The three men who hope to occupy the mayor’s office in the Blount County Courthouse recently took questions from professionals in the community who build homes and sell real estate.
The Maryville Alcoa Homebuilders Association and the Blount County Association of Realtors sponsored the Tuesday, April 20, event at the Homebuilders Association offices in Maryville. Bill Russell with William Knight Insurance served as moderator as County Mayor Jerry Cunningham, former Maryville Fire Chief Ed Mitchell and former State Rep. Howard Kerr shared their thoughts on the issues.
Russell asked how the three would help the building industry if elected mayor.
Cunningham said if re-elected, he would continue to work in much the same way he has in his first term to help the industry. “When you endorsed me three and a half years ago, we talked about radical elements in Blount County and rabid environmentalists, and how they were trying to abrogate almost all development across the county,” he said. “I promised we would try to select and make appointments to the Planning Commission who were fair folks, who balance the needs of your industry with the protection of the environment, and we’ve made those kinds of appointments.”
The mayor said other positive, smart ways of developing property have happened in places like FenceRail Gap and in the Three Sisters property purchase that protected portions of Chilhowee Mountain from development and controlled the development that did occur.
“Development and building can be done in a manner commiserate with the environment using earth-tone exteriors and non-glazed glass,” he said. “We can continue to work with developers, builders and environmentalists to bring about that kind of balance. We can’t get so crazy in making restrictions that we shut out an entire industry.”
Mitchell said it is important to first remember families have to have jobs before they can buy or build a house. “People aren’t going to be building homes if they don’t have jobs and if the don’t have jobs they are not going to have money to spend,” he said.
The chief said the first thing that should happen is the county should put more of an emphasis on the partnership between the county the Economic and Industrial Development Board to bring jobs to Blount County. “People in Blount County want to work. There are industries that, if the partnership is right and strong, they will come here. There are industries that will come here and give us good paying, technical jobs. Industries are out there,” he said. “We have a great place for them to come. It is Blount County. You can’t drive through here and not fall in love.”
Mitchell said he retired from the Maryville Fire Department and before that he was fire marshal and worked closely with building and electrical departments. “I worked with a lot of homebuilders in Maryville when we were in the prime of our growth. I’m user-friendly. When you come to me as a home builder or developer, I promise I’ll be user-friendly. I don’t want you walking away shaking your head wondering how am I going to overcome this obstacle.”
Mitchell said he knows what it takes to make the Blount County economy work. “I’ve watched the success we’ve had in the city. When developers come in here and want to build houses, it needs to be one-stop shopping,” he said.
Kerr reminded the realtors and homebuilders that in 1990, he stood before them and led the effort for zoning even though it was unpopular with many in the county.
“If I said the word zoning, half the community stood up in arms. Realtors came to me and said, ‘We need zoning.’ Builders were very supportive of zoning, and I led the community effort to get zoning done when people told me it was political suicide,” Kerr said. “I do things that are necessary to protect the community.”
Kerr said the homebuilding business is affected by factors such as the number people who want to upgrade their housing and by the number of people moving into the area.
“Why do people move here? For the scenic, pastoral views and for jobs. As county mayor, one of my jobs will be to do everything to increase job creation in the community. Give training and skills education to get jobs and attract businesses,” he said.
Kerr told those gathered that he is a scientist and that there will be thousands of scientists moving to the area because of the Spallation Neutron Source in Oak Ridge and because of other high tech development in the area.
“There are going to be thousands of scientists coming here to do research, and they’re going to have offices and build nice homes and be highly paid people,” he said. “I’m not going to help build homes -- I’m going to create employment opportunities for people to buy those homes you build.”
Martha Lou McCampbell, president-elect of the Blount County Association of Realtors, said the mayoral forum has become popular with homebuilders and realtors.
“It looks like this is something we’re going to do for the homebuilders and realtors during various elections,” she said.
McCampbell said the homebuilders and realtors got a chance to talk with the candidates one-on-one as well as hear their take on the issues. “It gave us a chance to ask industry-specific questions that affect the whole county,” she said. “I thought all the candidates presented themselves well, and we appreciate them taking time to meet us.”