Tell It to the Mayors: Suggestions for Setting Knoxville's Goals

What should our priorities be for the future of Knoxville and Knox County?

By the end of 2011, Knox politics will have completed a significant face-lift. The changes started last September, with the swearing-in of County Mayor Tim Burchett and the new, streamlined County Commission. They will continue next Monday, with the selection of an acting city mayor to fill out the rest of Gov.-elect Bill Haslam's term. And then in the fall, city voters will select a new mayor and four new City Council members.

A few major issues already stand out as obvious challenges for our local leaders: economic development, education, the need to make the most of scarce public monies. And, yes, there is the ongoing flashpoint of the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. But there are a lot of other important concerns in the city and county, both large and small, so we thought it would be good to start the year by asking a range of informed, involved Knox Countians what they hope to see from our new mayors. Here is what they told us:

Finnbarr Saunders

former 4th District county commissioner

One thing we are faced with is growth, which is a good thing. The growth over the past 20 years in Knox County was about 100,000 people. If you think of adding another 100,000 or 120,000 people onto that, we've got some great opportunities, but we've got some stretching to do, and that's going to take a good deal of thought. It's going to require some real leadership and some critical thinking to, for one thing, do more density. More sprawl is not the way to go.

I hope we don't get sidetracked by a lot of minutia, that tends to trip us up. I think there are some wonderful opportunities coming, and I hope we find the leadership to not only accommodate that but encourage it.

Laura Sohn

owner of Mockingbird Events, partner at The Public House

I'd love for the new mayor to embrace all the creative artists and independent businesses downtown, and otherwise and create some kind of space or forum that could provide useful resources for the "creative class" (I hate that term but can't think of anything better) to encourage and support them in their endeavors. Downtown Knoxville could so easily become a real incubator for vibrant arts and culture.

Hubert Smith

host of the Hubert Smith Radio Show on WUTK, 90.3

I would like the next elected city mayor to decrease the multitude of impoverished neighborhoods within the city, and that's not code for East Knoxville. Look around! I would like to see some racial diversity in the county mayor's administration. I want both city and county mayors to insist that Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership include public transportation in all conversations about economic development.

Khann Chov

manager, Beardsley Community Farm

I hope Knoxville's next mayors will take productive steps towards a greener city, safer neighborhoods, job security, and an improved education system. I'd love Knoxville (even more) with more greenways, shade, parks in low-income neighborhoods, fewer billboards, and curbside recycling. Knoxville needs more complete streets—streets that are designed for every commuter: young, old, slow, quick, bikes, pedestrians, cars, and buses.

Andrew Emitt

Pellissippi student, civil rights activist, and 2009 graduate of Central High School

In my dream Knoxville, our mayors would initiate and lead an effort to pass into law an anti-bullying measure that protects all students from being harassed and abused not only by schoolmates, but by teachers and principals. Bullying isn't just a problem for gay students; race, gender, and disabilities are just a few of the many factors which play into and perpetuate the vicious cycle of emotional torment which results in suicide and depression. I am not trying to vilify the Knox County school district, or any other school district, but I think our county is one of many which simply lacks the tools and information to deal with 21st century bullying, especially LGBT harassment. Does Knoxville really want to ignore this growing problem and eventually see our schools on national news after one of our children is driven to kill themselves because of our schools' failure to protect them? I would be thrilled if our incoming mayors would help jump-start an initiative to address this pressing issue.

Jesse and Lauren Wagner

owners, Nathanna Design

The main thing I would like to see the new mayors focus on are the local environment and sustainability. Knoxville is a beautiful town but could be so much better with proper planning and innovation. With development and a growing metropolitan area I could see our focus shifting away from these issues. I just hope economic factors don't compromise our city and county from protecting our land from pollution and overdevelopment. Some possible areas to focus on could be public transportation, incentive programs for businesses to pursue green practices, and expansion of parks and greenways.

Doug Banister

pastor, All Souls Church

My first thought is that our city leaders should focus on creating an attractive environment for new businesses in Knoxville. From where I sit, as a pastor of a young church, one of the real obstacles to many people under 30 is the lack of good jobs with promising futures. I'd love to see old structures like the Standard Knitting building humming again, employing people from the neighborhood. I wish we had landed Urban Outfitters. I often wonder why we do not have more tech companies coming out of the UT–Oak Ridge partnership. When I moved here 23 years ago there was much talk about a technology corridor between Oak Ridge and Knoxville, about us becoming the next Silicon Valley. I hope someone is still looking at that.

In addition to new jobs, I hope our city leaders focus on strengthening education for all Knoxvillians, especially in the at-risk schools. I love the idea of a downtown STEM school. I am a big supporter of the Ten-Year Plan. John, a homeless member of our congregation, ran across the Square the other morning with a big grin on his face, saying, "I might get a chance to live in Minvilla." He'd just spent a sub-freezing night under a bridge.

I am also open to new taxes, especially if the money goes to pay for social services for the at-risk members of our community or to increase teacher salaries.

