Knoxville Brands Itself as “The Maker City”

When you think about Memphis, you think about barbecue, blues and Elvis. Nashville? Country music. Chattanooga? Gigabytes. Knoxville? Hello, Knoxville? We don’t have a singular identity that people generally identify quickly. “Gateway to the Smokies?” Do we want our identity to be that you can quickly get from us to another place?

One alternative capitalizes on the idea that Knoxville is rapidly growing a creative class of “makers,” including light manufacturing and content production, and entrepreneurs ranging from in-home operations to businesses with a small number of employees. We’ve talked about it a number of times as these businesses and places like Knox Makers have opened.

Jim Biggs, KEC Executive Director of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Maker City Summit, Mill and Mine, Knoxville, September 2017

Mayor Rogero, Maker City Summit, Mill and Mine, Knoxville, September 2017

Mayor Rogero, Maker City Summit, Mill and Mine, Knoxville, September 2017

Make Knox was formed last year and Knoxville was named ETSY’s first “Maker City.” That was followed this year by Smart Growth America announcing that Knoxville would be one the four recipients (along with Lowell, MA, Twin Falls, ID and Eastgate, OH) of their, “small-scale manufacturing and place-based economic technical development assistance. Illana Preuss of Recast City (a consulting firm assisting in the selection) stated at yesterday’s Maker City Summit that of the 59 cities vying for the assistance, Knoxville is clearly ahead of the game.

All of this led to yesterday’s announcement that Knoxville is now, “The Maker City.” Touting our “entrepreneurial spirit,” is seen as a way to brand us nationwide. According to the press release, “The branding project is a joint effort of Mayor Madeline Rogero’s Maker Council, the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and Designsensory, a Knoxville advertising firm.” Joseph Nother of Designsensory was on hand to discuss the process that led to the name and the logo. Their presentation video is included here.

Joseph Nother, Maker City Summit, Mill and Mine, Knoxville, September 2017

Joseph Nother, Maker City Summit, Mill and Mine, Knoxville, September 2017

It was a theme of the conference yesterday, with Jim Biggs, CEO of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center saying, “We want to make Knoxville the place to make things in the Southeast.” Mayor Rogero later added, “Running a business is complicated and involves many regulations. We want to make that as easy as possible.”

As part of the ongoing assistance provided by Smart Growth America, Recast City has evaluated some of what they see as our city’s related strengths and weaknesses. Ms. Preuss noted that our leadership is strong, our Maker brand is growing, Makers are networking and clustering near downtown, developers are supportive of startups and we have neighborhoods near downtown well suited for this kind of growth. She mentioned the Magnolia corridor in this connection.

Julie Ferrara and Panel, Maker City Summit, Mill and Mine, Knoxville, September 2017

Mark W. Schaefer, Maker City Summit, Mill and Mine, Knoxville, September 2017

But not all is well in Maker City. She pointed out that we have no clear vision for development (and featured a photo of Standard Knitting Mills). She said, like many cities, we struggle to have an inclusive engagement in development conversations, that we perceive some of the potential areas as unsafe, makers are spread out and there is a lack of ready capital. She also mentioned that we are not prepared for the wild success that could come our way, meaning that makers could quickly get priced out of the areas most appropriate for light manufacturing.

She also offered some specific ideas for expanding and supporting the idea of being The Maker City. She suggested the possibility of replicating a project, Brick City Makes, in St. Louis, which is an old industrial building divided into small spaces, built out and ready for use to makers at a reasonable price. She also pointed to zoning and codes which in Somerville, Massachusetts, has been amended to include a “Fabrication Zone.”

She also strongly recommended that we establish a shared commercial kitchen space to incubate small food production businesses and new restaurants, such as La Cocina in San Francisco. Another recommendation was that we consider something akin to our Farmers’ Market, but for makers. She mentioned the Eastern Market Weekends in D.C. as an example. She also cautioned that we guard against seeing makers as only a transitional group to use until property values rise enough to make more money on the next group up.

A range of additional speakers addressed topics most useful to creative entrepreneurs. The event also provided opportunities for participants to have fifteen minute sessions with a range of experts on their topic, as well as to do what we really do well: make connections with each other.

Also announced at the conference was that Blank Newspaper will include “Maker City Presents,” in each issue focusing on a different Maker with each article. You might also want to check out the fun Start Up Day event at the Bijou from 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM tomorrow.

So, what do you think, Maker City? Check out the video and watch for further developments as Knoxville tries its entrepreneurial wings. Maybe you might want to consider joining the movement yourself.


  1. Tricia Fulton says

    A commercial kitchen available for use would be fantastic for Knoxville makers.

  2. Patrick Hunt says

    When I was on the board of CBID, I floated an idea for a multi-story incubator. The basement level would be maker space, and the street level would feature a shared kitchen for several eateries, a bar (which would generate funding for the facility), and a number of small retail stalls. The upper floors would follow companies as they grew, from open co-working and town hall space on the second floor, reserved co-working space on the third, and small, private offices on the fourth.

