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February 14, 2021 | Tom Ballard

Flat growth in all-important 25- to 54-year old age group raises concerns for Knoxville region’s future

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

With first-year enrollment at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville reaching an all-time high last fall and one of the state’s largest community colleges being located here, Knoxville is clearly attracting numerous college age individuals to the community.

Add to the mix the region’s quality of life, business friendly environment, and a vibe that permeated Downtown Knoxville pre-pandemic, and it is logical for local residents to think that the proverbial plate is set for the sort of growth envisaged by the recent Techstars assessment. After all, it has been said for years that students who come from other regions to go to college frequently marry, establish roots, start families, and remain there.

Well, if you think that’s the case, Mike Odom, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Knoxville Chamber, can set you straight quickly with one very troubling statistic. Over the decade that began in 2010 and ended in 2019, the Knoxville region grew the all-important 25- to 54-year old age group by less than one-half of one percent!

No, that’s not a typo. After the puts and takes – those moving into the region and those moving out, the greater Knoxville region added a total of 163 individuals in that demographic group over the 10-year period.

“It is a major problem that we are going to be ringing the bell about,” Odom says, noting that it is individuals in 25- to 54-year old age group who start businesses, buy houses, fill critical jobs, and spend more than others. “The data just blew us away.”

Think Knoxville is similar to other cities with which it competes? Think again.

Other vibrant ecosystems that local residents frequently cite as peers or models are doing much better. Asheville, NC grew the same demographic by 6.6 percent, while it rose by 6.5 percent in Greenville, SC; a not surprising 14.7 percent in Nashville; and a whopping 18.2 percent in Raleigh, NC excluding Durham and Chapel Hill. Chattanooga posted a 3.5 percent increase. Only Memphis among 10 cities that the Knoxville Chamber evaluated reported a decline.

On the younger and older demographics, the region fares better, reporting a 21 percent growth rate in the 55 and older age group, suggesting the region is becoming a retirement community. Not surprising, there’s been good growth – 6.9 percent – in the 15- to 24-year old demographic, something Odom says is consistent with the growth of that group in most communities. All the data were included in the October 2020 edition of the Chamber’s ECO report.

“Our hypothesis is that the growth in high school and college age is offset when this high-wage earner group leaves the region for jobs elsewhere, and then people come back home as retirees,” he explains.

To underscore the point about the college graduates leaving, Odom says that the nationally-recognized supply chain management program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville tops the institution’s list of producing the most undergraduates, yet the region is not a logistics hub like Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Memphis. Those graduates leave for jobs elsewhere.

The Techstars effort that is designed to help bring more national and even international attention to the region is one of the items driving Odom’s concerns. Another is the Chamber’s “Path to Prosperity” strategic plan where one of the key areas of emphasis is talent recruitment and retention.

“We must act quickly or we’re going to be in trouble,” he says.  Having moved here from Round Rock, TX, a suburb of Austin, Odom draws on his knowledge of that city and cites Nashville, another city experiencing phenomenal growth.

“We have to increase our coolness factor,” he says, explaining how Austin has been able to attract very over-qualified people to the city because those individuals wanted to live there, and the jobs that could draw on their skills soon followed. The same “coolness factor” has been an asset for Nashville which has been successfully bringing very talented people in that 25- to 54-year old age group, only to have companies like Amazon and AllianceBernstein open massive operations in Music City because of the talent base.

“When he was Mayor of Metro Nashville, Phil Bredesen talked about the concept of civic furniture,” Odom says, explaining that you have a house, in this case a city or region, but the key question centers on how much and how good is the furniture in that home. “We have a great region and some of the key pieces of furniture, but there are missing items.”

Fortunately, the “work from anywhere” transformation that is occurring nationally because of COVID-19 offers real opportunities for the region to attract 25- to 54-year old individuals. Tennessee was ranked at the top of a recent report from U-Haul on net one-way rentals, Knoxville came in at #7 in the same report where U-Haul listed the “Top 25 U.S. Growth Cities,” and United Van Lines ranked the Volunteer State #7 in terms on net people moving-in.

“COVID has given us a competitive opportunity,” Odom says. “We need to take advantage of that by getting people to boomerang back and also attract others who can work from anywhere.”

In his view, a key component in our success will be adding more “civic furniture” to the existing mix. That includes a more welcoming environment for and assets that are attractive to underrepresented groups.

“We’ve got to be willing to take some chances,” he adds, citing as examples major initiatives in Music City that resulted in an arena that brought the Nashville Predators to town and a new football stadium that moved a National Football League team from Houston to Nashville. Today, conversations are underway in Knoxville about a number of “civic furniture” enhancements such as the much discussed development in the Old City that would include a baseball stadium. Odom says another opportunity is the underutilized Downtown Island Home Airport which could be more of a community asset. After all, it could be a key launch point into the city’s Urban Wilderness.

He adds that the Knoxville Chamber Board of Directors has not taken positions on either of those.

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