Upheaval in how Knox County does business

Sandra ClarkLet's Talk, Northeast Knox

(Update: Callie Blackburn of the Chamber said no position was offered to Todd Napier. “The Chamber is still developing the appropriate job descriptions, so there is no position yet to offer to anyone.”)

To streamline business recruitment, Knox County will dissolve The Development Corporation, turn recruitment and perhaps management of business parks over to the Knoxville Chamber and convey land owned by TDC to the county’s Industrial Development Board. Todd Napier, 20-year veteran and chief executive officer of TDC, has given notice and will be leaving in early June.

Napier was offered a position at the Chamber but with less authority and pay, said a source close to the situation. Napier did not return a phone call on Thursday.

The Development Corporation was created in 1991 under then County Executive Dwight Kessel. Its mission was to identify, purchase, develop and sell land for out-of-town business relocation. Melissa Ziegler was the first director. Kessel had observed the effectiveness of the city’s KCDC and he wanted some of that for the county. Dwight didn’t call back Thursday either. Maybe everybody’s on vacation.

Napier joined the TDC as development director in 2001. He holds a degree in mechanical engineering from Tennessee Tech and a master’s in urban and regional planning from the University of Tennessee.

Mayors Glenn Jacobs and Indya Kincannon want a new direction. The April 7 ribbon-cutting at the Midway Business Park was laughable for land purchased during the Ragsdale administration – some 16 years ago – with not a whit of interest from a prospective buyer.

Things are stalled for sure, but who is to blame:

  • Todd Napier?
  • A two-headed recruitment system split between the Chamber and TDC?
  • Bad deals – too much money paid for undesirable land?

How we got here:

Tom Ingram, wizard-of-all-things, was recruited to head an expanded organization – the Knox Area Chamber Partnership (1998-2002). His idea was to merge a range of public/private entities under the Chamber umbrella, and he went after the Sports Corp., headed by Gloria Ray, and The Development Corporation, headed by Ziegler, among others. Ray and her board battled back, keeping what is now Visit Knoxville intact; Ziegler had a weaker board. The Development Corporation folded into the Chamber and by the next year, Ziegler was gone.

Mike Edwards headed the Chamber from 2002-2019. He spent 17 years trying to reform public education (a trained workforce, y’all) and untangle the Ingram disruptions. Edwards and the Chamber board spun off TDC in 2012. The Development Corporation stayed at the Chamber office, but Napier gained autonomy and the title of president/CEO.

Mike Odom replaced Edwards in 2020, and he apparently likes a top-down model. Napier could work for him or be gone.

Who cares?

  • Proponents of limited government, like Mayor Glenn Jacobs, ought to quit “recruitment outsourcing,” whether to the Chamber or TDC. The profit motive is alive in folks like Tim Graham, Mike Hatcher, Tim Hill and Budd Cullom. Stand back and watch.
  • Citizens with one eye connected to a brain. Who thinks Thorn Grove Pike at Midway Road is a good spot for a business park? Obviously, no one looking to locate a business here. It’s next door to a cemetery, folks, with not even a McDonald’s at the interstate exit.
  • People who loves parks. Tommy Schumpert Park was built on land bought originally by TDC for a business park. The remote, wooded hillside next to a rifle range makes a fine park, but nobody wanted to build a warehouse or factory there. Someday, Midway may make a fine park for the Thorn Grove community. I will lobby for naming it after Bill Emmert and Grace Brooks.

Bonus: Here’s an analysis of how Midway cost Brad Anders the mayor’s race.

Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today.

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