    I still think this is a great idea. Maybe the time is right.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      That sounds just about perfect. How do we get it done?

    • That sounds like a great idea. Maybe on Central Street? There seems to be a lot like that happening down there. It’s a much better idea than the dollar general they’re trying to put pretty much right next to Mid Mod and wild love.

      • I thought the variance for the dollar store was at 2209 Central which would be across the street from Rankin, not next to Wild Love.

        Either way, at least that dollar store is something tangible for people to use today and generate taxes. Ever since it closed, grand schemes for big old buildings like the old knitting factory have been generated. 2017 is over and nothing’s going to happen with it for at best a few more years. You can’t fix sidewalks, pay first responders and install fancy eco street lighting using dreams, the city needs tax revenues today for that stuff.

        The problem with the old Standard Knitting Mill is that it’s isolated. That doesn’t mean it can’t be redeveloped. But in the context of neighborhood cluster for makers, it’s their one shot. If they outgrow whatever is there, they have to move to another neighborhood.

        The stretch on Central between Heiskell and and 5th would be great. It has a lot of old light industrial with a mix of housing and commercial. So we’re not mucking up some fancy ( victorian ) Euclidian zoning and re-mixing them; they’re already mixed.

        Central is walkable and bikeable. It has a smidge of those makers, both those that by vintage clothes, put a bird on them and resell them but also old traditional makers like Knoxville Locomotive Works. Hands down they’re the greenest company in the region. The tier 4 locomotives they’re churning out have exhaust gas that’s cleaner than the air they take in.

  3. Downtown Worker says

    Underwear Capital of the World, Cradle of Country Music, Marble City, Gateway to the Smokies, Scruffy City, Maker City (am I missing anything else?) We need to pick one and stick with it or else we’ll be Indecisive City. Supporting local manufacturers and makers is a great initiative, but let’s not try to make a nickname stick. It should happen organically like “Scruffy City”, which invites the story each time it’s used.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Maybe we should go back to our roots. The competition for “Underwear Capital of the World,” would seem likely to be winnable! Seriously, I think one difference is that all of those either refer to history or to another place (Smokies), while maybe this captures the spirit of the people?

    • Donna Taylor says

      Its ironic during worlds fair knox tagged scruffy city& business owners borrowed critique(scruffy little city i. South, written. On knoxville’82 worlds fair, in media. IF KNOXVILLE Has ne tagged nickname, Certainly it should be positive word

  4. Not sure if the name will stick! Can’t say I am overly fond of it myself. I think the spirit behind this idea is great, just not sure about the chosen name, sorry.

  5. There is a commerial shared kitchen in the works in Farragut. I believe construction has started and a coordinator hired. Dale Atkins is the name of the developer.

  6. Dale Akins did open the “The Chef’s Workshop” which is exactly what was mentioned… a kitchen incubator. Take a look:

    Patrick I love that idea!

  7. Oren Yarbrough says

    The idea to revitalize the Standard Knitting Mill and create a fabrication district is such an interesting concept to me. I could see this happening in some of the larger light industrial buildings along Central as well. I recently read an article about the “Crosstown Concourse” in Memphis that just celebrated its grand opening last month. The building, a former Sears distribution center, had been abandoned for decades until a group of various local organizations and developers fought to convert it into a “vertical village” of sorts. The developers refused to just fill the massive warehouse with luxury condos or a one and done tenant, but rather created something on par with Atlanta’s Ponce City Market, but with way more diversity. The Crosstown Concourse houses 300 apartments, a synagogue, a church, a YMCA, a theater, a university, a high school, dozens of restaurants, and dozens of retails spaces. A core component of the building is to foster cross partnerships with all the tenants and residents like a small village would. This concept is fantastic and the best example is now local to our state and I would love the idea of a “Maker Village” at Standard Knitting Mill for Knoxville. Creating an environment to live, work, and play would foster positive growth that the startups would need in their infancy. See a link about the project here.

  8. I applaud this effort as a clear sign of identifying Knoxville for its progressive “re-birth”. (In 1977 when I moved here, “progress was far from reality). Respectfully, however, the verbal and visual identifiers of this concept being considered are puzzling. For me, both Maker City and the chosen visual require translation… perhaps both being a bit too ‘hip and edgy’. Music City, Motor City, Big Apple I get. What has happened is we are truly a Renaissance City…BUT that’s not a ‘quick’ positioning statement. The concept, “Knoxville – The City of New Beginnings” gets closer to identifying where start-ups, progressive thinking, etc. live. Folks smarter than me perhaps can think about how to simplify the Renaissance thought in words and symbol.

  9. I think “Artisan City” would be more appropriate and have more appeal. Here is a definition from the internet:

    noun: artisan; plural noun: artisans

    a worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand.
    synonyms: craftsman, craftswoman, craftsperson; More
    (of food or drink) made in a traditional or non-mechanized way using high-quality ingredients.
    “local artisan cheeses”

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