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  Victor Ashe's 16 Years as Mayor

Reflecting on accomplishments and failures as his terms in office come to a close

by Joe Sullivan

When Victor Ashe first took office as mayor 16 years ago, the city was in a budget bind and burdened with a lot of debt. As he leaves office on Dec. 20, the city is once again in a budget bind, and its debt has mounted higher.

Yet during the intervening years, even Ashe's critics acknowledge that Knoxville's longest serving mayor has amassed a long list of accomplishments. "I think Victor Ashe deserves a lot of credit for a lot of things," says former City Council member Carlene Malone, who was Ashe's most persistent critic during the 10 years she served on Council.

While she faults his ways and means on several counts, Malone nonetheless believes the ends he achieved were mostly worthy. Extensive additions to the city's system of parks and greenways may prove to be Ashe's most enduring legacy. But he's also made a mark with his commitments to diversity, historic preservation, sign control, and—belatedly many would say—downtown redevelopment. Malone reserves her highest praise for his efforts on behalf of neighborhoods.

"Victor Ashe worked very hard to make it clear that he recognized neighborhoods as the building blocks of the community. He always tried to find solutions to their problems whether it was traffic, dirty lots, commercial encroachment or what have you," says Malone.

For his own part, Ashe summarizes his successes in terms of fulfilling his mantra, which has been to make the city look right and work right. "Given what I inherited and where we are today, we've jumped forward leap years," he boasts. "The level of city services has been raised substantially. We've added parks and greenways, and our tree planting program has averaged 1,000 trees a year."

Ashe also takes pride in the caliber of his administration, and especially its diversity. "When I took office, the city had never had a full-time department head who was African American. I hired Sam Anderson [as director of parks and recreation] and now we have Tank Strickland [as director of community relations]." The outgoing mayor also stressed the inclusion of blacks and women on the 30 or more commissions and boards to which he makes appointments.

A well-oiled Ashe machine handily gained him re-election to four terms in office. But his often overbearing style also gained him notoriety in some quarters. "Manipulative," "vindictive," and "control freak" were among the epithets hurled against him.

Probably his biggest single black mark came when he got slapped with a court order restraining him from retaliation against firefighters who had opposed Ashe for re-election. The order resulted from a lawsuit by five firefighters claiming they had been demoted or adversely reassigned because of their support for Ashe's foe, Ivan Harmon, in the 1995 mayoral election.

In Malone's view, Ashe's biggest shortcoming was his "intolerance of disagreement and debate. You need participation in order to enlighten and educate the public on what you're trying to accomplish. But the control freak-side of his personality wouldn't allow for that, and that's where we're sold a little short on the good things he did."

For better or worse, life was never dull in Knoxville with Victor Ashe as mayor, and a chronicle of the Ashe years is in order.

Building Clout

During Ashe's initial campaign for mayor in 1987 he pledged not to raise property taxes. But when faced with a budget deficit once he took office, Ashe took one of the boldest steps of his career: He proposed a sales tax increase.

Unlike other types of tax increases that City Council can adopt, raising the local sales tax rate requires approval by a referendum. And the rate increase that Ashe proposed (from 1.5 percent to 2.25 percent) was anything but modest. Going further against the grain, he proposed doing so within the city alone whereas, by convention, the sales tax rate is set on a county-wide basis. But then-County Executive Dwight Kessel wanted no part of it.

"Everyone who was anyone knew it couldn't be done," Ashe recalls, "but I waged a campaign for it that was as intensive as my campaign for mayor." A well-funded, broad-based Progress for Knoxville Committee was also mobilized. The campaign stressed the need for hiring more police and firefighters, stepped-up street paving and stricter codes enforcement, and it was pointed out that 60 percent of the money raised would come from people who live outside the city.

"I'd been elected with 54 percent of the vote, but the sales tax got 63 percent. That vote gave me the clout to carry my agenda for the next several years," Ashe says.

