At the heart of Knoxville, Tennessee, one of the fastest-growing mid-sized cities in the nation, is a meandering stretch of the Tennessee River whose banks are ripe for development. It has long been the city’s intention to create a walkable, amenity-rich destination waterfront district, but efforts to date have only progressed in fits and starts. Given the sharply increasing demand for housing and the untapped potential for an enlivened waterfront, the East Tennessee REALTORS® (ETR) applied for the Transforming Neighborhoods Program for a focused study by the Counselors of Real Estate (CRE) Consulting Corps to get the project on track. The REALTOR® Party underwrote four studies by this elite group of creative problem solvers in the past year, and Knoxville received one of them.
ETR’s Governmental Affairs and Policy Director Hancen Sale suspects that the association’s existing working relationships with relevant community partners probably contributed to their application’s success. “They certainly boosted the project’s success,” he says. “The major stakeholders involved are well known to us, so it made perfect sense to build even stronger partnerships with City Council members, City staff, and the University, who all have an interest in developing the waterfront.” As the political will was already there, he notes, the directive for the CRE team was specifically to identify sites for development and create a strategic plan, taking into account the objectives and interests of the local stakeholders, as well as market realities and opportunities.
The first phase of the study took place in October 2022, when the CRE team leader came for a short visit to meet some of the stakeholders and see the waterfront. This helped to narrow the definition of the task, and ETR then began reaching out to additional stakeholders and working with the city to determine what was already being done, to avoid overlapping efforts. “We wanted the CRE team to be able to focus where they needed to, so we were careful not to throw the whole kitchen sink at them,” says Sale. He and his team invited the Knoxville Community Development Corporation, those involved in the design of a planned pedestrian bridge linking the opposite sides of the river, and several residents of the area to meet and share their views with the CRE team when they convened in Knoxville.
That happened over a week in April, which, Sale reports, was intense, but great. “The six-member team was deliberately diversified so that we benefited from expertise in numerous relevant fields. It included an affordable housing expert, an engineer who focused on infrastructure, and an attorney with a background in economics who could speak to the legal ramifications of plans. They came in with an impressive preliminary understanding of the situation and really hit the ground running.” The first day featured a bus tour of the river frontage and an introductory dinner. The following days were filled with meetings with more than thirty stakeholders, which ETR had arranged, but was not present for, notes Sale, to maintain as neutral an atmosphere as possible. On Friday, the CRE team delivered an initial presentation to all the stakeholders involved.
Sale reports that this generated a great response. “Afterward, both the neighborhood groups and developers were excited about it – that kind of shared enthusiasm doesn’t often happen around development projects!” The initial takeaway, he says, is that “There’s huge potential, and while there are many big expensive projects that are worth considering, there are also many ways we can be engaging the waterfront in the short-term and that are not overly cost prohibitive.”
As the community awaits the final report from the CRE team, the anticipation is palpable, he adds: “We’re actually getting unsolicited phone calls from a wide range of stakeholders, asking when the report will be delivered. The people involved are really excited about the process, and that bodes well for implementing plans moving forward.”
To learn more about how the East Tennessee REALTORS® is helping the City of Knoxville to make the most of its under-developed waterfront, contact Governmental Affairs and Policy Director Hancen Sale at email@example.com or 865.588.6350.