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“State of the County” report details demographics and landscape of region

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second article in an ongoing series on land use and development in the Knoxville Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). Look for future articles covering industrial land, nearby counties, and more in upcoming editions of Teknovation Weekend.)

By Kailyn Lamb, Marketing Content Writer and Editor, PYA

Earlier this year, Knox County took its first step in an 18-month project that will create an integrated land use and transportation plan, by releasing the “Advance Knox State of the County Report.” Because it is the basis on which many decisions will be made, we thought it was important to spotlight the report.

The 44-page document starts with a letter from Mayor Glenn Jacobs saying there is a “laser focus” on jobs, education, and recreation. Teknovation Weekend readers will recall from the first article in this series that the impact of land becoming more expensive has a ripple effect on cost of living, talent retention, and more.

“It is important that as our growth continues, we are deliberate about managing where development occurs, improving infrastructure, and making decisions that positively impact our diverse residency and their quality of life,” Jacobs wrote in the report. He also encouraged residents to stay engaged as the county develops its Comprehensive Plan.

While the report focuses on the unincorporated areas of Knox County, the planning process also acknowledged the close relationship between the county, City of Knoxville, and the City of Farragut, and they are being coordinated with.

“State of the County” is divided into four sections: People, Place, Prosperity, and Infrastructure.

People

The first section of the report looks into demographics and population growth in Knox County. Between 1980 and 2020, the county’s population grew by 50 percent, jumping from 320,000 to 479,000. This growth is expected to continue, with an estimated 39,000 residents coming to the county by 2030.

In a nine-county region in East Tennessee (including Union, Grainger, Jefferson, Sevier, Blount, Loudon, Roane, Anderson, and Knox counties), Knox holds 48 percent of the 996,000 residents. Blount, Loudon, and Sevier counties have all seen growth of 9 percent or higher in recent years. Projections show that by 2040, the region’s population will exceed 1.1 million, a gain of nearly 147,000 people in the 20 years since the 2020 baseline. The projections also estimate Knox County will remain the most populous of the nine-county region, capturing 53 percent of that growth.

In Knox County’s current population of 478,971, more than 55 percent live outside of Knoxville and Farragut. Of the remainder, 5 percent live in Farragut while 40 percent live in Knoxville. From 1980 to 2020, the number of residents in unincorporated Knox County almost doubled, but that trend has been slowing in the last few years.

The fastest growing age group has been those 55 and older. This trend is in line with state and national statistics. The area also has a high number of college-age residents due to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. However, the number of adults 25-34 grew by only 1 percent, compared to 13 percent statewide, showing the county is not retaining people after graduation. According to the Knoxville Chamber’s “Path to Prosperity” plan, it is crucial to recruit this age group to the region for talent, jobs, and the economic future of East Tennessee.

According to the report, cost of living is a comparative spending measure that includes more than 30 types of consumer goods and services and is reported as a percentage of the national average. Knox County is around 89 percent of the national average. Surrounding counties are anywhere from around 83 to 93 percent. The county’s median income ($73,528) is higher than the statewide median income ($54,833). Around 7.4 percent or 19,000 residents were below the poverty line in 2020 compared to the statewide rate of more than 14 percent.

Place

The second chapter of the report focuses more on the physical characteristics that make-up Knox County. This includes land use and environmental features, many of which are important to the beauty and recreation that draw potential residents to the area. “Those natural characteristics are cherished by those who live in the county and have also shaped where and how growth has occurred,” the report says.

Knox County encompasses 526 square miles, with around 23 percent of that in incorporated areas of Knoxville or Farragut. In 2000, slightly more than half of the county’s land was undeveloped. Now, around 43 percent of land remains undeveloped. In unincorporated areas, around 53 percent of the land is undeveloped. Areas that are developed tend to have fewer environmental constraints and access to utilities.

The average size of land parcels in unincorporated Knox County that can be developed is 23.5 acres. This means there is potential for new sub-divisions and large-scale development. The report includes maps that show some geographical features, such as floodways and steep slopes, that may hinder development.

Currently, Knox County has a sprawling, low-density development pattern. This means there are higher infrastructure costs, higher personal transportation costs, loss of open space, and fewer options for walking and biking.

Permits for development have been steadily trending upward since 2011, but have not reached pre-recession levels, according to the report. In 2021, there were 2,362 new residential units permitted. The average from 2011 to 2021 was 1,649 units.

Residential development has mostly been focused on single-family housing. In the past five years, 10,242 homes have been built, primarily around the western area that is north and south of Interstate 40. Of those homes, 81 percent have been in unincorporated areas. There have been 7,075 multi-family units built in the same time frame, with 35 percent in unincorporated areas.

Page 24 of the report includes detailed maps of infrastructure and utilities including the names and service areas of the companies that provide them.

Prosperity

This section is a deep dive into the economics that drive the region, starting with Knox County’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The GDP makes up all the goods and services produced here, which is nearly $24 billion. The vast majority of this total (89 percent) comes from the private sector and is consistent over time. Knox County supports an estimated 61 percent of the economy in the Knoxville Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA).

The average annual wage in Knox County in 2020 was $53,662, nearly 35 percent higher than what it was in 2010. From 2010 until the pandemic, employment growth averaged around 1 percent per year. It declined in 2020, making the 10-year average growth around 9 percent. The county lost more than 10,000 jobs between 2019 and 2020, due to the pandemic.

A keynote for teknovation.biz readers, one out of every five employees in Knox County is an entrepreneur. Healthcare and social services make up the largest employers in the county, followed by the retail trade. Many of the employment sectors saw changes from 2018 to 2020. Transportation and warehousing grew 10 times during that time frame, from 1,000 employees to 10,000. The report says that Knox County’s central location in the MSA and an increase in online shopping and distribution have been key drivers of this growth.

Approximately 55 percent of the people living here also work in Knox County, with the remainder commuting to surrounding counties. Younger populations, those aged 29 and under, make up 66 percent of the in-county workers. On the other hand, an average of 24 percent of the workforce in nine out of the 10 top employment sectors is over the age of 55, meaning a large number of workers are nearing retirement age.

Nearly 64 percent of the county’s 98,578 housing units are owner-occupied. Single-family units make up the largest portion of housing units in the unincorporated area. As readers have learned from our previous coverage, housing demand is rising, but inventory is declining (read the “State of Housing Report” article here.) The “State of the County” report reiterated that housing is becoming unaffordable for more and more residents in the area.

Infrastructure

This section is looking mainly at mobility and the transportation network throughout the county. Most of the roadways in Knox County are classified as arterials, but there are local roads and collectors (a street providing short-distance traffic movement between local streets and arterials).

Of the 20 million car trips taken between August 2021 and February 2022, 29 percent of them were people driving home, followed by 23 percent each for work and shopping. This, and other data collected by the county and other organizations gives an “at-a-glance” look at how people use mobility and transportation in the area. Other important data points for the county included more than 140 miles of sidewalks, a mean travel time of 23.7 minutes to get to work, crash data, bike routes, and public transportation use.

The full report can be found here.

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