Blount County focuses on development and land use that will keep it unique
By Kailyn Lamb, Marketing Content Writer and Editor, PYA
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third article in an ongoing series on land use and development in the Knoxville Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). Look for future articles covering industrial land, and talent retention in upcoming editions of Teknovation Weekend.)
As we have reflected in our previous land use coverage, Knox County is the geographical center of a larger community of counties known as the Knoxville Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). While the relationship between these counties is symbiotic, with workers coming from the MSA to work in Knoxville and vice versa, they also have their own economies and land use styles to take into consideration.
We spoke with Bryan Daniels, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Blount Partnership, to learn more about what’s happening there. The Blount Partnership is an organization that includes the Blount County Chamber of Commerce, and tourism office, as well as the Industrial Development Board of Blount County that collects data and information on industry and jobs.
Daniels reflected on his 21 years of working with the county and what’s changed over time. One of the biggest changes is trying to attract workers instead of larger companies.
“It’s amazing how our profession has shifted from being primarily about developing out business parks to now building clusters that leverage the workforce,” he said. “Now, we’re really fully into community development to develop a workforce.”
When building an economic development plan for Blount County, Daniels said the Partnership used to focus on attracting families to the area. But now, that’s no longer enough, and the county is eying people just starting in their careers. The rise in remote work has also made it important to consider workers who are not tied to a local business.
“You’ve got to make room and be a place that the young folks entering the workforce want to be because they live in a world where they can reside wherever they want to,” he said.
Other things that Blount County takes into consideration are where it makes the most sense for attainable housing to be located and what people want their urban centers to look like. To get people to stay here, such as the 1,200 students that graduate from Blount County schools every year, Daniels said they need to focus on instilling a sense of community.
Having the workforce has also become a crucial step in getting companies to Blount County. Drawing in companies is not as much about tax incentives anymore, although that is still part of the process, Daniels said. Now, it’s more focused on does an area have the workforce necessary for that company to be successful and grow.
“Tax incentives are short money, and when you’re relocating or growing a company in a community, you’re looking for the long-term value proposition,” he said. “We all have to compete to get projects, but it’s now more weighted on the workforce development piece than anything else.”
Another important aspect of development for the Blount Partnership is avoiding being a copycat of other places. Planning for what the county wants to look like decades into the future, Daniels said “we don’t want to be ‘Anywhere, USA,’ that’s the term we use. We want it to be indicative of the culture that’s here.”
This also means having a resilient economy that’s not dependent on the Knoxville area, Daniels said.
“We know that we are part of the MSA, and we cooperate and appreciate that, but at the same time, we don’t want to be a community that’s totally reliant on the actions of Knoxville.”
Because one-third of the county is in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, greenspace is an important part of Blount County’s identity. Daniels said that while the city limits in Maryville and Alcoa are seeing the most growth, the rural areas are seeing growth as well.
County leadership is working on zoning restrictions there to avoid any “cookie-cutter” sub-divisions. For Blount County, that means a more clustered development model where densely spaced buildings are surrounded by a protected green space. Daniels added they are building out the greenway system by connecting the Blount County greenways in Alcoa and Maryville to ones in Knoxville. In the future, the community plans to extend the greenway system to allow people to get to Townsend. Daniels also said there is a goal to better connect greenways to business parks. The idea is to help provide people with alternative modes of transportation to where they work.
However, what the county is finding is that everyone has a different definition of what cluster development means. County leadership is bringing in development experts to get everyone on the same page with terminology. Daniels said he is hopeful that they can then marry that process with the types of developments residents of Blount County are OK with.
“I do think the leadership in the county recognizes that they can’t stop growth. You’re either growing or you’re dying,” Daniels said. “What they can do, as these properties turn over, is put in zoning or regulations that don’t allow it to be a cookie-cutter development that allows it to look like Anywhere, USA. They’re unique to the landscape.”
Daniels said there’s a surge in the market for acquiring both residential and commercial property in Blount County right now. It’s forcing a conversation with county leadership about balancing rising housing expenses and the lower cost of living which has drawn new residents to the area in the past. One way to fight rising costs is to have more units on a piece of land.
To help build the next generation of business parks, the Blount Partnership is working to acquire additional land. This goes hand-in-hand with the county’s work to develop housing, Daniels said. Several of these mixed-use projects, which include both commercial and residential space, are in the pipeline for Blount County, he added.
The Partnership is currently working on the redevelopment of the downtown Maryville area. It is collaborating with local developers and buying areas of downtown to re-capitalize it to make it a destination, again keeping young workers in mind. The City of Alcoa is also working on building housing projects with commercial aspects as well. Daniels calls them more “holistic communities.”
To meet some of the housing needs they have now, the Blount Partnership is partnering in Pellissippi Place to put together condos that have an “urban flavor,” according to Daniels. The county’s development partner on the project has seen success in Nashville with similar projects. While it won’t satisfy all the needs the county has for housing, he said it’s a start.
The technology park has seen its share of challenges over the years, including a Tennessee Department of Transportation project to realign the interstate and one of the Partnership’s development partners going into bankruptcy. Daniels said the Partnership is recreating a new master plan for Pellissippi place and added that more commercial and residential projects will be added this year.
“That whole tech park is designed to be a mixed-use development of where you live there, you work there, you play there. It’s a planned community,” he said.