Meet the New Boss: Mayor Madeline Rogero

She's not quite the same as the old bosses. Mayor Rogero on south-side development, city-county consolidation, and Agenda 21

Lacking size or personal bombast, Madeline Rogero doesn't crowd the huge corner office that's been the headquarters of Knoxville's mayor for 30 years. She has a big desk, which is still neat and orderly a few days into her administration. For an interview she opts to speak less formally at a small table suitable for gin rummy. Repeatedly she emphasizes that it's very early to discuss her plans for Knoxville's immediate future: "We're just meeting with staff and figuring some of this out, you know," she says. She rather we did this a few months from now, but indulges us nonetheless.

We've never had a mayor like Rogero, in several respects, and only one of which concerns gender. Rogero is our first mayor with a Latino surname, our first Catholic mayor in almost 80 years—and, originally from Florida by way of Ohio, she's also the first Knoxville mayor in 70 years who was not raised in Tennessee. She might be expected to jolt the status quo, and outline a sharp break in policy. Instead, again and again in an hourlong conversation, she stresses continuity and touts the already-positive trajectory of the city that's been her home for more than 30 years, especially the improvements made during the Haslam administration, of which she was a part.

Rogero, a former union organizer and activist once (long ago) jailed for demonstrating, and Bill Haslam, a rich former corporate executive from a notably Republican family, wouldn't seem to have much in common. In 2003, they were rivals for this office, and back then there seemed a distinct division between her mostly Democratic supporters and his mostly Republican ones. But for now, Rogero is in the unusual position of defending her old opponent's successes and championing his goals, some of which, after all, she helped formulate and implement. She was for years Haslam's director of community development. Also, the last person elected mayor of Knoxville now happens to be the governor of Tennessee. Haslam sat beside Rogero at her inauguration last month; as she hinted in her speech that day, he may be in a position to help. This is probably no time to criticize or highlight their differences.

"Some administrations, they come in, and if that [issue] was the person's before them, they don't support it, because they want to have their own mark," she says. "I'm not like that."

From her office, Knoxville's recent successes are mostly invisible. The sixth-floor modernist room's cool glass walls offer no glimpse of a reviving downtown, but a winter view of the brown Tennessee River and a landscape that might seem post-apocalpytic: a half-disassembled concrete bridge, and on the far shore large gas and asphalt tanks and a sprawling, empty hospital and a bank of dead kudzu. It's an interesting landscape, but not one recommended for those with mood disorders.

It's a particularly bleak as a view of what has to be considered Haslam's biggest disappointment, the south-side waterfront-development proposal. Announced about seven years ago as Haslam's primary legacy to the city, the south-side initiative was described as a 20-year project. But after about four years of maps and discussions with sometimes recalcitrant landowners—barge-dependent industries were notably unenthusiastic—the recession hit. Though downtown proper has continued to develop, life has gotten only more dismal on the south side, with the closure of Baptist Hospital and TDOT's temporary but long-term closure of the Henley Bridge, and the project is still waiting for its first obvious signs of public or private investment.

Rogero says she's still committed to it. "We haven't had a chance to look at the timeline, to see where we are on that," says Rogero, who was on the committee that selected the project's design team, as well as the oversight committee. "Obviously, I look out the window ever day and see Baptist Hospital. I've met with [property owner] Tennova, and know they're anxious to have something happen. Obviously, they're private sector, they're paying taxes on that building, so there's certainly an incentive to find a reuse."

South-side development "will be very much driven by the private sector and the economy. But one of the things that I will do with my staff is start the conversation again with the property owners to see where they are," she says. "You know we have a TIF district, and as soon as the private investment comes, that basically generates the dollars that the public infrastructure will use. We do have some dollars that have been allocated, so I want to take a look and see whether there's some ways we can prime the pump on that."

She adds, "I'm from the south side, the last 10 years, and we want something to happen there." She says it's her goal to have something tangible to show on the south side by the end of her term.

One initiative that wasn't part of Haslam's original plan seems to have more momentum: an astonishing private proposal announced about four years ago, the Legacy Parks Urban Wilderness project, which would connect 1,000 acres of natural and historic property, including parks, greenways, quarries, and earthen remains of three Civil War forts, much of it adjacent to the south-side prospect.

"They're two different plans, but they complement each other so beautifully," Rogero says, quickly adding that the Urban Wilderness could have a positive economic impact. Though it started as a private initiative, it has always involved city parks and recently some city investment. "So we're partners in this," Rogero says. "They alone can't do it, and we alone can't do it."