Adding to his laurels, he moved the next year to depose the one City Council member who had become a thorn in his side, Vice Mayor Hoyle McNeil. Going into the primary in McNeil's South Knoxville district, he was seemingly unopposed. "But out of nowhere came this write-in candidate Gary Underwood who no one had ever heard of. For the first time in the history of this city a write-in candidate got elected," Ashe says.

In the eyes of veteran political observer and operative Lynn Redmon, "Getting rid of Hoyle McNeil was the pivotal event. Victor had been working hard to bond with and do things for other council members, and after that they said, 'Hey, you've got this ultimate political machine trying to do everything for you, so why not go along.'"

By Ashe's own account, his sway over a seemingly compliant City Council was due to cultivation, not intimidation. "I paid a lot of attention to my relationships with individual Council members, treating them with respect, including what they wanted in their districts in my budget within reason, not surprising them," he says. His relationship with Jack Sharp, who succeeded Hoyle McNeil as vice mayor, was "pivotal," he says. "We sat down and worked through things, developed a high level of trust. I never proposed anything unless we agreed because there was nothing to be gained by trying to force an issue that he was going to vote against."

One example of an Ashe predilection that never saw the light of day as a result: a ban on smoking in restaurants.

Ashe also met at least annually with leaders of neighborhood organizations—more than 20 such meetings each year by his estimation. Over box lunches in the mayor's conference room he'd solicit their priorities for improvements—be they intersections, turn lanes, traffic calming, sidewalks, drainage or whatever. These, too, got attention in shaping the city's budget but with care taken to see that they were evenly distributed among the city's six councilmanic districts.

In taking stock of Ashe's performance, Laurens Tullock, a former city official who's now the president of the Cornerstone Foundation, says, "You've got to put everything in the perspective of how things were when he took office. Relations between the mayor and City Council were awful. Relations between the city administration and the neighborhoods were awful. Victor Ashe turned all of that around, and Knoxville is a much better city today because of him."

One recommendation for which Ashe couldn't muster a majority on council but managed to implement anyhow was the creation of a Police Advisory Review Committee. It came at a time when hostility toward the police in the black community had reached a boiling point. Two black men had been killed by police officers during the fall of 1997 in what seemed to many to have been avoidable tragedies. Then, in January 1998, a third man died under suspicious circumstances while being restrained by several officers after they had chased him down. Ashe, who had opposed civilian review of police action until then, acted promptly to recommend it, defusing protests that could have led to racial strife. But a majority of council members remained opposed. So Ashe established PARC by executive order—a step that council unanimously ratified three years later.

Another measure that the mayor initially lacked the votes to pass was a ban on additional billboard locations in the city. The freeze had been recommended by a mayorally appointed Billboard Task Force. But Ashe was unable to get it adopted until proponents launched a petition drive for a referendum on the issue.

Goals on the Wall

Throughout his 16 years as mayor, Ashe has kept framed on the wall in his office a list of goals, and city department heads were expected to do the same. The goals:

Cleaner, safer neighborhoods
Better police and fire protection
Better codes enforcement
More parks and greenways
Retire city debt

Conspicuous by their omission from the list were economic development in general and downtown revitalization in particular. It was only during his latter years in office that Ashe turned his attention to downtown—belatedly in the minds of his critics. Also missing was what's become an Ashe passion of late: historic preservation.

Few would dispute, however, that Ashe devoted a lot of TLC to neighborhoods. His fixation extended to driving around the city on weekends with a Dictaphone in hand noting anything unsightly. "Every Monday morning I'd come in with a tape for distribution to department heads," he relates. He also took a keen interest in the look of new public buildings. "I've gotten down to the level of what colored bricks to use," he says. Yet for all his attention to detail on some matters, he wasn't noted for his attention span on others, such as economic development issues.

At least on paper, police and fire protection were upgraded. The number of sworn police officers increased from 280 to 421, and in 1992 Knoxville became one of the first cities in the state to gain accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies. Not a single new firefighter had been hired for 11 years when Ashe took office, and the city's firefighting equipment was also getting antiquated. Since 1988, more than 100 new firefighters have been hired, nearly $8 million has been invested in new equipment, and four new firehalls have been built.

