a summer job at Bike Athletic as a stockboy. He also worked for G.E. Credit Corp. at Expressway Furniture, checking customersâ’ credit, and for Knox County Trustee Bob Broome, putting in a 20-hour week entering payments in a tax ledger â“and being the office go-fer.â”

When he graduated from UT, he went to work for the Boysâ’ Club as program director at Caswell Park, and decided, still in his early 20s, to run for one of the seats on the old three-member County Court, predecessor to the County Commission.

â“I ran as a Democrat from South Knox and part of West Knox County, which shows something about my political acumen,â” he says. â“My mom was not excited about putting up yard signs, as I remember, and of course the Republicans won all three seats.â”

He was living at home at the time, and his connection with the trusteeâ’s office led to an appointment at the PBA as an assistant to then-Director Ed Anderton. Anderton soon took ill and died, and the PBA board appointed Edwards to succeed him as director. â“I canâ’t say enough nice things about him and his work. He was a great behind-the-scenes man and he was great at reading people,â” says Haslam, the former PBA chairman.

That first skill has kept him out of the public eye for the better part of his publicly oriented career, and the second skill has, more often than not, allowed him to get people to do what he wanted done without resenting his authority. Haslam, the father of city Mayor Bill Haslam, was recently rumored to be coaxing Edwards to run for that office when term limits end Bill Haslamâ’s tenure there in four years.

â“I can honestly say that Iâ’ve never had a conversation with Mike about running for elective office,â” Big Jim Haslam says, and Edwards corroborates that.

Edwardsâ’ wife, Susan, whom he met when she was with the city and he was at the PBA, confirms that her husband has no intention to run for mayor. â“Heâ’s passionate about doing things right and doing the right thing,â” says Susan, who is now vice president for communications and environmental stewardship for the Knoxville Utilities Board. But sheâ’s convinced that running for mayor is not the right thing.

Married in 1992 when he was 40, Edwards is described by his wife as a â“home bodyâ” when heâ’s not tied up with work.

He has no hobbies, per se, she says, â“other than fishing with his son and going to sports events where his son or daughter are playing.â” Matthew, 13, plays football and baseball, and Grace, 11, is involved in soccer. â“We like to go to the mountains, but other than that and the kidsâ’ sports, he likes to stay around home,â” Susan Edwards says.

â“There is the Edwards Curse,â” she adds. â“Iâ’ll bet he hasnâ’t told you about that. When he and Matthew go fishing, whether at the lake, or fly fishing or off somewhere on a trip, they very seldom catch a thing.â” Prompted on that â“curse,â” Edwards says itâ’s an educational process. â“Iâ’m teaching my son humility,â” he says.

Edwards laughs loud and long when informed that Kleto has described another example of that curse.

â“He and I played football at Bearden,â” Kleto says, â“and I was a fat tackle in the interior line and he was an offensive end. I got more touchdowns than he didâ"exactly one,â” says Kleto, and Edwards responds that the curse is â“many-faceted.â”

Maybe so, but Edwards is classed as a winner by much of the Knoxville areaâ’s moneyed establishment and business community.

Even his former college English history professor, Paul Pinckney, now retired from UT and currently traveling in Wales, says he continues to be impressed by Edwards. â“Mike was one of my favorite students in the 1970s,â” says Pinckney in an e-mail interchange, describing how every time he and his family went to the Quarterback, they would see Mike there with the Kletos, â“and weâ’ve managed to see each other frequently in the decades since then.

â“I am now hoping heâ’ll run for mayor next time but will understand if he decides against it,â” Pinckney says.

Edwards says to cut that talk out. â“Iâ’ve decided,â” he says. â“Iâ’m not running.â”

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