Lack of business base in East Knox concerns Underwood

Frank CagleN/E Knox County, Our Town Leaders

Conley Underwood has lived in East Knox County all his life so far. He loves the downhome, small-town feel and good neighbors. But he also worries. It’s the least developed part of Knox County.

He worries that when his two daughters return from college, they won’t be able to find jobs.

“A few years ago Powell and Carter were about the same. But look at Powell now,” he says. Underwood’s business is selling service equipment to car dealerships. He questioned the wisdom of Rusty Wallace locating a dealership in Powell, but the former NASCAR driver now has two there. Emory Road is lined with medical offices, shopping centers and restaurants. “Powell has a corporate base for fundraising; we have mom-and-pop businesses.”

Underwood, 52, serves on a Carter High School alumni board that raises funds for the school. He graduated from Carter High in 1984. The alumni sponsor a golf tournament each year. In four years they have raised $80,000 for the school. “We just don’t have the base that other (schools) in the county have.”

Underwood and his wife, Gina, have been married for 23 years. They have known each other “all our lives.” Their families knew each other. Their fathers were classmates at Carson-Newman. They did business together. The Underwoods live a half-mile from the home where Conley grew up. They have two college-age daughters.

East Knox County has been the center of some controversies in recent years. The Midway Business Park had local opposition. The community fought for a new elementary school at Carter and a middle school for Gibbs. Underwood was in the middle of the fights. He ran for school board in 2012 but lost to Mike McMillan. Since the community was successful in getting the two new school buildings and the Midway project is underway, he has backed off from a more public role. He keeps the stats for the Carter football team. He officiates at track and field events at the University of Tennessee, where he studied sports management.

He supported the business park because East Knox needs jobs and the rocky ground at that interstate exit isn’t good for anything else. “Somebody described it as its only use is to just ‘cover up hell.’”

Development has proceeded along Tazewell Pike and the Gibbs area, the part of the community east of the Holston River. But the Carter, Kodak, Thorn Grove Pike area – not so much. There is a perception that Carter is a remote area, though it’s a 20-minute drive to downtown on a four-lane highway and Interstate 40.

Underwood says it’s unlikely he will run for school board again since the community has been successful in getting the new schools. He doesn’t know if he will ever seek another office. “I still get calls from people about problems at school. I tell them I’m not on the school board. But they ask me to help anyway.”

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