KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Saturday marks the end of 12 years of service to the City of Knoxville for Mayor Madeline Rogero. Before her two-terms in the top job, Rogero served in the administration of her former opponent, former Mayor Bill Haslam, as the city Director of Community Development.
We strive to capture some of the work of Rogero, her administration, and their growth strategies over the last eight years, and their impact on the city she leaves behind.
The Knoxville Rogero inherited
Rogero took the helm of a city still climbing out of the Great Recession, with confidence in the business world growing slowly, a downtown in midst of making a comeback.
The impacts of that recession paused many plans. Projects developed while Haslam was mayor were unable to come to fruition due to budget constraints.
Bill Lyons, the chief policy officer and deputy to the mayor for the city, has served under three administrations for 16 years. He pointed out while Haslam’s background was business, Rogero’s was in urban planning, “a lot of the plans he put on paper, she actually enacted … which is the opposite of what you might think when you look at their backgrounds,” he said.
Throughout her two-terms, Rogero implemented many plans, including some for downtown, the South Knoxville waterfront development, and the completion of the Cumberland Avenue project.
As the city continued to move beyond the impact of the Great Recession, Rogero saw her primary job as economic development. “We wanted to be there to encourage the business community so we would have jobs. That’s the No. 1 thing. You have to have a good economy if you want to build a lot of the other,” she said.
Her strategy for growing the local economy was three-pronged: invest public dollars, encourage private reinvestment, and prioritize growth from the inside out.
Many people in Knoxville live outside the core of the city in the suburbs, which leaves a hole for those living in and around Knoxville. Rogero sought to encourage more people to, not only shop and visit downtown, but move closer to the city center. “That’s a really core factor of a really vibrant downtown,” she said.
When looking at the total impact of the Rogero Administration on Knoxville’s growth, it’s important to remember Rogero is an urban planner by trade. She subscribed to a growth strategy called “smart growth,” which includes improving existing public infrastructure and facilitating private reinvestment in empty buildings.
“We already have sewer lines. We have sidewalks. We have roads. Where those exist and the properties are vacant or blighted, we need to be reinvesting in that first. That’s the smart way to do it. It’s also the environmentally sustainable way,” she said.
Rogero recalled when, what is now the Tombras building, was the headquarters for the Knoxville Utilities Board. She recounted seeing it sit empty for years. For an urban planner, Rogero saw vacant and blighted property as a drain on economic potential, and a potential drain on city services. “Vacancy and blight only add to more drain on resources, police, fire, codes, and it’s a drain on any neighborhood. If you have somebody in their home, trying to keep their home up and there’s a vacant and blighted property, it’s going to ruin their investment,” she said.
Rogero leaves behind a bustling downtown, a red hot housing market, and a high bond rating. She credits a lot of that success to investment in roads, parking, and sidewalks. “If you’ve got everything crumbling around you,” she said, “then the private sector doesn’t want to come in and make a big investment. It puts their money at risk.”
In addition to investing city dollars in public infrastructure, Rogero’s team also wanted to be a partner for the business community because, she explained, reinvestment can come at greater cost or risk than new construction.
If you were to move to Knoxville today, you’d see buildings like the downtown Hampton Inn and Suites, the Embassy Suites and the Hyatt Place hotel along Gay Street, and you may not know a partnership with the city helped make them possible. From hotels, restaurants, to housing developments, tax incentives made many of them possible, such as TIF (tax increment financing) and PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) programs.
Todd Napier, Knox County Development Corporation President and member of the Industrial Development Board for Knoxville/Knox County said it’s critically important, for business, to have a supportive mayor and good leadership. She’s seen that vision of having a strong downtown represents the whole region. She’s been very supportive, been very business-friendly toward getting buildings redeveloped and new projects started.”
Rogero also made enhancements to what she calls “quality-of-life” investments, including expanding parks, greenways, bike lanes, and adding festivals throughout the city.
Doug Lawyer, vice president of economic development for the Knoxville Chamber, said the public investment under Rogero’s administration is directly related to the growth in business along the south waterfront, downtown, and key corridor growth at Central, Sutherland, and Magnolia.
In 2016, her administration completed Suttree Landing Park. It was the first new park in the city in more than a decade. Rogero and her team saw it as a way to jump-start development along the South Knoxville waterfront. The goal was to “show the private sector it was safe to invest money there,” Rogero said.
