Making Connections

Making Connections

Two-term City Council member Marshall Stair wants to stitch the city together if he’s elected mayor.

by scott barker • March 8, 2019
Marshall Stair

This story is the third in a series of profiles on candidates for Knoxville mayor. See the profile of Indya Kincannon here and the profile of Eddie Mannis here.

For the past seven and a half years, Marshall Stair has been voting on policy matters as a member of the Knoxville City Council. He has approved budgets, signed off on contracts and rezoned property.

Stair said he wants residents of every ZIP Code to join in Knoxville’s overall success.

Now he’s wanting to set the agenda as Knoxville’s next mayor.

The son of well-connected attorney Caesar Stair and the civically active Dorothy Stair, Marshall Stair can easily be considered the establishment candidate to replace Mayor Madeline Rogero, who can’t run for re-election because of term limits.

Running on his record, Stair said he’s proud of where the city has progressed while he’s been on City Council, but more can be done.

“The city’s doing well, but it’s not felt by all residents,” Stair said.

He said he wants residents of every ZIP Code in the city to join in Knoxville’s overall success, a refrain he repeats often in his public campaign statements.

One initiative he would pursue is to change the name of the Office of Community Relations to the Department of Diversity and Inclusion, expanding its mission to ensure the city’s workforce is representative of the community.

Increasing the stock of affordable housing is an obvious way to improve communities, Stair said. Continuing to focus on improving the streetscapes -- in the same manner as the recently completed Cumberland Avenue project and the ongoing improvements to North Central Street --  to attract new investments would be a priority for a Stair administration, he said.

Stair points to the establishment of the Regal Cinemas headquarters on the South Waterfront and the new Tombras Group headquarters downtown as examples of the city’s vibrancy.

“I feel great about where we are,” he said.

Business and Innovation

Stair’s economic development agenda focuses on supporting existing businesses, creating an environment friendly to entrepreneurship and recruiting new businesses. Streamlining regulations to make it easier to do business in the city would be a priority.

Stair said the city needs to embrace a “culture of innovation” and pointed to the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center as a valuable resource for start-ups. He also wants to assess the feasibility of a public high-speed broadband internet service, like Chattanooga’s.

Old-fashioned services are important as well, according to Stair: improving streets, repairing potholes and bridges, maintaining sidewalks. He said he’d conduct a street-by-street assessment to identify neighborhoods with the most needs for infrastructure improvements.

“My vision for Knoxville is walkable communities connected by transit,” Stair said.

He is a big advocate of public transit. He said Knoxville has more than 1,200 bus stops but only 54 shelters for riders. Building more shelters and making the Knoxville Area Transit system easier to use should increase ridership and reduce traffic congestion, he said.

Referring to sprawl-inducing land-use policies as “misguided,” Stair says the city’s zoning should reflect changing demographics and citizens’ desire for walkable neighborhoods. He touts the Complete Streets Ordinance, which he and other Council members approved, as an example of smart growth policies that will benefit the city.

“We want the campaign to be about ideas,” Stair said.”We want to propose our ideas and listen to the public about what they think the city needs to be better.”

Transparency is another priority for Stair. Equipping all city police officers with body cameras, for example, would protect both the officers and the public, he said. He wants to use technology to make it easier to get feedback from residents and make more data available online.

Stair has been relatively low-key as a Council member. Nick Pavlis, who served with Stair on City Council, said the 40-year-old attorney takes issues seriously and values consensus over confrontation.

“He approaches everything very cautiously. He avoids conflict,” Pavlis said.

City Dweller

A graduate of Tulane University and the University of Tennessee College of Law, Stair practices civil law with the firm of Lewis Thomason. Between Tulane and UT, he worked for a nonprofit environmental group and lived in Chicago; Houston; Austin, Texas; and Mexico City. Living in those cities, he says, gave him a grounding in what worked and what didn’t in the civic realm.

“I’m passionate about cities. That’s why I ran for City Council,” he said.

A downtown resident a few years ago before running for City Council, Stair was elected to the board of directors of the Central Business Improvement District. He won his at-large Council seat in 2011 by soundly defeating former state Rep. Bill Owen. He received 79 percent of the vote in his re-election victory over Pete Drew in 2015. Stair and his wife Natalie live in Old North Knoxville and are the parents of an infant daughter, who figures prominently in his campaign photos.

Stair is running against former school board Chair Indya Kincannon, businessman Eddie Mannis, restaurateur Mike Chase, Fletcher Burkhardt and John Bevil.

Stair’s a Democrat, which isn’t a liability among liberal-leaning city voters in otherwise red Knox County, but he also enjoys support from many Republicans.

“My dad’s a Republican and my mom’s a Democrat, and I can’t afford to lose either of their support,” Stair quipped.

Stair has been able to get the financial backing of people on both sides of the aisle. Businessman Pete DeBusk, attorney Wayne Ritchie, opera star Mary Costa and social justice lawyer Gordon Bonnyman are contributors to Stair’s campaign.

Stair raised $175,250 before Jan. 15, far outpacing his rivals. Mannis raised $135,434 and Kincannon raised $50,757. Three other candidates have raised negligible amounts or nothing at all.

Though he said his fundraising haul shows people across the city are positive about his candidacy, Stair emphasizes that money isn’t everything in this election -- grassroots campaigning is just as important.

Similarly, he views quality of life issues as being on par with economic concerns. The Urban Wilderness, the city’s arts and culture scene, festivals and other cultural events and organizations enrich the the city and play a critical role in the economy, he said.

Above all, Stair said, if elected mayor he wants to be responsive to the ideas, concerns and desires of the citizens.

“We want to propose our ideas and listen to the public about what they think the city can do better,” Stair said.