From the sixth floor of the Knoxville City County Building overlooking the Tennessee River, the two government officials who wield the most clout in Knoxville share a bird’s-eye view of their handiwork.
Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett may be political opposites, but when it comes to improving the economic fortunes of their community, they share more than a vantage point.
Rogero, a Democrat, has held office since 2011. Burchett, a Republican, has held office since 2010.
Recently, the two leaders sat down with the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley Guide to discuss their respective roles in supporting economic development in the city and county.
When it comes to corporate site selection, what are your community’s biggest assets?
ROGERO: Our workforce, excellent schools, community college system, established training programs, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the University of Tennessee. The access to talent and research in Knoxville is unparalleled. Employers have access to a whole range of skills. And thanks to the Tennessee Promise program, more young people in Tennessee have access to higher education today than ever before.
BURCHETT: Our best asset is our people. We take a lot of pride in the quality of our workforce in Knox County. They are wonderful people. Our trade schools are filled to capacity. There are more trade schools in our area than you will find almost anywhere else in America.
How do the two of you work together to support economic development?
ROGERO: Our regional goals work so well together. We have an East Tennessee Mayors’ Caucus that collaborates on regional issues. Whenever we are working to secure an expansion or relocation project, we acknowledge that wherever it lands in the region, we all benefit. Local governments in East Tennessee cooperate closely. We present a unified front and work to eliminate barriers to entry. We also have a good relationship with the state.
BURCHETT: The leadership in this region is seamless. Madeline and I talk every day about issues that affect both the city and the county. The folks that work at Denso and ORNL live in Knox County, so it behooves all of us to work together to solve common problems.
Why are so many companies choosing to grow in Innovation Valley?
BURCHETT: This is a community that is very peaceful and welcoming toward business. There is a great tax climate in Tennessee, and this is a right-to-work state. We believe that businesses are in business to make money, and the businesses that are choosing to locate here see that. Several major corporations have decided to locate here in the last five years, and that has created an environment where success feeds on success.
ROGERO: The confluence of Interstates 81, 75 and 40 makes this area a natural choice for companies. They have access to a good workforce and a high quality of life. This is one of the most beautiful places in the USA. We have rivers and mountains, and great arts and culture.
Can you share some recent success stories?
BURCHETT: HGTV and other properties of Scripps Networks Interactive continue to grow here. Movies are shooting here. They have found that it is much cheaper for them to film here. Companies cannot believe the value of real estate here. We have safe, clean neighborhoods, and we offer property at great values.
ROGERO: The human resources directors of U.S. Cellular and Scripps have told me that once they get employees here, they can’t move them out. Everyone wants to stay in Knoxville. Advanced manufacturing is growing at ORNL and other area employers. We are now at the forefront of the composites and carbon fiber sector.
Why does this region seem to produce so many entrepreneurs?
ROGERO: We are very proactive in encouraging entrepreneurship in Knoxville. The Anderson Center at UT is just one example. But the biggest reason is because we support it. When the Mayors’ Conference on Entrepreneurship was held, I hosted it with the Kauffman Foundation. We have a lot of resourceful people here. Between the UT Research Foundation, ORNL, Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus and other local ventures, entrepreneurs have access to a wide variety of tremendous resources in this region.
BURCHETT: I think it goes back to our culture and our history. In East Tennessee, people tend to have that “I’ll fix it myself” mentality. People are resourceful here. A good example is our recent Young Professionals Conference. It drew 560 young leaders from all over the region, and these folks are coming up with some of the very best business ideas I’ve ever seen.
Do you have any unfinished business that you’d like to complete before your term ends?
ROGERO: We invest a lot in infrastructure in Knoxville. We are constantly replacing old pipes and making other improvements to our streets and utilities. We want to work to complete a lot of these projects, such as the revitalization of downtown and our commercial corridors. We want to continue to bring in new private investment. Our South Waterfront and Greenways Plan are two of our top unfinished priorities.
BURCHETT: Our No. 1 goal is to pay down $70 million in debt and have a great bond rating. Next, we want to have a major business park come on line in 2017 and make sure we have shovel-ready sites that are open for development.
Any advice for business leaders who may be considering an Eastern location?
ROGERO: When it comes to meeting their needs, the city and the county are aligned. We may have different responsibilities, but any prospective new business will experience no friction here.
The Brookings Institution noted that we were one of the first three cities in America to fully recover from the Great Recession. We are all the way back.
BURCHETT: Madeline is right. There is no boom or bust here. We are very stable, and we work incredibly well together.
We used to say that we were the best-kept secret in the country, but now we think the secret is out. It’s well known nationally that East Tennessee has become a high-tech hub. Come and check us out.