(EDITOR’S NOTE: The article that follows is the latest in a series of profiles on the parks in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley and their unique roles in accelerating the growth of technology-based enterprises in the region.)
Much has been written about Knox County’s lack of large industrial tracks, but little has been written about the team approach that the community’s economic development executives are taking to create new opportunities for the state’s third most populous county.
In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, two of those key executives – Doug Lawyer and Todd Napier – readily acknowledged the former while continually emphasizing the latter. Lawyer is the Knoxville Chamber’s Vice President of Economic Development, while Napier is Executive Vice President of The Development Corporation of Knox County (TDC).
“We are somewhat unique compared to other communities, but we have a real partnership,” Napier said in citing the work of TDC, the Chamber, and the two local Industrial Development Boards. Lawyer agreed, saying, “Todd and I and others have some rich debates. It’s not always easy, but it works.”
The “integrated” approach, as Napier described it, was clearly evident during the interview as one of the two would occasionally complete a thought or sentence that the other started. It is somewhat understandable because Lawyer started his economic development career at TDC until 12 years ago, and the two have worked together very closely for years.
While earlier articles in the “Parks of the Innovation Valley” series described counties with considerable acreage available, Napier acknowledged that Knox County has a “deficit” in industrial sites. He said the largest single industrial site is probably 100 acres in Eastbridge, and Knox County has no more than 350 acres in all of TDC’s parks. Those include Eastbridge (totally focused on industrial uses), WestBridge (also an industrial park), Hardin (light manufacturing), Pellissippi Corporate (service and light industrial), and Centerpoint (headquarters).
“Land available in Knox County is relatively expensive,” Napier added in referencing property that might be turned into a new business park. “This puts us at a potentially competitive disadvantage as viewed by prospects.”
Lawyer expanded on the point by noting that Knoxville and Knox County “bump-up against” communities like Austin, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Greenville, Lexington and Oklahoma City in vying for prospects.
“We rarely compete against Nashville and Memphis,” he noted.
Lawyer said that local incentives allow Knox County to compete with any community. Napier added, “We can be as creative as any community with financing, training and retrofitting,” not considering the added benefit of incentives that might come from the state or Tennessee Valley Authority.
“Land is our biggest challenge,” Napier said and Lawyer readily agreed. The two quickly reviewed history that started about five years ago when TDC’s board and County Commission challenged the staff to identify property for a new business park. The Midway site was rezoned and later purchased by TDC. The rezoning was subsequently overturned by the courts. By then, the County Commission composition had changed, and the new members did not support the rezoning, leaving Knox County with the shortage of industrially-suited that it currently has.
Available land, however, is not the only challenge that Napier and Lawyer encounter. Both cited land typography, which makes site preparation more expensive; high airfare for business travelers – “a long-term issue”; and competition with states that collect personal income taxes from individuals and then rebate the tax collected from the employees back to their employers.
In spite of these and other challenges, Napier and Lawyer were upbeat about the long-term prospects for Knox County. Napier did want to dispel one perception about TDC.
“It is not true that we try to steer companies toward Development Corporation property,” he said. “We help them find the best site in Knox County to meet their needs.”
Lawyer reinforced the point, explaining the Chamber’s approach. “You (company) have a need. Let’s find the best location that works for you.”
One of the areas that TDC is increasingly emphasizing is entrepreneurship, specifically operation of the Fairview Technology Center that houses a number of start-ups. It has not always been that way.
Napier explained that the Center was a concept initially promoted by then County Executive Dwight Kessel. A former elementary school in the Solway community was converted to office, R & D, and light assembly space for start-up companies.
Just recently, TDC and the Chamber joined with several other organizations to host the fourth annual “What’s the Big Idea?” business competition. This event helps underscore the collaboration between the two organizations – promoting economic development from the creation of a start-up company that can benefit from the Fairview Center to recruiting companies to the region.
“One of the best parts of economic development is feeling like you are making a difference,” Napier said.