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Knoxville Mayoral candidates support creation of an Innovation District

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

From all indications, the next Mayor of Knoxville is fully committed to establishing an Innovation District in the city.

Both Indya Kincannon and Eddie Mannis told the nearly 300 attendees at Tuesday’s annual “Startup Day” in Knoxville that they are supporters of the concept that has been chronicled by the Brookings Institution and adopted in a number of other metropolitan areas including Chattanooga which has become a poster child for Brookings.

During a discussion moderated by Kristin Farley of WATE-TV, it was difficult to see much in the way of philosophical differences between the two candidates in the November runoff to succeed Madeline Rogero who is term-limited. While attendees might have expected more differences, they should have left the event pleased that both candidates expressed strong support for their priority on growing the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

In their opening comments, Kincannon and Mannis outlined their key areas of emphasis, at least in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship. The former stated at the beginning and reiterated on several occasions her commitment to attracting, cultivating and retaining talent. Kincannon said two areas will play strong roles in the achievement of those goals – an emphasis on quality of life, something that many people believe is a strong asset of the region, and a more robust infrastructure that supports innovation.

In addition to support for an Innovation District, Mannis reiterated ideas that he has previously discussed including the creation of an Office of Economic Development that will include a Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Both candidates declined to say where an Innovation District might be located. The vacant TVA East Tower is one possibility mentioned.

“It might be an innovation block at some point,” Mannis said. “I’m not going to decide where that physical space will be,” Kincannon said, emphasizing that she will work with others to make the determination.

Both seemed to agree that Knoxville has built a strong brand image around being a Maker Community, but they seemed to shy away from saying that was the one brand to emphasize nationally in response to a question from Farley about Nashville (Music City) and Chattanooga (Gig City) as well-known brands in other Tennessee metro areas.

“I love the moniker,” Kincannon said of the Maker City, but also noted the region’s reputation for energy. She suggested clean energy might be the brand to emphasize along the lines of the “City of Energy Innovation.”

Mannis suggested more work needed to be done. “Knoxville has so many great things that we don’t know how to brand ourselves,” he said. “The Maker City is one . . . (but) . . .  we have so many opportunities.”

Both agreed that emphasis needed to be placed on minority entrepreneurship and addressing the digital divide.

In their closing remarks, Kincannon went first, saying, “I want to be innovative” and stressed a bottom-up rather than top-down approach. Mannis stressed that “there’s not a city around that has more potential than us,” saying that he wants to harness those assets.

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