Knoxville leader sees stadium project as a chance to increase Black middle class, write new future for city

Knoxville Stadium

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – When Theotis Robinson Jr. looks through the fence at the corner of East Jackson Avenue and Florida Street, he’s reminded of the unintended consequences of urban renewal.

“There were families, there were businesses, there was a school in this area. … Homes were taken away. Businesses were taken away, futures were diminished,” he said.

He also sees a chance to build a future that benefits everyone at the site of a proposed multiuse sports complex.

“We have an opportunity to increase the Black middle class and to have people develop skills and greater business potential,” he added.

The proposed $65 million, publicly-owned and funded, stadium would also include with more than $100 million in surrounding private development. Robinson wants to ensure Knoxville’s Black community sees a “fair share” of ownership and job opportunities.

He believes that can be achieved with guarantees that Black contractors will be used throughout the project, Black workers will be hired, and Black-owned businesses will be part of the growth.

“The commercial activity that can be generated through concerts, cultural events, other entertainment kinds of events is just enormous,” Robinson said. “But, if we are going to maximize the potential for economic growth in our community it has to be equally spread.”

Robinson cited the 1982 World’s Fair as an example of when this worked, and worked well. He served as the vice president of economic development for the historic event.

The policy then, he said, was to include between 14-20% of Black labor, including design, construction, concession, and vendors. He’s hopeful this arrangement can happen again, nearly 40 years later.

Robinson also believes a community benefits agreement, similar to the one established in Nashville with the developers of a new MLS soccer stadium, is essential because he believes “if there is no plan for inclusion, it won’t happen.”

“That can’t happen, not now, not this time,” he said. “We’ve seen that before.”

While city and county leaders have not signed off on the proposal, and the seven nominees for the joint sports authority have a remaining hurdle before being fully-confirmed, Robinson is throwing his support behind the project and the economic ripple effects it could have on families in East Knoxville.

“This project needs to rise, phoenix-like, on the dead ashes of the past urban renewal project here, to give new life to new businesses to new opportunities, to economic growth,” he said. “That includes Knoxville’s Black community. It has to.”

Last month, GEM Community Development Group announced plans to enter into a partnership with the Knoxville Area Urban League.

A news release says the urban league will identify minority contractors and subcontractors, and minority entrepreneurs. It also says they’ll also work to train people who want to become entrepreneurs, help existing businesses grow to the level necessary to succeed, and assist with training and placement of individuals for available jobs.

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