I’ve touched on the East Tennesee Community Design Center in previous articles, here and here, for example. It’s an organization I first encountered through an early Pehca Kucha presentation. The website best describes what they do, “ETCDC is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to make East Tennessee a better place to live and work by bringing professional design and planning assistance to community groups and nonprofit organizations. East Tennessee Community Design Center receives pro bono design assistance from area architects, landscape architects, planners and other professionals.” In other words, they are introducing good design where otherwise there might be none. As we’ve discussed many different ways on this site, better design is essential for our city to reach its potential.
They are a 501(c)(3) with a very small staff and a bigger group of volunteers, mostly comprised of architects and planners. You can see a couple of their notable downtown projects in the photographs of the Old City Streetscape and the consulting work they did for the city of Knoxville regarding development potential for the Knoxville High School Building. Another project you see downtown everyday and might not consider is the consolidated newspaper boxes which would otherwise litter every downtown street.
The organization recently named Wayne Blasius Executive Director and hosted a reception at the old Patrick Sullivan’s space. It was a tribute to both the organization and the person being honored that the event was completely packed. I attended, but was never able to make my way through the crowd to congratulate Wayne. I also forgot my memory card for my camera, so a special thanks go out to my friend Tinah Utsman of truphoto for the shots of that event.
Wayne and I agreed to meet at a quieter time to talk about his history, the Community Design Center and how the two converged at this time. He greeted me at the door to the Carriage House, located just behind historic Greystone, the home of WATE. While a portion of their operations have long been located there, all the office staff moved there last year, leaving their former offices on Gay Street.
After showing me around the offices and introducing staff members Jan Mosadegh, Sarah Rosenberg, Leslie Fawaz and Josh Shaffer, we settled into his office. I asked him if he was originally from Tennessee and he paraphrased a quote from former Governor Bredesen who said he wasn’t born here, but he got here as quickly as possible. Born in Elmhurst, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, he arrived in Tennessee in 1977. That winter when he saw a weather report indicating that a town fifty miles from Eau Claire, where he attended undergraduate school in Wisconsin, was the coldest spot in the nation that day at 60 degrees below zero, he realized he never needed to feel that kind of cold again.
He’d obtained a bachelor’s degree in economics, with an emphasis on environmental studies, from the University of Wisconsin and received an MS from UT in Urban Planning. After graduation he began work as a planner for the Metropolitan Planning Commission, an independent governmental entity funded by both the city and the county, for which he worked about eight years. One of his final projects with the MPC was the 1988 downtown plan, much of which, he pointed out, has come to pass.
When Laurens Tullock, currently of the Cornerstone Foundation became Community Development Director, he named Wayne his deputy. He remained in that position for about eight years, during which many of the trees and lights downtown were installed. It was in this capacity that he also helped develop the Old City Plan.
After over fifteen years in the public sector, he wanted to experience the private sector side of the development equation and joined Denark Construction as Vice President for Business Development. A small company when he joined, they grew rapidly and by the end of his five years there, they were selected to build the Knoxville Convention Center. He characterized his job there as not that dissimilar from his public job in that both involved community outreach and coordination.
In 2001 he had the opportunity to start his own development business when he and partner Skip Bibb gathered investors to purchase, restore and renovate the Phoenix Building, which currently houses the Downtown Grind, Clayton Bank and Prestige Cleaners on the bottom floor with condos above. He also contracted to develop 29 Market Square, the current location of Bliss Home. The Phoenix was the long-term home to Fowler’s Furniture, but had been empty for many years. As the roof was being replaced it caught fire and the top floor burned, but he persisted and finished the job.
While working as the Deputy Community Development Director under Laurens Tullock, he was instructed, some time around 1993, to attempt to bring Mast General Store to Knoxville. He met with John and Faye Cooper regarding the possibility, but they declined, saying the city wasn’t ready. He maintained contact while at Denark and then approached them again in his role as head of the CBID. They said, “Not yet.” In 2004, when he gained control of the former White Stores Building, he contacted them again and, once more, they came to Knoxville and surveyed the current conditions. The next week they sent others to look. Finally, eleven years after the initial contact, they agreed it was time. He sold them the building, then later bought the three upper floors back to develop Gallery Lofts.
In recent years he has been involved in environmental consultation with ORNL. Throughout all these years he has sporadically volunteered his time to help in planning for various projects through the Community Design Center. While the position of Executive Director has been mentioned to him in the past, the timing wasn’t right. This time when the opening presented itself, he felt it was the right time. In a sense, all of his various experiences have prepared him for the job and he’s excited to begin his full time work with the organization. He said he knew the board and staff were excellent and the transition would be a smooth one.
The organization was started in response to efforts by Bruce McCarty, then president of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, in 1969. Formalized in 1970, Wayne becomes only the eighth executive director in its forty-six-year history. Long-term directors have included Annette Anderson who was executive director from 1973 – 1995 and, more recently, David Watson from 2002 – 2013. Wayne takes over from interim executive director Mary-Linda Schwarzbart. The organization addresses a sixteen-county area of east Tennessee, though the offices are located here and Wayne lives downtown.
The organization is responsible for anywhere from twenty to fifty projects a year which they accomplish with a very small staff and twenty to thirty professional volunteers. They host a few fundraisers each year and can use your support in attending those. The events pictured in the links above happened in June each of the last two years and they will host another this summer. They also host a Fall Gala and other smaller events. Memberships also help and that information is on the website, though a new membership program will launch soon. If you believe in good design for our community, this is a good organization to support.