What Makes a City Succeed? Does Knoxville Have What It Takes?

Night Skyline, Knoxville, April 2013
Night Skyline, Knoxville, April 2013

The question presented itself to me recently in the form of a package I received in the US Mail. Inside was an article from this month’s Atlantic, mailed by a former boss and life-long friend who always seems to know what I need to read. Sure, the article, titled, “How America is Putting Itself Back Together,” by James Fallows is available in its entirety online, but how much care and concern does sending a link reveal? A US postal stamp says, “I really care that you read this.” And so I did and I’d encourage you to follow the link and do the same thing. I don’t have enough money to send it to each of you in the mail.

Mr. Fallows has consumed the last three years of his life flying around the country in a single-engine plane visiting cities all across the United States. What he found is that, unsurprisingly to anyone who consumes national media, “most Americans believe the country is going to hell.” The reason for that one-way trip varies depending on political perspective, of course. The interesting caveat is that, no matter their political persuasion, an equally large number of people feel their location is an exception and they are quite optimistic about what is happening in their hometown.

He found that these cities, some of which, like San Bernardino, California have seen some very difficult stretches, are attracting industry, whether financial, tech-related, media related or others, in the form of companies who recognize value in not joining the largest concentration of their peers in larger cities. He calls it a “talent dispersal.” It’s allowing some of the most difficult economic zones to re-define themselves.

He also noted that assimilation is proceeding in many of these locations with an absence of the dire consequences so often talked about on a national level. He quotes national Gallup polls, such as a 2015 poll which shows Americans think immigration should either stay at current levels or increase. He noted that everywhere he went the older population is whiter, the younger population darker.

But what caught my attention most was the checklist developed by the author to determine if a city will succeed. He said these variables emerged after visiting a very few of the cities and worked as predictors almost without exception as they continued their travels. “. . . if you tell us how a town measures up based on these standards, we can guess a lot of other things about it. In our experiences, these things were true of the cities, large or small, that were working best . . .”

So are you ready? Let’s look at the eleven signs a city will succeed and see how our own city stacks up. I’ll express my opinion, of course, and I’ll be interested in hearing yours.

Knoxville Skyline, Autumn 2013
Knoxville Skyline, Autumn 2013


  1. Divisive politics seem a distant concern.

While he suspected that many of the people he met as he traveled would have disagreed with him politically, he said it didn’t tend to come up very often. “The more often national politics came into local discussions, the worse shape the town was in.” The focus, he said, was on finding practical solutions to local problems. I think that sounds very much like Knoxville. Other than having to send the mayor to Nashville to fight intrusion from our state legislators on occasion, we’d just as soon focus on what we need to do to make our city a better place. Check one for Knoxville.

2. You can pick out the local patriots.

“A standard question we’d ask soon after arrival was, ‘Who makes this town go?'” The answers varied widely from local political figures to folk-singers, but “What mattered was that the question had an answer. And the more quickly it was provided, the better shape the town was in.” Could you answer the question for Knoxville? I could rattle off a list of people I believe are making the city better and have its best interest as a focus. Some of them are political, some are developers and, yes, some are artists of different sorts. I think we’ve got this one.

3. “Public-private partnerships are real.”

Saying he had assumed the phrase to be simply a slogan or a “euphemism for sweetheart deals . . .,” he found that in the successful cities the people he spoke to could point to logical government cooperation with private business producing results which wouldn’t otherwise be obtained. “The more specifically a community can explain what their public-private partnerships mean, the better off the city is.” What he means by this goes beyond tax-deferments and other incentives. He cites examples in Greenville, SC., Holland, Mich. and Fresno, Cal. that don’t simply reflect government support for development, but rather government support for programs that elevate some of the most vulnerable citizens. We might do better in this arena, even though we have extensive public-private partnerships in the area of development.

4. People know the civic story.

As we have a national “story,” whether you believe it to be true or myth and whereas many states have a story, in successful cities, citizens can recite the local story. “As with guiding national myths, the question is not whether these assessments seem precisely accurate to outsiders. Their value is in giving citizens a sense of how today’s efforts are connected to what happened yesterday and what they hope for tomorrow.”

My suggestion would be that we are evolving in this area. We have parts of a story – a friendly city with numerous natural amenities nearby, UT and Oak Ridge as assets, a walkable downtown and an emergent creative class. People like Jack Neely have helped us understand more of our history. Our self-concept as a city is rising. Maybe the only missing part, in my opinion, would be a great vision for our future. I’ll call this one a tie. We’re getting there.