George Korda

political analyst and host of State Your Case on WNOX, 98.7

In many administrations—local, state and national—the priority is the Next Big Project. A legacy project. Political leaders like legacy projects. Few mayors run for office with the objective of being a caretaker or of maintaining the status quo. They want to do things. Where there is no vision nothing much happens.

Legacy projects are attractive because they can, sometimes, actually benefit the people for whom benefit is intended. They can create a nice buzz about a city or county. Legacy projects are also useful in future campaigns as examples of leadership and vision.

Legacy projects are almost always pricey and time-consuming, or vice-versa, from the moment they're conceived. Simultaneously, legacy projects butt head-first into the mundane, routine, and necessary daily priorities of government. All around us governments are drowning in red ink. The only group on which that puts pressure is this one: taxpayers. Where there is lofty vision—a legacy project—for good or ill, the people get the bill.

Thus, a suggestion for mayoral priorities: Worry about the mundane, routine, and necessary stuff first, particularly early in your administrations. Focus on financial stability and strength. Prove that you are capable of managing thoughtfully, efficiently, and economically. Use your first budget as the vehicle to make this statement.

Do this, and at the proper time your (worthwhile) legacy project will be granted unto you by an electorate that will believe you know what you're doing. You'll have proved it to them.

Monte Stanley

owner, Stanley's Greenhouses

1. The South Waterfront redevelopment should be a top priority of the new mayor's initiatives. The investment would be a wise move—bringing new residents and businesses to the inner city, which would complement downtown development and increase our tax base.

2. Supporting the Urban Wilderness & Historical Corridor. Doing so would increase the recreational choices and educate our citizens about the history of Knoxville. These are "quality of life issues" that new residents and businesses look at when considering relocation. The additional plus is that it will reduce the pressure of urban sprawl in the county.

Libby Sherrill

director of 2010's Beyond the Myth: A Film About Pit Bulls and Breed Discrimination

They should be supporting animal advocacy and welfare organizations that will protect and save the lives of animals, and helping to create laws that will hold irresponsible owners accountable for their actions.

Black Atticus

poetry slam co-master

I feel they should focus their attention and use every ounce of their influence toward stimulating economic growth in both South and East Knoxville—their level of social and financial capital is just not as equitable in comparison to more prominent areas of Knoxville. Any city, state, or nation with a desire to grow, finds its ability to do so is determined by the strength of its foundation and the pillars upon which its structure depends. We need every pillar to be able to hold its own weight in the heart of our beloved Vol Country.

Luis Velázquez

executive director, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of East Tennessee

I know that Mayor Burchett—and whoever becomes mayor of the City of Knoxville—is well aware that we in the Hispanic community are already making a positive contribution to our community through many businesses, professionals, and a hard-working labor force. As we seek to maximize the great potential that Hispanics can offer our cities and communities, the support that we want to receive from both mayors can truly make a real difference for the future of the Hispanic community in this region.

All the U.S. Census projections indicate the significant growth that the Hispanic community will continue to have in the United States. In this process, one of our goals at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of East Tennessee is to enable an effective integration of the Hispanic community within the mainstream community. For that purpose, both mayors could work to create an environment where all authorities treat Hispanic individuals fairly and with respect, and that all advantages and privileges of being part of this country are being made available to them. Also, assistance for the creation of classes in civic education and leadership, such as Leadership Plenty (previously offered and discontinued), could really benefit many potential leaders in our community.

Finally, we all know of many children, who through no fault of their own, were brought this country by their parents and are not citizens, and as a result don't have many opportunities to pursue higher education. These children don't know any other country as their own; this is the only country they have known. We in HCCET want to be there for them, and we seek to work in partnership with local government to find ways in which their dream of being educated and become productive citizens of our country becomes a reality.

Sherry Johnston

The Biggest Loser Season 9 contestant, aka "Lil Momma"

No. 1 on our mayors' to-do list: Make some serious changes in our school lunches! Change the food—more farm-to-table approach, and less sodium, sugar, and processed foods. Back to the basics with food and exercise. You may see the complexity of childhood obesity and think, "I can't change this," but I challenge you to think, "But what if you can?" I changed my life this year with the help of The Biggest Loser and am ready to take an active role to help pay it forward with our children. It is important to me because I have grandchildren in Knox County Schools, too!

Victor Ashe

mayor of Knoxville (1988-2003)

For the new interim city mayor: Remove from the Ten-Year Plan the section placing public housing at Lakeshore Park or any park; resolve the litigation with city pension board and city employees currently under way, which is a lawyer's dream and a taxpayer's nightmare; feel free to make any personnel changes in the city which you feel are merited. You are not simply a seatwarmer. You are mayor. Be mayor. Consult Council and remember who put you in the interim mayor's office. Rehire Mickey Mallonee.