She has learned to frame her discussions with Republicans, and talks about the strictly practical benefits of the Urban Wilderness, an extremely unusual amenity for any city. "Having proximity of these types of adventures and activities is certainly an attraction to people who have a choice, and businesses who have a choice of where they can locate... And we know that outdoor recreation is a big industry in this state. I saw a recent study that showed something like $6 billion is spent in outdoor recreation."

Environmental sustainability is a key theme of her administration, but she never mentions environmentalism without making it sound good for business. Rogero quotes the Knoxville Chamber's reliably pro-development chief Mike Edwards about the importance of Knoxville's environmental reputation in luring one of the area's biggest new employers of recent years, Green Mountain Coffee.

But connoisseurs of right-wing conspiracy theories are fond of regarding Rogero as a secret operative for the United Nation's ominous-sounding Agenda 21, which reputedly aims to force innocent suburbanites out of their houses. When we asked her directly if any of that were true, we watched her face closely for any tics that might belie her true status. It turns out she thinks it's all pretty funny. "I had to look that up, about a month ago, when I saw that surfacing about ‘Agenda 21,'" she says, laughing. "I didn't even know what it was. So no, I'm not a part of that."

Rogero's most revolutionary move so far may have been hiring the city's new chief engineer, Jim Hagerman, an award-winning TVA engineer most recently involved in the Emory River ash-spill cleanup, but moreover a well-known progressive voice in urban forums. Preservationist and new-urbanist developers, often working with imaginative adaptive designs, have long been frustrated with the strictly conventional enforcements of Knoxville's engineering department, and complain that each new mayor sometimes seems only a new face for the same old Department of No. Its forceful tail has wagged a succession of dogs. Developers like David Dewhirst, an engineer himself, have dozens of stories of being stymied by engineering, but the most public example in recent years may be the Market Square redo, finished in 2004. Planning involved months of city-sponsored public dialogue of the lovely stone pavers that would constitute the surface of the reviving square. The lengthy discussions got into exacting detail about the specifics of color and texture of the pavers, and were attended by high-level city officials who seemed to agree. After it was all over, City Engineering decided paving it in concrete would be easier.

"I think when you've gone through a process like that, I don't believe one department can unilaterally make that change," Rogero says. "If there's a recommendation, it needs to come up the chain, but we're going to respect the process we go through. Those issues need to be resolved during the process, and not unilaterally by any one department at the end of the process."

Hagerman, an open-minded new-urbanist who has sometimes spoken up about such issues, seems a sharp departure. "We want to make sure that engineering is focused on doing things in an environmentally sustainable way," Rogero says. "Jim comes from a great background of understanding that—and the other thing is that Jim is a bicyclist, and rides his bike to work. To me, roads are more than just for cars, they're for bicyclists as well."

One frustration with the Haslam administration voiced by community leaders, albeit often off the record, was a failure to deal with the McClung Warehouses on West Jackson Avenue. Neglected for years by an owner who kept hinting at some future renovation, they were mostly destroyed in an early 2007 fire. The remaining buildings, still owned by the same owner, have stood empty for half a decade, an especially conspicuous symbol of blight, as the city, KCDC, and a bankruptcy trustee have quietly, some say bashfully, discussed the issue. Vigorous residential development on both sides of the project, as well as a couple of more-recent fires in the same buildings, have added urgency to the question. Some suspect Haslam was reluctant to deal forcefully with McClung after announcing his candidacy for governor; for a candidate for statewide office, invoking strong-arm tactics against a property owner could have been a liability.

"I really can't answer that yet," says Rogero. "I need to take a look at where we are with that. You know, we don't own the buildings, and we need to talk to our law department, our redevelopment folks, and see what we really can do. We definitely want to see changes there, but I can't tell you what our strategy is."

She does allow that preservation is important. She has some experience, through her work in community development under Haslam, mentioning in particular the rehabilitation of the old Eastport School building as an energy-efficient, subsidized retirement home. The mayor does have a limited option of forcing H-1 protection, denying a property owner's right to demolish, though the few times it's been invoked, by the Ashe administration, it only delayed the perhaps inevitable.

"We don't have a policy on how far we will go. Certainly H-1 is something that's possible. I think the first thing to do is to work with property owners, number one. Work with them. And we will always do that first.... The stick is certainly the last thing you use. You want cooperation. You want to work willingly with people."

