Looking Ahead: A parting wish list for Knoxville

In Perspectives by Joe Sullivanleave a COMMENT

The lamented demise of the Mercury means that I’m probably finished as a journalist—I’m close to my 80th birthday and still working on a book that’s probably not all bad. But I will treasure the 25 years I spent writing for Metro Pulse and the Mercury, especially my decade as Metro Pulse’s owner and publisher.

Knoxville has generally fared well during that span, but I do have a list of ways in which I wish it could do better, some of which are wishfully restorative. To wit:

• Restoration of a daily newspaper that Knoxvillians can call their own. Since its acquisition by Gannett, the News Sentinel seems headed toward becoming little more than an advertorial for that big chain’s flagship paper, USA Today. I wince every time I see an article by its depleted ranks of reporters whose byline identifies them as being part of the USA TODAY NETWORK-TENNESSEE. Editorials about local issues, which flourished under former editorial page editor Scott Barker, have virtually disappeared since he was laid off earlier this year. Instead, the space is typically filled by “Guest Voices,” very few of them Knoxvillian.

• Restore progressiveness to Knox County government. I remain perplexed why the county’s body politic and elected officials have swung as far to the right as they have over the past decade. I’m not just talking about Republican dominance here. Some of the former County Commissioners whom I’ve most admired were Republicans. Frank Leuthold, John Griess, and Richard Briggs in the Far West Fifth District, David Collins in the North Knoxville Second District, and Wanda Moody in the Near West Third District come most readily to mind. But now the Republicans who represent these districts are just as regressive as the East Knox Eighth District and the South Knox Ninth District have always been. Former County Mayor Mike Ragsdale may have been ethically challenged, but he championed better schools, starting with creation of the Great Schools Partnership, and adroitly achieved adoption of a wheel tax to help pay for them and the construction of a new high school.

Note: That’s not to knock County Mayor Tim Burchett, who promised and has dutifully delivered a minimalist approach to government. But where are the Republican candidates for local office with the same sort of progressive-mindedness that Randy Boyd brings to his candidacy for governor?

• Restore the tradition-steeped Lady Vol nickname to UT women’s athletic teams. New Athletics Director John Currie has said he took note of fans chanting Lady Vols at softball games and is open to reconsideration of their demise, which was perpetrated by his predecessor, Dave Hart, and ex-Chancellor Jimmy Cheek. When the move was made in 2015, Cheek explained that, “Branding consistency is critical as we strive to become a top-25 public research university.” What a bunch of hooey!

• Make property tax breaks (such as TIFs and PILOTs) for big new residential developments contingent upon allocation of at least a small percentage of their apartments to lower-income housing. That may necessitate bigger tax breaks, but the city’s shortage of affordable housing is acute.

• Spur development on the South Knoxville Waterfront that’s been largely dormant ever since then-Mayor Bill Haslam heralded it as the city’s “next big thing” in 2005. That’s not to minimize the impressive redevelopment of the former Baptist Hospital site that’s well underway or the city’s $6.6 million investment in the attractive new Suttree Landing Park. But when the city paid Mike Conley some $3 million in 2006 for the 12-acre site on which the park and a new Waterfront Drive are located, it was supposed to serve as a catalyst for major private investment. The 2008 crash understandably put a hold on Conley’s plans for an adjacent $60 million condominium and townhouse development. The same goes for the tract from which Bill Baxter relocated his Holston Gases headquarters. Nearly a decade of prosperity has ensued, and the only thing that’s happened is the opening of a handful of small businesses along Sevier Avenue. Surely more can be done.

• Alleviate deplorable conditions on the block of Broadway that’s bounded by the Salvation Army’s shelter on one side and Knox Area Rescue Ministries on the other. One must have compassion for the unfortunates who are afforded a roof over their head at night. But they shouldn’t be allowed to congregate on the sidewalk during the day. KARM has provided an attractive fenced-in patio with tables and chairs. Why can’t the Salvation Army do the same? Or else the city’s ordinance against loitering should be enforced to remove this eyesore, if not a menace, from one of the city’s major thoroughfares.

• Rectify the ridiculous way in which at-large members of City Council are elected. As matters stand, a candidate for any of the three at-large seats on the nine-member Council can get a majority of the votes cast in the city’s nonpartisan primary election in August and yet have to run again in the November general election against the second-place finisher or even if the August winner is unopposed. Such a runoff requirement is a travesty and should be eliminated. To do so, a City Charter amendment is needed that would put at-large City Council elections on the same footing as mayoral elections. If a candidate for mayor gets a majority of the votes in the primary, he or she is therewith elected. A November runoff occurs only if no candidate gets a majority in a multi-candidate primary.

Joe Sullivan is the former owner and publisher of Metro Pulse (1992-2003) as well as a longtime columnist covering local politics, education, development, business, and tennis. His new column, Perspectives, covers much of the same terrain.

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