Without a doubt, though, new parks and greenways have been the Ashe administration's hallmark. More than 800 acres of new parkland have been added, and where there were only three miles of greenways in 1987, they stretch for more than 30 miles today. As with street paving and neighborhood improvements, the mayor took care to see that the new parks were distributed throughout the city: Adair Park to the north in Fountain City, Holston River Park and Haley Heritage Square to the east, Lakeshore Park in West Knoxville and Victor Ashe Park in the northwest section of the city. William Hastie Park in South Knoxville is now in the planning stage. In addition, major renovations and additions to Caswell Park and Chilhowee Park have been completed, and more are in the works.

Perhaps Ashe's biggest coup was getting the state to contribute 200 acres no longer needed by the Lakeshore Mental Health Institute. By his reckoning, that land at the intersection of Lyons View Drive and Northshore Drive was worth on the order of $500,000 per acre. Thus, $100 million of property went for recreational use that might otherwise have been gobbled up by developers.

Getting the property was part of a complex set of negotiations between Ashe and then-Gov. Ned McWherter that took about a year. "It didn't involve just Lakeshore but also Volunteer Landing and relocation of the James White Parkway," Ashe recalls.

Creation of Volunteer Landing on the riverfront was about the closest thing to a downtown redevelopment initiative during Ashe's first decade in office. Obtaining the site for much of it meant getting the state to cede right of way it had acquired along the riverfront for a connector between the South Knoxville Bridge and the James White Parkway. After much travail, the roadway was relocated, and the city was able to proceed with Volunteer Landing in which it invested $9 million.

The 1988 sales tax increase yielded $9 million a year, easing the strain on the city's operating budget which then totaled $72 million (compared to $135 million in the current fiscal year). But the city was also burdened with $167 million in debt which required $17 million in debt service, and it didn't have any reserve funds.

"Except during peak months for property tax collections, we were having to borrow money just to meet the payroll," recalls veteran City Councilman Ed Shouse.

By 1998, the city had reduced its debt to $108 million and built up a fund balance on the order of $20 million, which eliminated the need to issue tax anticipation notes. Its bond rating went from a relatively weak A- to a much stronger AA and has stayed there despite the $162 million in new debt the city has since incurred to finance its new convention center. Even with $253 million for outstanding debt today, the city's debt service burden is a much lower percentage of its assessed property valuation than it was in 1987—a key measure of strengthened financial standing.

Annexation Steamroller

When Victor Ashe took office, the city hadn't annexed much new territory in a quarter century. His predecessor, Kyle Testerman, had attempted massive annexations, but these had been thwarted by lawsuits.

Ashe took a totally different tack. Instead of trying to wrap the city's arms around big hunks of property where a lot of resistant people lived, he stuck its finger out highways that were adjoined mainly by commercial strips. The city limits reached out Kingston Pike, Clinton Highway, Chapman Highway and other arteries in this fashion, and once these fingers were extended, he sought to bring adjoining shopping centers into the city by consent.

A big inducement was whisky. If a shopping center wanted a restaurant or a liquor store for a tenant it needed to be in the city because the sale of alcoholic beverages (except beer) was prohibited in the county. One by one, most shopping centers were brought into the city and with them came the sales tax take at all of their establishments, along with city property taxes. Wal-Mart and some other big box stores also welcomed annexation because the city accommodated displays outside their stores.

To capture the biggest plum of all, the city actually built the road that permitted commercial development of its environs. Ostensibly, the $4.5 million extension of Parkside Drive through woodlands and wetlands between Lovell Road and Campbell Station Road, was supposed to alleviate congestion on Kingston Pike. In reality, the road paved the way for the 400-acre, $500 million Turkey Creek development that adjoins it. When fully built out, Turkey Creek is expected to have 1.5 million square feet of retail space and a million square feet of medical office buildings.

To environmentalists, the development was the epitome of sprawl—something Ashe has purported to abhor. But he has termed the road "a good investment," pointing to a projected $8 million a year in city property taxes to be derived from it. City officials claim it's impossible to estimate the sales tax take because tax filings by merchants are confidential.

