Mike Edwards believes in partnerships, in opening doors instead of closing them, and when he steps out of his role as president and CEO of the Greater Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, also known as Knoxville Chamber, he’ll have 16 years of opening every door he can find.
Edwards will retire this January, and he plans to help with the transition to a new president once one is hired. After that, he plans to enjoy retirement and keep on with certain volunteer projects, like serving on the state board of education through 2021.
Edwards is a Knoxville guy through and through. He grew up in Park City and Bearden, graduated from Bearden High School and later UT with a degree in history in 1970. He worked in the Knox County Trustee’s Office and the Boys Club (before it became the Boys and Girls Club), and ran for Register of Deeds at age 28. He lost to Steve Hall, a former state representative, who held the job until term limits chased him out.
Shortly after that, he went to work for the Public Building Authority under Ed Anderton at a time when PBAs were relatively new, in Edwards’ words, “created by the legislature to be a developer for municipalities.” In that role, he had a hand in the purchase of the Andrew Johnson Building on behalf of Knox County, building schools, and managing the design and construction of landmarks like the Miller’s Building, Knoxville Convention Center and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
He was there for 16 years and ended as president/CEO before going to work for Turkey Creek Land Partners for a little over two years, giving him a ring-side seat for the largest private-sector development in Knox County’s history. More than that, the development involved three local governments, plus state and federal involvement.
“It took them eight years, and they died a thousand times,” said Edwards. “But it was the absolute chance of a lifetime to watch and be part of a power center being developed and to learn just how hard it is. It was absolutely fascinating.”
In 2002, Edwards came on board at the Chamber. He’d considered running for mayor of Knoxville, but he decided the Chamber was a better fit. Madeline Rogero was running, and Bill Haslam.
“Those are very good people,” he said. “It really seemed to me that a mayor had a lot of responsibilities, but at the core, the mayor needed people to have well-paying jobs in order to be able to afford neighborhoods to command a tax base to fund things like police and fire and city services. I was more passionate about the economy of the city and less so about services. So, I backed away from considering mayor. I didn’t want to knock on doors anyway.”
Right away, he faced challenges, including friction between the Chamber, the city of Knoxville, then-mayor Victor Ashe, and the local daily newspaper.
“Part of that friction was that the Chamber was taking political advocacy that was in conflict with the city mayor, so that had to end,” Edwards said. “It was almost like we’d identify an issue, pick a side and fight the other side rather than figure out a way to get something done.”
Contentious issues included a proposed planetarium in downtown Knoxville and the infamous Orange Route bypass from north I-75 to the I-75/I-40 split.
“We continue to support the Orange Route, but we can do so without having to be adversarial,” he said.
The Greater Knoxville Chamber Partnership, while well-intended according to Edwards, was another hurdle to overcome. Five years before his tenure, “there was a plan to consolidate a whole lot of agencies under one umbrella.”
Under the plan, the Development Corporation, tourism, the film commission, the Sports Corporation, and many other entities would be overseen and managed by the Chamber president.
“The fallacy of that, and this was done by very well-meaning people on all sides, was that each organization had their own charter, their own governance, and these boards could not subordinate their responsibilities to others,” Edwards said. “So, it never really happened.”
Edwards kept those partnerships alive while letting each maintain its own leadership. Two of those, the Development Corporation and CBID, coexist in the same office as the Chamber today.
“The Development Corporation and the Chamber would not talk to each other before I came on board,” said Edwards. “I think it became apparent to everybody that we didn’t have to run everything to collaborate with people, and in fact it would probably be better. Today, the Development Corporation is 10 feet away from my office, and the economic development side of the Chamber is on the other side of my office wall. What was envisioned got achieved. It just got achieved in a different way.”
And speaking of that economic development side, when Edwards came to the Chamber it didn’t exist. Taking lessons from other municipalities like Austin, Texas, the Chamber developed the concept that eventually came to be known as Innovation Valley, another collaboration. But this time, it was between counties and cities.
“It used to be that if a project didn’t come to Knox County but went to Blount County, it was a horrible catastrophe for Knox County,” said Edwards. “It was a nuts way to think about things. Blount County, Roane County, they’re all within this market, and they don’t begin and end at political boundaries. Our success or failure is dependent on how strong the region is.”
He pointed out that UT Medical Center’s payroll has 33 counties represented.
“There’s a lot of migration every day,” he said. “We had great elected officials who were willing to take that message and back us up on it, especially mayors. Today, there may be remnants, but the dominant philosophy is that if we get a win in the region, we all win.”
Another key issue for Edwards is education, serving on the state board of education and the Workforce Education Committee through the U.S. Chamber. He opened another door, collaborating with Knox County Schools to get educators into the workplace and employers into schools.
“Employers are constantly telling us that they cannot find qualified people,” he said. “We’ve got miles to go before we sleep. We are improving, but our trajectory is too flat. If I have a disappointment in my tenure here, it has been that we have not been able to adequately increase that trajectory, to meet employers’ needs and also meet the needs of people who are graduating.”
For the future, he hopes the Chamber will endeavor to stay relevant.
“We’re turning 150 years old in January, and through that 150 years it has gone every which way. At one time, the Chamber’s role for its members was to keep other companies out so competition would stay out. Today, it is to grow the economy. Our challenge going forward is how to remain relevant to our members as their business continues to morph at an incredible rate.”
He praised the staff at the Chamber for their continuing work, along with the region’s businesses and political leadership.
“This is not about me,” he said. “This is the Chamber, of which I am only a part, and we have great businesses in Knoxville. We were the third region to come out of the recession because we are so diverse. We’ve enjoyed great political leadership that supported our mission, and most importantly we’ve had the blessing of having incredible staff over the years and volunteer leadership.
“I say all of this to say that I can’t really identify a great American community that doesn’t have a great Chamber. It’s important to everyone and the community.”
(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a new Thursday series called “Our Town Leaders,” profiles of Knoxville business leaders and entrepreneurs. We’re honored to highlight retiring Chamber president Mike Edwards.)