VOL. 7 | NO. 48 | Saturday, November 22, 2014
Rogero Talks ‘Smart Growth,’ Democratic Politics
JOE MORRIS | The Ledger
Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero became the first woman to hold that office when she won the election in 2011.
She’s been actively involved in a number of local issues since her election, from urban-core revitalization and business recruitment to broader social issues such as marriage equality.
Rogero recently talked with The Ledger Knoxville about her time in office, the challenges she and other Democrats face in a deep-red state, and why Knoxville is a great place to live, work and hold public office.
Q: What inspired you to seek the mayor’s office?
“I decided to run for mayor because I had strong ideas about how I want Knoxville to be and to grow. I enjoy working with people to bridge divides and find ways to work together effectively. Being a mayor puts you in a position to get things done and I liked that opportunity and that challenge.
“I have been involved in our city since I moved here in 1980. I was active in my neighborhood organization, in my children’s schools and the PTOs, and I served on numerous nonprofit boards. I received my master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Tennessee Knoxville. My thesis was on “Fostering Civic Leadership and Participation in Knoxville.”
“I was a planner for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the executive director of several nonprofits focusing on community development and on youth. I first got into politics in 1990 when I ran for Knox County Commission. I was encouraged by friends to challenge a 24-year incumbent. I won that race and served another term before I chose not to seek re-election in 1998.
“Local government is really closest to the people and where we can have the most effect on our own quality of life. So I decided to run for mayor in 2003. I wasn’t successful in that race – though I came within 6 percentage points of my opponent, Bill Haslam, who had four times the campaign funds.
“Three years later, Mayor Haslam asked me to work for his administration as director of community development. This gave me four years of extremely valuable experience in City Hall and serving the community. When Mayor Haslam became Governor, I ran for mayor and won in 2011.
“My administration has worked on making Knoxville a business-friendly place with strong neighborhoods and a vibrant downtown. We focus on building a high quality of life with a thriving arts and culture community, preservation of our historic and environmental assets, and expanding outdoor recreation opportunities. We have a strong commitment to being greener and more sustainable. I believe the strength of our city comes from the diversity of our people and the beauty of our natural resources.
“Being Mayor of Knoxville for the past three years has been a phenomenal experience. Knoxvillians might disagree on specific policies, but they care deeply about improving and enriching their community. They want to help one another. They want to get involved and make a positive difference. There’s a genuine sense of civic engagement, and to keep at something until we get it right.
“There’s nothing more satisfying than talking honestly with one another, rolling up our collective sleeves and working through problems together. When there’s a great outcome, or an impasse is broken, it’s extremely rewarding.
“I can always count on people in Knoxville to join the public process with enthusiasm. It’s what makes this job so worthwhile – working with a dedicated staff, a great City Council and empowered, engaged constituents who care deeply about their city.”
Q: Do you think there’s special scrutiny given you, based on being the first woman to hold the position?
“I followed 67 men in the office of mayor. I’m proud to be the first female mayor, and I think it says something about Knoxville’s progressive mindset. In fact, we are the first city of the Big Four in Tennessee to elect a female mayor.
“But I don’t feel any special scrutiny, or more leniency, because I’m the first woman. I think people expect a mayor to make smart decisions and perform his or her job well, regardless of gender.
“I do feel a special responsibility, however, because many women have expressed pride in the cracking of this glass ceiling, and I know that many moms and dads hold me up as a role model for their young daughters.”
Q: Do you think there will be viable women candidates for governor and/or senate in the next couple of cycles?
“I hope so. There certainly are plenty of women with the right experience and talent who are capable of putting together creative, thoughtful social and political agendas and then mounting a successful statewide campaign. Women need to be willing to get out there and run. When they do, they can win.”
Q: Do you think there will be any viable Democrats in the same time period?
“It’s been an uphill battle for Democrats in recent statewide Tennessee elections, but there certainly are a lot of committed Democrats who want to contribute their ideas and talents with a career in public service. I hope they will run as well. When I first ran for county commission, I was told I couldn’t beat the Republican incumbent. But we did – by a landslide. It took getting out there, knocking on doors, meeting the voters and sharing a vision that inspires and engages.”
Q: What is Knoxville’s top issue in dealing with smart growth – that is, in planning for growth going forward?
“One of our core principles is turning disinvestment into investment – and that includes encouraging quality infill redevelopment to combat sprawl. We’re strategically building outward from a strong center core. That’s our top smart-growth objective.
“We have success stories in each quadrant of the city, heading outward from downtown – along the Cumberland Avenue Corridor to the west, the Central Avenue and Downtown North renaissance, the South Knoxville Waterfront, the revitalization of the Old City and the Magnolia Avenue Corridor to the east.
“We have an array of tools and strategies to help promote smart growth and redevelopment. Often, we invest strategically in public infrastructure as a way to leverage private investment. Sometimes, we offer financial incentives to make a deal feasible. Always, we’re figuring out new ways to boost ridership on public transit and how to make it easier to take a bus or ride a bike to get to destinations.
Extending the free downtown trolley has helped connect residents and downtown workers with restaurants, entertainment venues and offices, Mayor Madeline Rogero says.
(The Ledger/Chase Malone)
“Here’s a great example of planning for smart growth. In September, the new University Commons – a 210,000-square-foot center-city retail redevelopment of a former industrial site – celebrated its grand opening. Private developers made the design vertical, with garage parking.
“We extended a free City trolley line to connect it with downtown workers and residents. We built some infrastructure and provided some crucial tax increment financing support. It’s a prime example of business and local government working together to resurrect a brownfield, create jobs and combat sprawl.”
