With early voting in the City Council race underway, the four candidates for the First District seat hope they have made the decision clear for voters. They’re probably just hoping that voters turn out at all – in recent years, voter numbers have been abysmal.
Greg Knox, Rebecca Parr, Stephanie Welch and Andrew Wilson voiced their views in a forum sponsored by the South Knoxville Neighborhood and Business Coalition at Woodlawn Christian Church last week. SKNBC members had crafted four questions to ask each of the candidates, and moderator Alan Williams, news anchor at WVLT, posed them after the four made their opening statements.
Knox joked that he did not change his name when he decided to run for office. Parr spoke about raising her great-nephew and being attentive to the generational culture of South Knoxville.
Welch talked about how her career, especially her current job with the Great Schools Partnership, has helped her serve the community for 22 years. Wilson said that in his work as a certified arborist he’d met all kinds of people who felt that their voices weren’t being heard, and he wanted to speak for them.
Here are the questions and the highlights of the candidates’ answers:
- How can we restore Chapman Highway to a viable and attractive business corridor like Sevier Avenue?
Knox spoke in vague terms about how new businesses coming in will spur improvements on Chapman. He also talked about making the corridor user-friendly for not just vehicles but also cyclists, pedestrians and joggers.
Parr talked about the “bohemian update” that has occurred in the Colonial Village area and how she’d like to see the city assist small-business owners on other parts of the highway. She said she’d already talked to landlords about how they could make empty buildings on Chapman more affordable for small businesses. She also talked about how encouraging a living wage would help to prop up the community and assist redevelopment on Chapman.
Welch said “multiple strategies” need to be undertaken to restore Chapman Highway. A long-term strategy is the updating of the zoning ordinance, for the first time in about 60 years. She pointed out that Sevier Avenue was given a form-based code that allowed for mixed-use development. As for short-term solutions, she talked about redesigning intersections to be more pedestrian-friendly and attractive and other short-term investments by the city that would make Chapman more appealing to business owners.
Wilson wants to “loosen the reins” and give property owners more control and creativity over what they can do with their property. He also wants to streamline the process to make it easier for business owners to redevelop old storefronts.
- With the Hall income tax being phased out, do you have any ideas for replacing the up to $10 million loss in revenue to the city?
Parr said she hadn’t studied the issue but said she would. She thinks new businesses will bring in some new tax money.
Welch said the best way for the city to grow its revenue stream was through new development and redevelopment of property. “We’re really at a great time in our city for that to be happening. Overall we have a good economic engine that is happening in the city.” New residential development could help use property to its full tax potential. She said that “makers” – smaller manufacturing businesses – are a big part of the growing economy.
Wilson said replacing the lost revenue might not be the way to go. “I actually don’t believe we need to replace it. I believe we need to take a closer look at the city’s budget and realize where there’s waste. In the current budget, the city’s planning to take out another loan of $17 million for capital projects and developments that the city does. But if we cut back and instead of having a city-driven development plan, maybe we can have a community- or business-driven development plan.”
Knox also questioned the need to replace the income. He said making government programs more efficient and cutting corners to save money could make a difference. He said switching to LED lighting in city buildings has saved $2 million a year, and other innovative technology could lower the cost of building maintenance even more. Incentivizing businesses – especially the film industry – to come to the area will help grow the city’s income and build the economy.
- The opioid crisis is growing; what part should City Council play in stemming this problem in our city?
Welch said poverty, education and community connections all factor into the substance-abuse problem. Law-enforcement officials must have the tools they need to intervene and save people’s lives, and the city has to have good health-care providers. The long-term strategy lies in making sure that students have the tools they need to be successful once they are out of the county school system. Education determines the “hope, despair and economic opportunity” that they have.
Wilson said the market is already helping to alleviate the crisis through new processes implemented by doctors and pharmacies. He said the law-enforcement approach to the “war on drugs” has not been successful in stopping substance abuse but has led to overpopulated prisons, poverty zones and broken families. He said he would favor treatment programs and “a path out of the addiction.”
Knox said City Council could increase training for LEOs who are dealing with the crisis every day and could change laws that make the problem worse. He said that emulating programs developed by other cities and states could help curb the crisis. “These people need to be treated not as criminals but as people who need help.”
Parr agreed that “we need to humanize the addict and take away some of the notion of criminalizing addiction.” She said the crisis affects all economic levels and every walk of life. She cited programming for youth and young adults and educational opportunities as ways to inspire hope and connections – the voids that people try to fill with substance abuse.
- We know South Knoxville is a great place, but what are your thoughts on how to dispel lingering perceptions that South Knoxville is not as desirable a place to live and work?
Wilson said the empty storefronts and predatory-lending establishments along Chapman Highway have helped to create that impression. “But we’re coming along. We’re getting new businesses starting to come in. … We are growing as a community, and we are growing with business.”
Knox said talking to people from other parts of town about South Knoxville and its possibilities will improve their perception. He’s pumped about the South Waterfront and all that SoKno has to offer. He compares SoKno’s growth to the pattern that downtown previously followed.
Parr said she chose to live in South Knoxville 36 years ago because it wasn’t overcrowded, and she was resistant to change at first. But she’s OK with positive change, as long as it maintains “the integrity of affordable housing” and South Knoxville doesn’t lose the “unique things that kept us here.” She said she wants the “outside people” to take their time coming in, letting change occur slowly.
Welch said, “I’m not so sure that there are lingering perceptions anymore.” She agreed with Parr’s concerns about making sure there are “diverse housing options.” But “I think there is a lot of positivity around South Knoxville right now.” The one exception, she says, is that people still don’t have a good impression of SoKno schools. Even though they are run by the county, the schools can be affected by the engagement of the community and the community’s support of them.
Early voting continues through Aug. 24. The primary is Aug. 29, with the general election on Nov. 7.