December 22, 2023 10:00am

Most Important Stories of 2023

Survey respondents rank housing, 3rd grade retention, stadium construction and the Tennessee Three as the year’s top stories.

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Knoxville, TN Correspondent
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Sometimes, big news stories are obvious. For Knoxville Power Poll members, this is one of those times. With 2023 nearing its end, we asked members to choose the most important stories of the year in four categories — local news, education, development and state news. They responded with clear-cut top selections in all categories.

Majorities of Power Poll members picked the housing shortage as the top local story, the start of construction of Knoxville’s multi-use stadium as the No. 1 development story, the state’s new 3rd grade reading retention law as the leading education story and the Tennessee Three as the most important state government story.

Housing Shortage Knoxville and Knox County governments grappled with the housing shortage throughout the year, and 58 percent of Power Poll respondents viewed the issue as the top local news story of the year. The shortage cuts across all income levels and price points, but affordable housing has a focus of attention, not least because low-income renters are at a greater risk of becoming homeless.

Knoxville city government has focused on helping to finance affordable housing projects — 2,100 new units have been built during the past four years. The demand remains high, however, and rising rents at existing apartment buildings are putting the squeeze on tenants. Mayor Indya Kincannon’s administration has responded by proposing extending tax incentives to the owners of existing apartment buildings to entice them to keep rents at reasonable levels. In an effort to promote higher density, Kincannon has proposed making it easier to build duplexes, triplexes and other small multifamily developments in the traditional neighborhoods surrounding downtown. City Council will vote on her proposal in January.

In the county, the issue is more about where development will take place. The Advance Knox process to develop a plan to guide development in unincorporated Knox County continued through the year. The plan is the basis for revisions to the state-mandated Growth Policy Plan under consideration by the Knox County Growth Policy Coordinating Committee.

As it stands now, the Growth Policy Plan revisions would make it easier to develop 17.5 square miles of rural land, a portion of which contains some of the county’s richest soils. Advocates for farmers and rural interests oppose the changes, which must be approved by the Knox County Commission, Knoxville City Council and Farragut Board of Mayor and Alderman.

With 22 percent of the vote, the city elections came in a distant second among Power Poll respondents in the ranking of local stories. Kincannon easily won reelection and Tyler Caviness defeated longtime incumbent John R. Rosson to become the first new municipal judge in 37 years.

Stadium Starts Construction finally got underway this year on the multi-use stadium adjacent to the Old City, an event that 58 percent of Power Poll respondents selected as the most important development story of 2023.

The start date had been pushed back in 2022 because of volatile construction materials costs and rising interest rates, but early this year the cost was set at $114 million, with the public portion capped at $101 million. The stadium will be the new home of the Tennessee Smokies minor-league baseball team (to be rechristened the Knoxville Smokies) and the One Knoxville SC professional soccer club.

Ground was also broken on one of two private residential developments that will be built next to the stadium. Other developments have been planned for the immediate area.

The aforementioned Advance Knox process came in second in the development story category, the primary choice of 26 percent of respondents.

The new state law that can keep students from being promoted from third to fourth grade if they don’t score at least “proficient” on the state’s third-grade English/language arts test went into effect this year. The law’s implementation was named the top education story by 52 percent of Power Poll respondents.

Under the law, passed during a rushed special session of the Legislature in 2021, third graders who don’t score at least “proficient” either must repeat third grade, attend summer reading and comprehension classes or undergo literacy tutoring throughout the fourth grade. The Knox County Board of Education opposed the law, but has to follow its directives.

This year, about 1,600 Knox County students were initially flagged for their scores. Only 36 students were held back to repeat third grade, while the rest took the other options or successfully appealed their cases.

Twenty-two percent of Power Poll respondents picked the University of Tennessee’s historic enrollment growth as the top education story. UT’s enrollment at the Knoxville campus reached 36,000, and UT President Randy Boyd has set a goal of hitting 41,000 by the end of the decade.

The Covenant School shooting in Nashville drew protesters to the state Capitol on March 30 to advocate for gun law reform. Democratic state Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville, Justin Pearson of Memphis and Gloria Johnson of Knoxville took their objections to the dais on the House floor in violation of the chamber’s rules of decorum.

Their saga — which gained national media attention that turned the “Tennessee Three” into Democratic celebrities — was the top state government story of 2023 for 52 percent of Power Poll respondents. The reaction of the House’s Republican supermajority took on racial overtones. The House voted to expel Jones and Pearson, who are Black, but a vote to expel Johnson, who is white, failed by one vote. Jones and Pearson ultimately were elected to return to their seats. Johnson has been inspired to run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Marsha Blackburn.

Respondents placed three stories in a cluster far behind the Tennessee Three — the special legislative session called by Gov. Bill Lee in response to the Covenant School shooting, laws restricting gender-affirming care and drag shows, and the transportation law enabling privately funded “choice lanes” on Tennessee interstate highways.

Power Poll Members: Do you have a friend or colleague who should be on Power Poll? Please invite them to join!

About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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