In 1998, the state Legislature put a halt to finger annexations by requiring that any subsequent annexations by a city be "compact and contiguous" to its existing boundaries. The new law also stipulated that counties would retain, for 15 years, the sales tax revenues from businesses that were subsequently annexed.

By then, however, the city had already captured the bulk of the choice commercial property in the county. In toto, the city has added 26 square miles to its territory that now totals 102 square miles as a result of annexations during Ashe's years in office. The $9 million in property taxes derived from these annexations represents 13 percent of the city's total property tax collections of $70 million budgeted for the current fiscal year. Again, no estimate of the sales tax take is available, but it seems clear that annexations have made a major contribution to the growth in sales tax revenues from $16 million in 1989 to $29 million currently.

A Fateful Day

In 1996, the Knoxville Smokies made it known they needed a new baseball stadium in order to remain in Knoxville. Venerable Bill Meyer Stadium had fallen into disrepair, and the team's owner also contended its location was inaccessible. At the same time, downtown redevelopment boosters began championing a new downtown baseball stadium as a catalyst.

In his budget that year, Ashe included $12 million for a stadium. Although a public opinion survey showed a majority in favor of keeping the Smokies in their Bill Meyer location, the mayor held a special City Council meeting on its pitcher's mound to approve a consulting contract for selection of a downtown site.

The site selectors settled on a swath centering on State Street—roughly the same site subsequently acquired by Knox County for its aborted Justice Center. But the cost estimates for a new stadium kept pushing higher to $20 million and beyond. Ashe had reached his choke point and so, he claims, had City Council members.

"When I decided to cancel the baseball stadium, I was in the process of losing the votes for it because it had become a bottomless pit in terms of its cost," Ashe recalls.

But announcing its cancellation would subject the mayor to a lot of heat for probably costing the city its baseball team, whose retention he had championed. So he devised a stratagem for deflecting media and, hopefully, public attention away from the stadium's demise.

At a news conference on Feb. 26, 1997, Ashe said the baseball stadium was a goner but that something bigger and better would be coming in its stead. Flanked by business oligarchs Jim Haslam and Bill Baxter, he heralded plans for a new convention center that he called "the most important item facing us in regards to downtown development."

The oligarchs had been urging a new convention center for several years, but it's anything but clear how much attention had been paid to its feasibility before Ashe embraced it. When asked why he believed a $162 million convention center would represent a good investment on the city's part, the mayor responds in terms of politics, not economics.

"First of all, the people of Knoxville and certainly the business community very much wanted it," he says. "It came at a time when everyone was saying we're way behind Chattanooga, and we have to do something. Secondly, what we had wasn't a convention center; it was an exhibition hall, and it seemed like the right thing to do."

A May 1997 feasibility study by consultants Coopers & Lybrand foresaw potential for the new facility but stressed that, "Development of additional, committable, convention-quality hotel rooms in downtown Knoxville may be necessary to remain competitive" and that, "Any new convention facility development for the Knoxville area should also consider the proximity to existing and/or planned convention headquarters and convention quality hotels." A separate hotel feasibility study concluded that the Knoxville market would support a new, 400-room convention headquarters hotel only if the Holiday Inn Select were closed.

Ashe's initial response to all these admonitions was to seek to condemn the Holiday Inn Select. The city's condemnation suit speciously contended that the hotel site was needed for the convention center, but the hotel's lawyer quickly debunked this contention, and the condemnation suit was dropped.

Even so, planning for a huge "state-of-the-art" convention center proceeded under the auspices of the Public Building Authority, of which Jim Haslam was the chairman. In 1998, Ashe got a 28-cent increase in the city's property tax. Ostensibly, the increase was for improvements to Chilhowee Park and the Knoxville Zoo. In reality, as has been subsequently acknowledged, the money was to go toward funding convention center debt. In 2000, after construction was already underway, Ashe got an additional 19-cent increase in the tax rate. This time, it was earmarked for the convention center from the get-go. Together, the two tax increases cover most of its $10 million annual debt service.

