Primary 2023: The Incumbent Mayor
Not surprisingly, Indya Kincannon is running on her record in her bid for re-election as Knoxville’s mayor.
(Editor’s Note: This is the first of two articles about the candidates for Knoxville mayor. Today, an analysis of the incumbent. Tomorrow, we will look at her three challengers.)
When Indya Kincannon took the oath of office as Knoxville’s mayor in late 2019, she inherited some major projects that she would have to shepherd to conclusion and promised to consume much of her attention during her first couple of years in office.
Kincannon said COVID-19 showed nothing is constant except change.
Under former Mayor Madeline Rogero, the city already planned to renovate the former St. Mary’s Hospital into a new Public Safety Complex, build a new baseball stadium and provide land at the soon-to-be-vacant Safety Center for a science museum.
Then came COVID.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 shoved all of those projects into the background, as the response consumed time and energy, diverted resources, forced the suspension of services and otherwise disrupted the lives of all Knoxvillians.
“It was something no one could have anticipated,” Kincannon said in a recent interview. “It was an opportunity for my leadership team to really gel because it was a bit of a crucible, a lot of very uncertain times when people were looking to me and other leaders for information and guidance and what to do and what not to do. We did our best to meet those needs.”
While the pandemic upended government functions, it didn’t stop other issues from arising. Crime, police reform, housing and homelessness emerged as topics for intense debate and discussion.
Now, more than three years after the pandemic hit, the 52-year-old Kincannon is up for re-election against challengers Constance Every, R.C. Lawhorn and Jeff Talman. Like most incumbents, she’s running on her record.
“I stand on my track record of leadership,” she said. “For the last three and a half years, I've helped navigate our city through some really challenging times regarding the pandemic (and) regarding reimagining policing. I've been a steady hand through those hard times and also been able to make progress on connecting people to great jobs and making good on my promises on affordable housing. And there's more to come.”
Kincannon declared a state of emergency on March 16, 2020, when Knox County had recorded only one confirmed case of COVID-19, and four days later ordered the temporary closure of all bars, restaurants, gyms and event venues in the city.
Two months later, Gov. Bill Lee gave counties with independent health departments the authority to lead their communities’ pandemic response, so Kincannon stepped back while supporting science-based policies, changing city operations and revising the budget.
The city enforced curfews on bars and restaurants put in place by the Knox County Board of Health, which led to the suspension of beer licenses for a couple of establishments (in part prompting Lawhorn, the former owner of Billiards & Brews, to challenge her in this year’s election).
Kincannon said the pandemic taught her lessons in leadership, including the importance of communication.
“We can't over-communicate in times of crisis,” she said. “Another important lesson is the value of coordination, collaboration and placing the work where it belongs. We have a Health Department that serves the city of Knoxville, and so I did my best to support their work and the work of the Board of Health.”
Another lesson, she continued, is that “there's nothing constant but change, and you can't always anticipate it. I didn't think that was how my first year was going to go.”
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, sparking riots across the country and calls for police reform. Kincannon said her administration heeded those calls, emphasizing use-of-force rules and outfitting officers with body-worn cameras.
Then, in the midst of a surge of gun violence in the city, 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. was killed by a Knoxville Police Department officer in April 2021 during an attempt to arrest him in a bathroom at Austin-East Magnet High School.
A wave of protests broke out in the city, which intensified after District Attorney General Charme Allen determined the four officers involved in the incident would not face charges.
Later, in November 2021, Police Chief Eve Thomas, who had been hired by Rogero and was the city’s first female chief, announced that she would retire. Kincannon opted to conduct a national search for her successor. KPD chiefs have typically been promoted from within, and a net had never been cast so wide for candidates.
The mayor set up a process for public input on the front end to determine the attributes of a chief desired by residents, but placed the responsibility for the search with the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a national nonprofit.
On April 28, 2022, Kincannon presented Paul Noel, then deputy superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, as the next chief. Noel came with a national reputation as a reformer.
PERF maintained all the records of the search, according to the Kincannon administration, and no documents related to the hiring were actually in the city’s possession. News Sentinel editor Joel Christopher sued the city, alleging violations of the state’s public records act. Kincannon has since released the names of the applicants, but the lawsuit has yet to be resolved.
She said her job was to hire the best possible person for the job, and keeping the names of applicants confidential was one way to get a strong pool of candidates. Noel has said that he would not have applied if he hadn’t been given confidentiality.
“This is what the people elected me to do,” Kincannon said. “They trust my judgment by virtue of electing me, and I think most people who've had the chance to interact with Chief Noel are really pleased with my appointment.”
Noel has restructured the patrol operations, created an Office of Professional Standards and implemented bystander training that aims to have officers police one another on the job.
Kincannon, with the support of City Council, increased pay and revamped the salary structure in all city departments, including the chronically understaffed KPD. A property tax increase was needed to pay for the initiative, which the mayor said was worth the cost.
“That has helped tremendously with, first and foremost, retention,” she said. “It's a seller's market in the labor market, and whether you're a police officer or an accountant or engineer and public service worker, you have options, you can leave the city for higher pay. So we needed to correct that to make sure that our experienced people were going to stay with the city.”
In addition to changes at KPD, Kincannon started the Office of Community Safety to coordinate non-police efforts to reduce crime in the city. The office supports the violence interruption work of the nonprofit Turn Up Knox and is working on strategy with the National Institute of Criminal Justice Reform.
