Mayor Madeline Rogero

Now in her second term as mayor, Madeline Rogero discusses Knoxville, its budget, and her political future.

Photography by Keith Norris

George Korda: If your tenure as mayor ended today, what would you look back on with the greatest level of satisfaction?
Madeline Rogero: I think our improvements to sustainability in the city and our community would be one; the massive private investment that we’ve helped capitalize in our public investment would be another; our focus on trying to reduce violence and create greater opportunities, particularly for young men and boys of color, would be a third. Those would be my top three.

K: Now, there are callers to my radio show who say the Rogero administration is the Obama administration come to local government. What would you say in response?
R: I’d say, “Thank you for the compliment.” I think that President Obama stood for a lot of the same things that I stand for: to address issues related to climate, to address the most vulnerable in our community, and to create more jobs that work with the private sector. We saw a lot of progress during the Obama years, so I would take that as a compliment.

K: To what degree does concern with the Obama agenda among Knoxville residents affect you?
R: My agenda is in sync with people in this community. I had no opposition when I ran for reelection.

K: Since you raised the issue about election, voter turnout in open seat mayoral elections has declined precipitously. If this trend continues, how do you see it affecting the city of Knoxville?
R: We encourage people to vote. Both when Bill Haslam and I ran and Mark Padgett and I ran, we had pretty aggressive campaigns that reached out to a lot of people. In a non-mayor’s race, the turnout is not that high, so we’re actually being very proactive to encourage people to get out and vote.

K: Encouraging people to vote is a great thing, but if an increasingly small number of people care about who leads the city, what does it portend for the future of the city?
R: To reach out to people as mayor, we have a very inclusive public participation process for every new initiative that we present and for our actions as city government. We try to get people more involved. The best thing we can do as candidates and as elected officials is to encourage the people to understand when the elections are held, and to help make sure people understand what it is we’re working on. We do that through social media, through public meetings, and through interviews like this.

K: What’s the cost right now and the prognosis going forward of the city pension?
R: We still have an unfunded pension liability as most cities do; ours is very manageable. We fully fund not only our current year obligation but the actuarially proposed payments for the liability. Of course, one of the first things I did as mayor was to embark on a process to reform our pension plan.

Mayor Madeline Rogero

K: Between debt and the pension plan, how does this affect your ability to make big budget decisions?
R: We have the highest bond rating that the city has ever had—we’ve maintained that during my administration. We have a substantial fund balance, we are very well managed, and we are in a good financial position right now. We are about one hundred and sixty million dollars in debt, of which one hundred and five is the convention center. I’m sure you know that the convention center debt is paid through the special sales tax and the hotel motel taxes. There’s enough other revenue from certain targeted funds to pay for that debt. The next big decision to make is how to fund about a one-hundred and sixty-million-dollar new arena. We are working right now with some consultants to determine how in fact we can do that through some bond issuance, some capital fund balance, and projected new revenues coming in from development around the colosseum.

K: If that happens, is that the Rogero legacy project?
R: Well that would be one, I guess.

K: After mayor, what do you see as your political future?
R: I don’t know that I have a political future or that I want a political future after mayor. I am a city planner; I love what I do. I don’t have plans to run for another office. Whenever you’re in office, people assume that you’re always looking for that next position. I’m not looking for that.

K: Have you thought about or has anyone approached you about running for County Mayor?
R: I have been approached by people for several different positions, but like I said, I want to finish the job that I’m in now. I will probably take a nice long vacation and then decide what I want to do next.

K: Tax increment financing was once a tool seldom used for major projects, and now it seems like it’s used on a great many of them, for almost every project of substance that comes along downtown. What’s been the transition to tax increment financing, and how does it help the city?
R: Tax increment financing is one tool in our redevelopment tool box. When you look at the redevelopment of downtown, it closely tracks those tools that have been utilized both by previous administrations and by mine, so really what tax increment financing does is work as a gap filler when private equity and bank loans don’t reach the cost in terms of either an extensive renovation of an old building that is very difficult to bring up to today’s standards, or of a surface lot downtown where we require structure parking. We actually turn down projects that we don’t think warrant the numbers or are not of value to our downtown.