Faced also with a $2.7 million convention center operating deficit and a paucity of future bookings, Ashe threw his support behind plans for a new headquarters hotel. The plans called for a city commitment of $20 million to cover the cost of site acquisition and a garage to support a $60 million, 400-room hotel just across Henley Street from the convention center on property being vacated by the State Supreme Court.

But existing downtown hotels mounted a campaign against any city financial backing of a new hotel on grounds that it would hurt all four of them and put at least one out of business. With the Holiday Inn Select and its wheeler-dealer owner Franklin Haney spearheading the effort, they got enough signatures on a petition to force a referendum on the issue—unless City Council bans aid to a new hotel by ordinance.

Ashe now expresses "disappointment that the convention center hotel has gotten as far out of hand as it has." And he adds that "another regret is that I leave office utterly unaware of the ultimate success of the convention center."

Downtown Mania

The PBA wasn't impervious to the need to make downtown Knoxville a more inviting destination, hotel-wise and otherwise. Far from it. With developers Earl Worsham and Ron Watkins in the forefront, plans were hatched for a grandiose development along a corridor extending from the World's Fair Park to Market Square. Elements of the plan included a glass enclosed mall over Henley Street with 200,000 square feet of retail space, a cinema, an office tower, and a 400-room hotel that would be three blocks removed from the convention center. To revitalize Market Square, Worsham and Watkins enlisted the Memphis-based developer of Beale Street, John Elkington, who was also involved in trying to create urban entertainment districts in several other cities. Total cost of the development was placed at $380 million with the city assuming $130 million of the cost for garages, the mall over Henley Street and other infrastructure.

When a preliminary version of what became known as the Worsham Watkins plan was unveiled in a January 2000 presentation at the Bijou Theatre, Ashe hailed it as, "The greatest thing to come to Knoxville since TVA."

Many downtown devotees thought otherwise, and the more they learned about the Worsham Watkins plan, the more their opposition mounted. All the glass-enclosed walkways defied their sense of good urban design, and a contemplated dome over Market Square appalled them. So did the proposition that property owners on the square would have to cede control over their space to Elkington. Activists vented their opposition both in public hearings and through postings on K2K, an on-line discussion forum founded by architect Buzz Goss.

According to one of the plan's proponents, Ashe had been briefed throughout its formulation and given at least his tacit assent. But when the time came to back the plan with city funding, the mayor backed away.

Asked why, Ashe says, "We weren't able to put it together. You don't always get everything done. Knoxville has a pretty good history of becoming enamored of something for six months or so that then falls of its own weight."

The focus on downtown redevelopment did serve, however, to spur other efforts that were much more to the liking of new urbanists and historic preservationists. In 1998, Ashe initiated city acquisition of the landmark Miller's Building and invested $12 million in the restoration of its dilapidated structure. The glass that had encased the building since the 1970's was removed, and its beaux-arts brick exterior with decorative statuary re-emerged. KUB took a big part of the interior as its headquarters, and Image Point (nee PlastiLine) was induced to take the rest.

To encourage restoration of other historic buildings and foster downtown residential growth, Ashe offered tax abatements to developers who undertook their renovation. The moribund Sterchi Building, the Emporium and the former Fowler's (now Phoenix) building all came back to life with this assistance.

After some false starts, Ashe also initiated a Market Square redevelopment plan much more to the liking of its property owners and habitués. Per a proposal by Chattanooga-based developer Kinsey Probasco, the city committed $8.8 million to a makeover of the square's public space and a facelift of the facades of its historic buildings. The other key element of the Kinsey Probasco plan—a cinema on Gay Street—has been delayed by its incorporation into a federally funded transit center for which plans have yet to be approved by the Federal Transportation Administration.

By now a passionate advocate of historic preservation, Ashe recommended the imposition of protective H-1 zoning on all downtown buildings eligible for inclusion in the National Historic Register. But his recommendation has yet to be acted on by the Metropolitan Planning Commission, which must approve the zoning. In two instances, though, he managed to forestall the demolition of historic buildings: namely the Sprankle Building downtown and the J. Allen Smith house, which Cherokee County Club had acquired and wanted to tear down in order to get more parking and golf practice space.