Housing and Homelessness
After decades of stagnant growth, people began moving to Knoxville in increasing numbers in recent years. Between 2010 and this year, the city added roughly 15,600 new residents, an increase of 8.74 percent and the biggest single-decade growth spurt in 50 years.
Kincannon said the growth is good for the city but also presents challenges, especially in housing. She said other mayors have complained to her that people are fleeing their cities.
“We don't have that problem,” she said. “We're dynamic.”
She said the challenge is accommodating that growth, which has helped create a housing crisis in Knoxville across the entire spectrum of the market.
Working with Justice Knox and Councilwoman Lynne Fugate, the administration created the Affordable Housing Fund, which is legally obligated to provide at least $50 million in funding for affordable housing initiatives over a 10-year period. The fund has a lot of flexibility to respond to market needs, she said, including restoring blighted properties, bridge financing for affordable rental housing and efforts like the public housing initiative Transforming Western.
“That's a commitment that I want to build on,” Kincannon said, adding that in her second term she would work to supplement that spending through philanthropic donations to the fund.
She also said that Kevin DuBose, the director of housing and neighborhood development, is formulating a comprehensive housing strategy to help address rising rents and home prices.
Kincannon said her administration is moving forward to make it possible to build more “missing middle” housing — duplexes, triplexes, courtyard developments and small-scale apartment buildings. Public buy-in is a must, she said.
“It's really important that we address this with the urgency it warrants,” Kincannon said, “but I also am very committed to moving forward on missing middle (housing) hand-in-hand with the community, because that's who it's going to affect.”
She said the administration is moving ahead with plans to streamline the plans approval process, and is also considering developing a portfolio of pre-approved house and site plans for various sized lots, so builders can get approvals more quickly.
“We want to get it to where permitting is never the bottleneck of this process,” Kincannon said. “We want it to be timely, streamlined, and yet maintain safety standards.”
With the crisis in housing, particularly the shortage of affordable housing, homelessness has become a greater issue of concern in the city. During the height of the pandemic, the city used federal COVID-19 relief money to support rapid rehousing and services for people experiencing homelessness. The city also took criticism for both the expansion of homeless tent cities and for dismantling them.
Kincannon noted that Caswell Manor, the city’s sixth permanently supportive housing facility for chronically homeless individuals, recently opened and that an apartment building for veterans experiencing homelessness was just approved.
While expensive to operate, permanent supportive housing offers people a stable home life so they can address mental health, trauma and substance abuse issues they face, she said.
Kincannon and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs are teaming up to create a joint Office on Housing Stability, to help the community get to “functional zero” homelessness.
“That means that, while you never can probably eliminate homelessness altogether, people experiencing homelessness are immediately connected to resources and rapid rehousing,” she said.
The major projects Kincannon inherited moved forward during her term, albeit with delays and at higher costs.
One exception is the science museum. Clayton Homes founder and philanthropist Jim Clayton plans to build the interactive museum on the site of the former Safety Building next to the Civic Auditorium and Coliseum.
The pandemic forced Clayton to delay planning for the museum, so no work on the ground has begun. He has said he still intends to go through with the project, but has not publicly released a timeline.
After delays and increased costs blamed on materials price jumps related to the pandemic, the Public Safety Complex at the site of the former St. Mary’s Hospital in North Knoxville opened this spring.
“I'm really pleased that we've moved into the new Public Safety Complex,” Kincannon said. “That's a huge, huge deal. If the city hadn't made a commitment to the community back in 2019, it could have sat as a blighted property for who-knows-how long. It's hard to redevelop big properties like that, that are abandoned by other entities.”
Work has finally begun on the multi-use stadium adjacent to the Old City proposed by Tennessee Smokies owner and University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd. Like the Public Safety Complex, materials price increases led to a higher price tag — now $114 million — and delays in starting the project.
Kincannon and Jacobs persuaded their respective legislative bodies to create a city-county Sports Authority to oversee construction and operations of the stadium. Though the stadium is not scheduled to open until the spring of 2025, development activity has begun in the Old City and in the moribund warehouse district surrounding the site.
“I always said that if I thought the benefits for the people of Knoxville outweighed the costs, I would be supportive, and I'm confident that the benefits do outweigh the costs,” she said.
Second Term Priorities
If elected to a second term, Kincannon said, she would focus on simultaneously supporting economic development and improving the conditions of the less fortunate.
“Not only can we do both those things at the same time, we must, because the way we help the least among us, the people who are really struggling to keep a roof over their heads and keep food on the table, is to have a strong, robust economy,” she said.
She said the city would continue to make infrastructure improvements in the Burlington neighborhood of East Knoxville, develop the Urban Wilderness Gateway park, and pursue funding for a pedestrian bridge between the University of Tennessee campus and the South Waterfront. Creating safer streets for pedestrians and bicyclists will be a priority.
She pledged to reduce violent crime — and has noted that crime statistics are trending lower this year — by getting KPD closer to full staffing, continuing police culture reform efforts, and expanding violence prevention and interruption initiatives.
Kincannon said the city would also continue supporting the social service nonprofits and other entities that help people get back on their feet.
She said people from all sectors of the city share similar concerns, especially about basic services like trash removal, parks maintenance and speeding.
“I keep my promises,” Kincannon said. “I'm not always flashy about things, but we get a lot of things done and that's what I’ll promise to do during the second term — continue our progress on housing, on public safety, accommodating all the energy and growth in our city.”