View from the Gay Street Bridge, Knoxville, Late Summer, 2012
View from the Gay Street Bridge, Knoxville, Late Summer, 2012

5. They have a downtown.

“This seems obvious, but it is probably the quickest single marker of the condition of a town . . . downtown ambitions of any sort are a positive sign, and second and third-floor apartments and condos over restaurants and stores with lights on at night suggest that the downtown has crossed a decisive threshold and will survive.”

What needs to be said? We have this one in spades. All I will say is that we need to protect every inch of it and make sure that development is of a kind that makes our downtown a better place for the future.

6. They are near a research university.

“Research universities have become the modern counterparts to a natural harbor or a river confluence. In the short term they lift the local economy by bringing in a student population. Over the longer term, they transform a town through the researchers and professors they attract.”

Not only do we answer the call on this one with the University of Tennessee, we also have the Oak Ridge National Laboratory each of which should serve us well as we go forward into a tech-centric economy. Hey, we even have the “river confluence” covered.

7. They have, and care about, a community college.

The author sees community colleges as one force operating in American society to blunt the impact of income inequality by offering a path to higher paying jobs for citizens who may not obtain a four-year college degree. In some cases they earn significantly more money than those with a four-year degree. We are fortunate to have access to several community colleges with a diverse range of programs offered from Pellissippi with multiple campuses to Roane State and Walters State.

8. They have unusual schools.

“Early in our stay we would ask what was the most distinctive school to visit at the K-12 level. If four or five answers came quickly to mind, that was a good sign.” The single trait they looked for, whether the school was public or private (including charter schools), was “intensity of experimentation.” In Knoxville two come to my mind. The STEM school at the L&N and the Episcopal School of Knoxville. There may be others and these may be poor examples if the author examined them. I suspect this is an area in which we come up short. Knox County has never given proper funding and respect to its schools, in my opinion.

9. They make themselves open.

“The anti-immigrant passion that has inflamed this election cycle was not something people expressed in most of the cities we visited. On the contrary, politicians, educators, business people, students and retirees frequently stressed the ways their communities were trying to attract and include new people . . . Every small town in America has thought about how to offset the natural brain drain that has historically sent its brightest young people elsewhere. The same emphasis on inclusion that makes a town attractive to talented outsiders increases its draw to its own natives.”

He mentions that the mayor of Greenville, SC pointed out how many languages are heard on the sidewalks in that city, which is something I’ve often commented on in my articles about our city. I think the frequency of just that is increasing in Knoxville. On this front I think our mayor has been particularly keen in welcoming everyone and framing that into city policy. Our state and county doesn’t always help matters. I’m thinking of incidents like Sheriff JJ Jones threatening to “stack immigrants like cord wood,” in jail. That doesn’t help. Still, in speaking specifically of the city, I think we do well on this variable.


10. They have big plans.

“If I see a national politician with a blueprint for how things will be better 20 years from now, I think: ‘Good luck!” . . . When a mayor or city-council member shows me a map of how new downtown residences will look when completed, or where the new greenway will go, I think: ‘I’d like to come back.’ Cities still make plans because they can do things.”

This I’ll give to Knoxville. There are a dozen or more high-profile projects underway at any given time and many of us can excitedly give the details. Where could we do better? Maybe in a long-range vision and maybe in being more willing to do something bigger than the next development. We don’t have a history of being daring and that has kept us from messing up, but it probably keeps us from being as amazing as we might be.

11. They have craft breweries.

“One final marker, and perhaps the most reliable: A city on the way back will have one or more craft breweries, and probably some small distilleries, too . . . A town that has craft breweries also has a certain kind of entrepreneur, and a critical mass of mainly young customers. You may think I’m joking, but just try to find an exception.”

It’s interesting, isn’t it, to see craft breweries as a symptom of something larger and something good? I don’t have to tell readers of this blog how Knoxville is doing on this front. Just the close downtown area has six active craft breweries and a whiskey distillery currently operating, with several others likely to be added to the list this year and others still, a bit farther from downtown.

So, by my count, we do very well on these measures. We might do better in a couple of areas, but we would seem to be on very firm footing. What do you think? What have a I missed? Am I being too optimistic or too hard on us in other respects? I found the list to be very encouraging for our scruffy little city.

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