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Downtown Changes | How upgrades aim to attract, retain more people amid housing demand in Knoxville

By Kailyn Lamb, Former Marketing Content Writer and Editor, PYA

Video produced by Shannon Smith, Assistant Editor, PYA

A lot is changing in Downtown Knoxville. All these projects are likely to bring more people to the area, whether for special events or to live in the hustle and bustle of Knoxville.

At teknovation.biz, we decided to speak with various leaders in the area to see what these changes might mean for Knoxville, as well as for businesses there.

Doug Lawyer, Vice President of Economic Development with the Knoxville Chamber, said the new multi-use stadium, which will begin construction in 2023, is an “amazing addition of civic furniture.” He added the Chamber uses that term when talking about projects that might aid the Chamber and its partners in their work to improve talent recruitment and retention in the city, particularly in the 25-55 age group.

Lauren Longmire, Director of Regional Enhancement with the Chamber, added these pieces of civic furniture have more impact on retention than they used to since remote work has become more prominent.

“Now, with how mobile our young professionals can be, particularly with hybrid work environments, really the main thing that those young professionals are looking for is quality of place,” she said. “Things like those civic furniture pieces, those are the kinds of things that are going to make a young professional stay.”

Don Bruce, Director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research, added he believes the Chamber has been successful in recruiting industries that will hire young professionals, and particularly University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) graduates. Some of the country’s most successful large businesses were also started here, including Pilot Flying J and Clayton Homes.

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“Knoxville, I think, has a proud history of really strong locally grown business enterprises,” Bruce said. “Those companies, to our great benefit, have always invested in the community, and I think they view this as a way to invest in the community is to hire local people.”

Many of the upcoming changes in the pipeline are coming from new investors. Money that was previously going into developments in the rest of Knoxville, is now going downtown.

“But then the other layer of that is you’ve got a lot of outside money now coming in,” Alan Sims, otherwise known as the Knoxville Urban Guy, said. “So, these bigger projects are not being funded locally.”

With this much development happening downtown, one of the first questions that come to mind is, what kind of housing is being built? Teknovation has done a lot of recent writing on the housing market. A recent story from Knox News stated many of the residents already here can’t find housing, and Knox County will see a population increase of 79,000 people by 2040.

Sims agreed, saying he doesn’t think Knoxville is building the density it needs. Many of the housing projects that are going up are getting filled immediately and have waitlists, Emmett said. Right now, Michele Hummel, Executive Director of the Downtown Knoxville Alliance, said the main area of downtown the Alliance covers has 55 existing residential properties with around 2,000 units. She estimated there are around 3,300 residents in the core area. Suburban sprawl where smaller housing or single-family homes are put on larger pieces of land continues to be a problem.

Hummel added that development will only get harder as spaces are being filled in the downtown area.

“From the development side, a lot of things have gotten a little bit harder because a lot of the low-hanging fruit and easy buildings have been converted,” she said. “We’re left with some that are doing some infill, or some of the bigger projects, and those are getting knocked off [too.]”

RELATED: Knoxville businesses show hiring trends stay local in latest ECO report

For young professionals, this is becoming an uphill battle. Affordable housing is hard to find for recent graduates or those just starting off in their careers. Bruce said the housing shortage is impacting students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville as well.

“The University of Tennessee has dramatically increased enrollment in the last couple of years, but certainly this year, [which] places upward pressure on lots of things,” he said. “We definitely are exposed in terms of our housing shortage right now, to the extent that the university has leased out a hotel for the entire year. We just don’t have enough places for our students to live.”

Bruce added he is hopeful housing costs will start to level out in the next several years, but first, the supply of housing needs to catch up with the demand.

Lawyer said he was excited to hear the recent announcement of new development in the Knoxville Community Development Cooperation’s Western Heights area, which is slated to bring in hundreds of new units. Although it’s not in the downtown core, it will help add both affordable and entry-level housing to the community.

“Those types of opportunities are gold for a community like this. And we just, we need to scale it up,” he said.

Check back next Saturday in the Weekend Edition for the third and final installment in this series, which looks at how public transportation is keeping up with growth and connecting all parts of Knoxville.

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