K: If you could remove any single thing that would help a mayor today do things for downtown in the city, would you take away the convention center, or would you leave it in place?
R: Today, I’d leave it in place. It’s actually doing pretty well these days, and we have great contractors. Hotels downtown are coming back, which is helping the convention center. As the economy is coming back, with good management of the facilities, and with all of the other amenities that Knoxville has to offer, we’re becoming a more attractive place for conventions, for tourism. In fact, Knox County has reached the one-billion-dollar mark in conventions and tourism for the first time. I think that the convention center is an asset at this time.

K: What do you think has been your most controversial decision as mayor?
R: I don’t know; you tell me.

K: Based on what I heard in the aftermath, it was the decision to extend same-sex benefits to city employees without a council vote.

R: I think they are domestic partner benefits, so that impacts both same-sex and opposite-sex couples that have long term financial relationships. Interestingly, that has had very little push back from anyone, truly. No one ever mentions that. I think if we had taken it to council, they would’ve supported it, but I didn’t have to. It was legally an administrative decision. I made it, and there has been very little push back from that.

K: That’s the one that I hear about the most. What do you think is the most controversial decision?
R: As you know, having been in the city government, there are some things that people support and some things that they don’t. I guess that’s the challenge in being in this position. Different decisions we’ve made, like pension reform, are controversial at the time. Some people thought we should do away with it; others thought it shouldn’t be changed at all.

K: This is a two-part question: On what areas do you work best with County Government, and where do you have a difference of opinion?
R: We work very well on most issues, actually. Obviously, we have different responsibilities, but Mayor Burchett and I communicate almost daily. As we prepare our budget, our finance people are in touch with his so we know what they’re doing, where it is that we are both going to contribute, and that we are in sync. On a number of issues, we are coordinating on a regular basis.

George Korda

K: I want to talk for a minute about immigrants coming to Knoxville. You said you want to be a welcoming city. How welcoming do you think Knoxville ought to be to someone who has broken the law to come here?
R: Well, I guess you could ask the businesses who are employing them, who are depending on them for their labor. That’s the reason why people come here. They are here because there are jobs, and they send that money home to help take care of their families. A lot of young people are coming here because of the violence in their countries. The reality is that our economy is doing very well because there’s a lot of extra labor here. I think the idea that we shouldn’t be welcoming because somebody broke the law to get here is sort of the biggest lie in our country right now. Now if somebody comes in here illegally or not and they are violent criminals, we want them out of here. But somebody who is coming here to make a better life for themselves, a safer place for their children, and in fact are contributing to our economy—yes, I’m going to be as welcoming as I can.

K: If somebody says, “Mayor, I read what you said about illegal immigrants coming to the city of Knoxville. I don’t want people here who are breaking American law by being here.” I’m asking you, does that make that individual intolerant or bigoted?
R: No. I disagree with them on the issue.

K: A good deal of city funding is coming through passed-down exemptions. But those aren’t being used much, anymore. As budgets increase and purchases become more expensive, you’ve got a finite geographic area with a relatively stable population. It would seem you only have sales tax and property taxes to fund city government. Long term, without some other means of revenue, is that a viable place for the city to be?
R: It’s true. For years, as the core of the community and wealth left downtown, previous mayors went after it through annexation. What the city has to do now, and what we have in fact been doing for a number of years, is reinvesting, rebuilding from the core out instead of chasing the wealth. I remember, when I worked for Mayor Haslam, we talked about two of our greatest opportunities for redevelopment and new growth in the city: along the south waterfront and along the I-275 corridor. That’s what we’ve been focusing on. That’s why we put major investment along Cumberland Avenue. That seventeen million dollars of investment has now brought in over two-hundred-and-ten million of private investment. You’re seeing businesses coming in and investing in all of those corridors: Magnolia, Broadway, Central, Sevier Avenue, and Cumberland. We’re reinvesting strategically with public dollars, then we’re seeing maximum private investment come in.