“Running a city is about the quality of place. It’s about streets. It’s about infrastructure. It’s about public safety, fire, police, parks, all of those things …,” Laywer said. “A mayor can help drive improvement and expansions in those areas. When a city is doing those things right, economic development follows. Companies want to land and locate and expand in communities that are thriving and growing, and not just great places to work, but also live and play.”
The balancing act
Let’s refer back to the inside-out approach to developing Knoxville. Rogero, again, is an urban planner and aimed to implement smart growth strategies, invest in public infrastructure to maximize private investment downtown, and ultimately more development along older corridors extending from the city core, like Cumberland Avenue, Central Avenue, Broadway, Magnolia Avenue, Chapman Highway, and Sevier Avenue.
But as private investment and reinvestment occur, and public improvements, such as streetscaping, occur, property values rise.
“You have to be careful how you invest in blighted areas,” Rogero explained. She worked to balance the two.
“You have to be proactive through community development, the Knoxville Community Development Corporation, in building and retaining new, affordable, housing,” she said.
While her administration has celebrated numerous condominium developments and apartment complexes, Rogero has also cut a great number of ribbons at sites for affordable housing. “I think the best of both worlds is having the market-rate apartments, housing, even the fancy condos come back…that’s great. But, you have to make sure you’re balancing it with the affordable housing units,” she said.
Rogero estimated nearly 5,000 new, affordable, housing units, either completed or in the process of being completed in the city.
The Rogero administration also invested in an affordable housing rental development fund, which is available in addition to federal dollars and existing city programs, designed to ensure there are affordable options while market-rate housing is going up around the city.
Lyons described Rogero’s legacy as spread out, equally, across the city. He referenced new affordable housing and a “completely transformed” Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in East Knoxville, growth in West Knoxville along Northshore Drive, and a thriving waterfront across the river in South Knoxville. On the north end of the city, he noted there were existing plans for the now thriving Central corridor, but she initiated a lot more “to bring about Central’s renaissance.”
From the creation of the day space under the I-40 overpass on North Broadway, to the partnerships with non-profits like the Volunteer Ministries Center and Salvation Army, Rogero takes pride in the resources put toward the issue of homelessness in eight years.
Rogero participated in quarterly roundtable discussions with organizations that serve the homeless population. While she said there’s always more work to be done, she pointed out factors outside city control such as mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic abuse.
Homelessness, she explained, is often “tossed down” for local government to deal with, which has an impact on jails and hospitals. Federal and state resources that used to exist, she said, don’t exist to the same degree anymore.
A more sustainable Knoxville
The Rogero Administration hit a benchmark, set by the Haslam Administration in 2008, to reduce city greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020, a year ahead of schedule. One way the city hit that goal was by retrofitted 29,000 LED lights throughout the city.
Rogero said those energy-efficient lights will save the city $2 million a year. In seven years, she estimated the investment will be paid off, and leave behind savings that can be allocated elsewhere.
Her team also reduced greenhouse gas emissions from city buses and vehicles, like propane mowers, and made investments in city buildings to make them more energy-efficient. “I think we have a responsibility. I have kids. I have grandkids. I really think we have a responsibility to leave Knoxville better off than we found it .. in a number of ways, but particularly in a more greener and more sustainable way,” Rogero said.
The goals of creating a business-friendly city, and a city that’s more sustainable, complement one another, Rogero explained. “Many companies today want to live in communities that care. A lot of them will say what’s your commitment to sustainability,” she said.
Reusing, recycling, and sustainability overall, she said, reduce costs for companies and the city. “Years ago, you were either an environmentalist or you were for economic development, but what we learned now, as businesses will tell you, what the chamber will tell you, and what environmentalist will tell you, is you have to have both and you can have both.”
Rogero hired an urban forester and implemented an urban forestry management policy, because of her belief, simply, that trees are essential to city health and identity. She cited their importance aesthetically, to property values, air quality, for protection from the weather, and absorbing runoff.
Governing with compassion
Lyons noted Rogero’s style of governing was similar to that of her predecessor Haslam. “She is a very good at keeping track of projects … she has a very good note-taking system. If something seems to be off the agenda that ought to be there, she will often go, hey, where are we in the development of this property .. .we did the RFP (request for proposal) but I haven’t seen that. That’s the kind of thing she’ll keep on top of and bring up,” he said.