Q: Downtown Knoxville continues to see a remarkable revitalization. How do you, as an urban planner, see that continuing to mature and expand?
“Downtown is a special place, and Knoxvillians share a sense of ownership in it. Open public spaces like Market Square are unique and rare in American cities. Places like the 100 block of Gay Street are organic, robust and just plain fun. Southern Living magazine declared Union Avenue a “Next Great Neighborhood.”
“So we’ve got a lot of good things happening that we take pride in, and we’re always going to be vigilant in our oversight of downtown. And there certainly are ways to continue and expand the momentum.
“New construction downtown is a trend we’d like to nurture. Over the past two decades, private redevelopers have done a great job of saving, cherishing and bringing back into reuse many of downtown’s older warehouses and high-rises. There are some historic buildings still to be redeveloped, but truthfully, the next chapter in downtown’s growth likely will be new construction.
“Marble Alley Lofts, which will open in about a year, is an example of the next round of downtown revitalization. With about 240 apartment units, it’s the first major new residential development since the resurgence of downtown began more than a decade ago. It provides a much-needed connection between the activity and energy we see on Gay Street and Market Square with the ongoing redevelopment efforts in the Old City. These apartments, in-between the two redevelopment hotspots, fill in a big gap in the downtown map.
“Another example: The City owns a portion of the 500 block of Jackson Avenue, between Gay Street and Broadway. This will be a premier redevelopment site for mixed-use new construction. And the planned $165 million redevelopment on the former Baptist Hospital site along Knoxville’s South Waterfront is moving forward. That’s all new construction as well.
Mayor Madeline Rogero says locations like the 100 block of Gay Street are “organic, robust and just plain fun.”
(The Ledger/Chase Malone)
“The second point is our commitment to take what’s working well in downtown and provide the support for extending redevelopment outward from the core. We are seeing many successes – east, west, north and south. Disinvestment is being replaced with reinvestment, in a significant way.
“I’ll share one telling example of how we’ve been able to strategically leverage private dollars by investing in infrastructure. Look at the Cumberland Avenue Corridor.
“The City has plans to invest $17 million to make traffic flow better as well as improve the Streetscape aesthetics and add new planning and design standards. As a result, we’re already seeing over $150 million in new and proposed private development. There’s a buzz about that entire area, and a renaissance is unfolding.”
Q: On the jobs front, manufacturing and some other historical sectors seem to be stabilizing, if not regaining some lost ground. What about high-tech out of the University of Tennessee, or the Oak Ridge National Laboratory? Do you see a future for tech startups out of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, thanks to the efforts of LaunchTN (and Tech2020)?
“We’ve had some significant investment announcements by manufacturers recently – companies like Knoxville Locomotive Works on Quincy Avenue and Fresenius Medical Care at Forks of the River.
“We’ve created the Office of Business Support, headed by Business Liaison Patricia Robledo, to work directly with businesses and to help resolve whatever difficulties they might be encountering. Often, that’s navigating the permitting process, or figuring out the best way to support and regulate new businesses such as mobile food vendors.
“We’ve partnered with the Industrial Development Board to create the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, whose new executive director, Jim Biggs, is earning praise for his creativity and enthusiasm.
“We believe in small businesses, and those small businesses have benefited from our redevelopment efforts downtown and in surrounding corridors. Many of the buildings that were redeveloped with tax incentives are home to small businesses.
“One of the great things about downtown and what’s unfolding in Downtown North/Happy Holler is that these areas are full of unique businesses that you can’t find anywhere else.
“There are a few big anchors – Mast General Store, Urban Outfitters, Regal Cinemas – but most businesses downtown are small and locally owned. We’re also excited about the new energy and the new research and manufacturing business models that are emerging.
“Look at the example of Local Motors, an innovative, bold company that just opened a showroom on Market Square and will soon operate a micro-factory here.
“Local Motors’ president and CEO, Jay Rogers, is working with ORNL as a pioneer in the blossoming field of “additive manufacturing” – or what a lot of people call 3D printing. You may have seen an online video from a trade show in Chicago earlier this fall, where Local Motors produced the first-ever 3D-printed automobile.
“Jay has a lot of interesting ideas – reducing the number of parts in a car from 25,000 to fewer than 50, and being able to make really quick adaptions in the design and production process.
“I’m proud to be a “Makers Movement” mayor, because with the resources we have through ORNL and Innovation Valley, there is a real opportunity for East Tennessee to be Ground Zero for what some people are calling the “Third Industrial Revolution.’”
Q: Who do you admire in politics (local, national, wherever), and why?
“Rather than name some individual leaders, let me cite a few political traits I admire.
“First of all, I admire anyone who seriously takes the plunge and puts his or her name on a ballot. It takes courage, and I applaud anyone who puts themselves forward – whether in a local, state, or federal race.
“Second, the people I’ve always admired are those who try to look out for all of us. They are inclusive and honor and celebrate our diversity. In addition, instead of taking rigid stands or digging in ideologically or grandstanding, the great leaders are the ones who listen, compromise and work on real solutions.”
Q: You recently joined Karl Dean by signing on to mayors for the Freedom to Marry. You’ve also worked to expand city employee benefits to same-sex partners. Some would say that, given East Tennessee’s conservative bent, there’s no upside for you to take this position … so why do it?
“These steps were simply the right things to do.
“As mayor, I want Knoxville to be a city that embraces diversity and respects and values all of its citizens. When I signed on to mayors for the Freedom to Marry, there were more than 500 other mayors on board. The number is growing.
“The right to public and legal recognition of a committed, loving relationship is fundamental to individual dignity and happiness.”