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.