For the new four-year city mayor: Have a plan for city parks and greenways which is implemented so all parts of Knoxville have close access to greenways and parks; cut the property tax rate even if only a few cents and for a few years; as a member of the Development Corporation Board, help reconnect them to reality in the city and county and how to deal with the property they have acquired at high cost. Work with Council, consult them, include them; rehire Mickey Mallonee.

For the new and current county mayor: Have a park and greenway plan which complements the city's plan and implement it; figure out in 2011 what the Development Corp on whose board you serve should do with the property at Midway. Be transparent.

Cynthia Markert


Get the new library idea back in full force. I can't imagine who could fill [recently departed library director] Larry Frank's shoes, but I think a library comparable to the one in Nashville and Maryville would serve us well. The traffic light system downtown is outrageous, also. It would be nice if we could switch to some blinking light system to move downtown traffic in the evenings—roundabouts are also a very good thing. Having gazed at the Henley Bridge from my porch for years, I would love to see the south waterfront develop as I have witnessed in Chattanooga—more coffeehouses, less televisions. And Amtrak: I don't like flying and I sure wish I had been in a place with trains, as I love them.

Carol Evans

director, Legacy Parks Foundation

Mayor Haslam provided a great example of how collaborative, inclusive, non-partisan leadership can yield great success. My favorite expression of how communities move forward is "the table gets larger and rounder." I hope our new leaders will continue to invite many to the table.

Randall DeFord

preservationist architect and Fort Sanders community leader

The mayor doesn't have to create a new or unique vision for the city or county, but is the holder, protector, and imparter of the chosen vision; and imparts whatever mission s/he truly has, whether or not it matches the stated one. Each city or county employee—even if s/he never meets with a member of the public—carries out that mission. Each detail of our community down to the smallest one—the attitude of each public employee, every sidewalk and curb, every public trash can and litter-free street, each well maintained lot, each junk-free front porch; every car-free front yard; each safe, vibrant neighborhood—shines that vision for all to see. Every publicly funded board and organization working together with rather than on their own and apart from the impacted residents reveals that vision.

Knoxville is where we live; many of our citizens may never see another city. The Internet may allow us to live vicariously all over the world, but the reality is that many of our citizens only live in a small home-to-work portion of our community, so a single detail of our city has the potential to have a larger impact than may seem reasonable.

To our mayors, present and future, I ask that you state your vision clearly to the public and to the city or county employees; appoint someone at the highest level to hold you and our public employees, boards, and organizations accountable to that vision. Treat our citizens and your employees as if this is the only city we'll ever know; and if it is not, it will be the model and standard we carry.

Renée Victoria Hoyos

executive director, Tennessee Clean Water Network

I think that from TCWN's perspective we must have clean water priorities. We must ask developers to keep their sites clean and not have muddy water coming from their sites. And we must have the kind of enforcement that deters future bad behavior. City and county agencies need to enact greater fines and they need to fine those out of compliance to the highest possible amount. There have been rumors of stormwater fees, and I must say at this point TCWN would be against that. We think it would be wildly unfair to ask the public to pay for the cost of stormwater mitigation. Developers often act speculatively and when their deals go bad, they must pay the cost of clean up and make sure their sites stay in compliance. Only after we have an industry that largely obeys the law can we ask the public to pay for their much smaller contribution to the problem.

Will Roberts

executive director of Knoxville's Race Relations Center

After having listened to the political rhetoric in Tennessee during the run up to the mid-terms, I grew very deeply concerned about the messages subtle and not so subtle that we are sending to citizens and not citizens alike.

I would like very much for the candidates to understand that the language of exclusion which is usually directed toward our undocumented neighbors has a deeper and more sinister implication for the county, city, and the region.

First and foremost we must understand that most undocumented persons arrived in the region during the boom times when there were lots of jobs for them and employers were more then willing to look the other way when these folks applied for their jobs. Understandably, these new immigrants (by the way, it is important to remind everyone here in this region that we are all descendants of immigrants to this region, some voluntary and some involuntary) either brought their families with them or created new families during their time here. And while the times were good, their presence was generally accepted and affirmed by the population: Witness the plethora of tiendas (stores) that serve as community nerve centers and gathering places, which line Kingston Pike near Gallaher.

However, I have yet to hear a politician rail against the companies who offered jobs to and hired these persons when times were good, and thereby contribute to the current situation. The undocumented persons in this city and county run a risk every time they set foot outside their doors or every time their children have a medical/health issue. On this point they are no different than any other American family struggling to make do in a period of broad economic hardship.

In the broader context, this speaks to anyone who happens to be different from the majority population in this region. If today we find the undocumented person an encumbrance to our pursuit of the American Dream, which group will fill our need for scapegoats tomorrow?

The seeking of office should be done not as a sop to the baser emotions of the voting population, but to remind us all that aspirations are available to all of us who happen to be members of the human species. The undocumented did not spring up from some other world. They live here with us and amongst us and it would serve all of us if we began to realize that. The solution lies within each of us but especially within those who seek political office, who have the will and guts and nerve to educate the populace and lead us to a brighter, more inclusive tomorrow.

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