K: Cumberland is interesting. It was crowded when it was four lanes, and now it’s going to two lanes. To what degree do you sympathize or empathize with people who are concerned about their businesses, just on the basis that there’s simply going to be fewer lanes of traffic people can use?
R: We care very much what the property owners and businesses think. That’s why we’ve engaged them from the very beginning in the planning process. The Cumberland Avenue Merchants Association is very active. They support the efforts. Not everybody agrees with everything, so I’m sure there are some who are still unhappy, but by and large, I am confident that the majority of the merchants and property owners have been supportive and are supportive because they work with us on a daily basis to make it a successful project. Yes, in the past there were four lanes, two in each direction. It was very dysfunctional because there was no turn lane, and it was not safe for pedestrians. The idea is to make this a more pedestrian-friendly environment and to encourage people to come down to the strip and support the restaurants and stores who bring new developments. I think you will see traffic will slow down a bit, but not much because it was dysfunctional before. This is changing the function of Cumberland Avenue. I think it’s going to be a much more attractive—a more functional and a different type of environment, one that will serve the university, the students, and all of those folks that are now living and will be living along Cumberland Avenue.

K: Are you in effect creating or wanting to create a variation of Market Square along Cumberland, only with traffic?
R: I don’t know if Cumberland Avenue is the same as the square because cars will be there, but the whole purpose is to be pedestrian oriented—a place for tens of thousands to go for food, recreation, and entertainment. Just as they do with the Old City and downtown.

K: The City County Building garage has been cut off from public use now for fourteen or fifteen years, and the rationale for closing it was security. At the same time, government employees get a real break on what they pay to park in that garage. I have never believed, despite the studies, that this decision had anything to do with security. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have opened it up on weekends to make money by parking cars in there for football games and special events. Do you have any thoughts, plans, or ideas about returning that garage to public use?
R: That started after 9/11 for security purposes because you have your courts and judges there. I agree that it’s unfortunate that there is not closer parking for the general public. When the court system, the sheriff’s department, and the police department look at it, their recommendation is that it should continue to be sealed off when the employees are there. The reason why it’s allowed on the weekends is that there is no city staff there, and the courts aren’t open.

K: What are some of the things you are working on right now?
R: What we’ve done over the last five-and-a-half years is work on a number of different topics. One is economic development. We work closely with the private sector, with the business community, and with the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley, to recruit and expand businesses. We have the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and multiple activities throughout the year to encourage entrepreneurship and provide entrepreneurs the support they need. There’s the whole Knox Makers community that’s just built a new headquarters in the basement of the East Tennessee Technology Access center. We are seeing some economic development results, like Magnum Venus Products, which just announced a big expansion. The House of Thaller is doing so well with their food products that they’re opening up a new facility in Knoxville just for hummus production. We have focused on sustainability, with goals to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by twenty percent from our 2005 levels. We’re about to change out our street lights; about 30,000 street lights will be retrofitted to more efficient LED lights. We are also promoting a lot of green development: in our city parks for example, like Suttree Landing. Additionally, we have focused on the quality of our greenways. Under Mayor Ashe, many of these wonderful greenways were created; now we want to connect them so you can seamlessly ride throughout our city. When I was running, there were some business people who told me that it was hard to do business with the city. Therefore, we opened an business support office to help those who don’t understand the rules and regulations. We’re about to move many of our departments that deal with development, like the fire marshal, engineering, permits and inspections, to the same floor next to MPC so you have one spot to get all of the services that you need. We hope to simplify this process for developers and for the public who use those services. One of the biggest things we are embarking upon now is to rewrite the zoning code. As development has changed, and as culture has changed, our city council has found a lot of the zoning code outdated. We have embarked on a major public process, to review those zoning ordinances. Those are just some of the things we’ve been working on. Thanks for asking.

K: Thank you, and thank you for coming by.

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