She means to move forward with other Haslam initiatives, like a long-publicized redo of Cumberland Avenue to make it more pedestrian-friendly. "This year we're going to be focusing on the right-of-way phase before the detailed design is complete. There's hundreds of owners, lessees, and sub-lessees that we need to talk to in order to get temporary easements for the construction [of sidewalks and road improvements]. So a big focus, this year, will be getting those right-of-ways." She says actual construction is to begin in the spring of 2013.

A citizen proposal to calm a neighboring avenue, Henley Street, to also make it pedestrian-friendlier, isn't yet on her agenda. The closure of the bridge has struck some as an ideal time to deal with the problem, which has been cited by urban planners since the 1980s as a daunting barrier between the University of Tennessee and downtown. For now she defers to City Council, citing in particular Councilman Nick Pavlis' opposition to any major change. "I understand the problem," she says, "but I don't have a solution that we're recommending at this point."

It's hard to say anything critical of Knoxville in the presence of Madeline Rogero. One sneaky puzzlement about Knoxville's apparent success is the U.S. Census. In spite of the vigorous growth in the population of the nation, and the state, the metropolitan area, and the county, the city of Knoxville has not grown—at all, really—since the last major residential annexation 50 years ago. After all these years, and so many apparent improvements, the number of people who are willing to commit themselves as Knoxvillians, to pay city taxes and vote in city elections, is still just shy of 180,000. Over the past 50 years, some mayors have been vocally disappointed, even indignant, about Knoxville's dully consistent census results.

Rogero's not like that. Asked whether Knoxville's lack of population growth is a problem, she responds, "What's your point with that? What does growth mean to you? Do we have to keep adding people? I don't know, just based on the numbers, that it's a problem. What's a problem is if you have vacant buildings, if you have a shifting of wealth or resources out of the center of the core of downtown, then that becomes a problem.... We are growing, in terms of residents downtown."

Less population does mean less state and federal funding for some city services like police protection. "True," Rogero responds, "but also the more population the more issues you have, too, so it kind of balances out. To me, the issue is not what the numbers are, but where's the wealth, where's the investment. And what we are seeing is more investment at the core. We've seen that with downtown and those adjacent neighborhoods, when you look at Old North, Fourth & Gill, how those have come back, Parkridge.... And as long as we're continuing to drive reinvestment in the heart, from the core of the city and out, we're on the right track. We still have way too many vacant and blighted properties, and we're attacking that on several fronts. To me, that's the issue, not so much the numbers, but where's the investment."

On the subject of annexation, a major theme during the Victor Ashe administration, she sounds less than aggressive. "Certainly voluntary annexations, always" would be welcome, she says, "as long as it makes sense for us to deliver services. But voluntary annexation is not the problem. I do not have an annexation policy now. I have no desire to start a lot of annexations. We're going to really focus on rebuilding the city, continuing what's happening right now, which is strengthening the city from the inside out."

During the campaign, the old issue of consolidation came up. And as of 2010, Knox County's about the same size as Davidson County was when it consolidated as one entity. If it ever comes, it won't be as a Rogero initiative. "You know, we've tried five times? Six times? It takes a concerted effort to make that happen. And I don't think it should be led by a mayor, either mayor, because then it becomes political right away, and suspect. If there's a desire by the larger community to make it happen, then I wouldn't stand in the way, I would be supportive of it. But what happens is, it comes down to how do you want your government structured. Do you want a county model, with a lot of independent fee offices, independent elected officials? Or do you like the urban model, the municipal model, really, in which the mayor hires the police chief, the fire chief, the law director. It tends to be those who live in the city who like that model, and those who live outside of the city, particularly in the more rural areas, who like the county model. I think that is really what is comes down to. My personal bias is that I've always lived in the city, and I think the urban environment should have more of a municipal structure like we have. But that would be for the voters to decide."

She adds, "Because I'm a city resident and a county resident, I want to make sure that where I'm paying my taxes, that we're not working at cross purposes, that we're not duplicating a lot of effort, that we're actually complementing each other. And so that's my goal, to be sure that we're adding value, and not duplicating each other."

"I'm an optimist," she concludes. "I always see a glass half full. But you also need to have a mix of vision and ideals and pragmatism, you know, to get it done. I think that is the challenge, that you will try things, and be willing to take some risk. You have to be careful, though, because you've got a huge responsibility here. I'd like to think that when you look at what I've promoted, about sustainability, there's still so much potential. That's something new. But at the same time, we've got to be pragmatic about it and make sure it makes business sense long-term. That's the difference. You've got to think long term."