Lyons will also remember a compassionate leader in Rogero, who he described as having a desire to make life better for everyone in the city. “When it’s time to make a decision that’s tough, she’ll make it just like that. But she’s got a definite core of empathy that shows in a lot of the policies we pursued, especially when we got into things like the Change Center. You could tell that the fate of the young men of color that would primarily serve is very meaningful and comes from the heart there,” he said.
At a groundbreaking ceremony for the Change Center, Rogero said “we as a city won’t continue to grow and be prosperous and be safe for everyone if there are folks left behind. If our kids are left behind that has a direct impact on our workforce.”
Vice Mayor Finbarr Saunders called the last eight years serving alongside Rogero on council a honor and privilege. “I never imagined we’d get so much done. You don’t notice how much you’re getting done as you go along. It’s all an evolutionary process,” he said. He echoed Lyons’ words, describing the Mayor’s governing as forward-thinking and compassionate and cited the care she has for those who may be unable to care for themselves.
After being sworn in eight years ago, Rogero, minutes into her tenure said, “We built our campaign on diversity and inclusiveness and that is how we will govern.”
While her administration invested in private development, more affordable housing, sustainability, and public infrastructure, Rogero sees her initiative in making the city more welcoming as equally important.
“When you look at Asian festival, HOLA festival, Greek fest, and the Romidan celebrations, all the different ways we come together as a community, people of different faiths, backgrounds, ethnicities…people come together to celebrate one another’s heritage, backgrounds, I think that’s very powerful in Knoxville,” she said.
She reflected on her campaign promise “It was about reaching out to rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, people of all nationalities, people of all abilities. Knoxville is a very diverse community. I embrace all of that. We all have something to contribute. I embrace all of that.”
Rogero changed city policy on domestic partner benefits, allowing LGBT city workers to earn the same benefits of straight, married couples, prior to the supreme court ruling allowing same-sex marriage.
Rogero also aimed to make the city more welcoming for immigrants and refugees.
Last month, City Council unanimously approved a move to accept refugees. It was in response to a move by President Donald Trump, which allowed states and cities to opt-out of accepting refugees. Despite any controversy attached to her stance on inclusiveness, Rogero pointed out, albeit a write-in candidate, she ran unopposed for a second term. “I think that’s what Knoxville represent and what it wants to be.”
When Rogero took the oath of office, she wasn’t only the first woman to become Mayor of Knoxville. She was also the first woman elected to any of Tennessee’s big four cities.
“… I felt a responsibility to do it right, do it well, in a way that women would be proud,” she said. “The other day, I was walking down the street and some young women. … I could tell the way they responded to me, they were proud of me as a woman mayor. One of the most remarkable things is when a dad brings their daughters up to me … that’s very special to me because these dads want their daughters to see a woman who has achieved this rank of mayor.”
How Rogero wants to be remembered
Throughout my interview with Rogero, I’d often ask her about specific projects or initiatives for which she’s responsible. I was hoping she would pat herself on the back a bit, so I could get video of specific buildings, projects, or changes that best highlight her eight years. But, Rogero never attributes praise inward. Each time I brought it up, she credited private and non-profit partners, city staff, the strong city she inherited, and the ideas of those around her to the successes over the last eight years. In fact, it’s those partnerships she hopes to be remembered for.
“I hope they’ll remember me as being someone who worked very hard in partnership with the public, private, and the nonprofit sector to make Knoxville a better place, greener, more sustainable, more equitable, more welcoming,” she said. “I hope that the legacy that I leave is that it take a whole community to make this stuff work…It’s not just the mayor or any individual business person. It take a whole community working together. And it’s about balancing interests. We can’t have everything we want. But, if we work together we can try to balance those interests.”
What’s next for Rogero
“I’m looking forward to the next adventure in life,” Rogero said. Her immediate plans include taking time off, going on vacation, and spending time with her 92-year-old mother in Ohio. “I’ll miss the people. I’ll miss being able to make things happen…it’s not me by myself, it’s me with 1,600 employees and our community partners, but in this role, you can make things happen.”
Rogero, who noted she’s always liked change, is excited about some genuine off-time. She explained, as mayor, even on vacation, or weekends, you often check e-mail and take calls. You won’t catch her complaining about the long hours and tough days, as she described the last eight years as a “great opportunity” and a “wonderful privilege” to serve the city.
On her successor, Indya Kincannon, Rogero said she’s pleased her message to voters was successful. It, to Rogero, said “a majority of voters in Knoxville agreed with taking what we’ve done and moving forward.”
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