Some former critics, such as Goss, have come around to a more affirmative view of the mayor. "I wish he'd caught on earlier to preservation efforts, but his buy-in is what got downtown residential restoration and Market Square going," says the architect for many of the restoration projects.

Petty and Vindictive?

Even Ashe's admirers acknowledge he has a prickly personality and is prone to picking fights. During his early years in office, County Executive Dwight Kessel was his nemesis, and Ashe heaped derision on him to the detriment of city-county relations.

More recently, other institutions have become his favorite whipping boys—the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership, the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corp., Knoxville Utilities Board and, above all others the Tennessee Department of Transportation. But his attacks on them were laced with personal enmity toward former chamber president Tom Ingram, KUB chair and KTSC president Gloria Ray and former TDOT Commissioner Bruce Saltsman, not to mention former Gov. Don Sundquist.

"He had a penchant for doing battle, and he usually had a legitimate reason for his battles. Doing it publicly was the difficulty," says Tullock, who remains an Ashe supporter even though he's known to have left his post as the city's director of development at least partly in frustration over lack of mayoral backing of downtown redevelopment efforts earlier in his administration.

Only one City Council member, the late Danny Mayfield, ever managed to defeat an Ashe-backed incumbent. In 1997, the charismatic Mayfield campaigned on the need for fresh ideas and independence from the mayor in defeating a stolid Ashe loyalist, Bill Powell, for Council's inner-city district seat. Mayfield went on to unsuccessfully challenge Ashe for mayor in 1999, but then contracted bone cancer and died tragically at the age of 32 in March, 2001.

With encouragement from Mayfield devotees in both the black and white communities, his widow, Missy Mayfield, sought appointment to the seat for the remaining months of her late husband's term. At a tempestuous Council meeting in April, an Ashe-led majority of Council members spurned her bid, opting instead to appoint a retired educator, Raleigh Wynn Sr., with whom they felt more comfortable. Hostility to the appointment ran so high that the Mayfield camp launched a campaign to recall the mayor and three of his Council stalwarts, Sharp, Shouse and Larry Cox. But the recallistas, as they came to be known, failed to get the 15,000 signatures on a petition that it would have taken to force a recall referendum. While Ashe insists he didn't oppose Missy Mayfield, Malone is clear that he engineered Wynn's appointment.

No one got more slighted than Malone. Ashe frequently cut her short at council meetings and excluded her from the recognition he bestowed on other council members. "In every other district, council members were invited to participate in ribbon cuttings, ground breakings and what have you with the mayor, whereas I wasn't even informed of them in my district," she says. For the past two years, Ashe's latter-day nemesis on Council, Joe Hultquist, has gotten the same sort of cold-shoulder treatment.

Malone laments what she considers Ashe's down-the-nose attitude toward the public more than she resents the personal slights. "There needs to be more trust of the taxpayer, and that's where I think Victor has done a great disservice both to himself and the public. He failed to provide a process for getting people's attention and then saying here are the reasons why I'm doing this—why we have greenways, why we need sign control and historic preservation. If you really want your position to go forward and outlive your administration, you've got to have that and his failure to do so leaves a big question whether the good things he has started can continue without him."

Ashe insists he provided for broad-based participation in decision-making through the appointments of task forces and advisory panels on everything from the planning of new parks to sign controls. But in lamenting the failure of one of his pet projects, a $6 million city investment in ornate gardens at Lakeshore Park, he concedes that "one reason the gardens hit the skids was that there had been inadequate preparation with the public as to its merits." He rebuts accusations of vindictiveness by pointing out, "I named a street for one of my opponents for mayor, former Mayor Randy Tyree, and I hired another one, Ivan Harmon."

Ashe says the thing he will most miss when he leaves office is "not having the bully pulpit to promote the issues that I deeply care about: historic preservation, reform of TDOT." He leaves open the question—asked often over the years he's been the mayor in his bully pulpit—what will he do next?

December 11, 2003 * Vol. 13, No. 50
© 2003 Metro Pulse