Indya Kincannon does her most public-facing work in the Main Assembly Room of the City-County Building. There, from the stage, she leads Knoxville City Council meetings - a task that's an honor but can sometimes be frustrating.
But she's only up there on the dias a couple of times a month. Most of her job as mayor is conducted in her office, a mid-sized room decorated with paintings from local artists and a standing desk. She told Knox News the desk was her own addition - the previous desk had been there since Bill Haslam's time as mayor.
She's had time to make her office a cozy space after moving in four years ago. It's a reflection on what she calls "space-making," or creating comfortable places in the city. It's the best part of her job.
Kincannon took an oath of office for a second time Dec. 16, with a fresh set of goals in mind.
"As your mayor in my second term, I'm particularly aware of the responsibilities that come with each passing day. We will use the next 1,460 days wisely. While the world and our city may have changed (during my first term), our priorities remain steadfast," she said.
In an exclusive interview with Knox News, she looked back on her first term and shared what she hopes to accomplish in her second.
First term thwarted by 'age of rage'
Kincannnon was sworn in just months before the world shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic and Americans forced a global awakening on systemic racism.
She told Knox News she's had to deal with things her predecessors didn't: a global pandemic, the upending of major precedents like Roe v. Wade and a concentrated racial reckoning. While she can't control what happens in Washington or any other part of the world, she said, she tried to focus on things she could control in Knoxville.
The office of Community Safety and Empowerment is a manifestation of that, she told Knox News. It's about public safety, but not necessarily from a police perspective.
"There's been a lot of very unusual and unprecedented things happening: the pandemic, Jan. 6, overturning a women's right to abortion. Things I never thought would happen. I'm upset about them, the city's upset about them. The city doesn't have a lot of control over those things."
"We do provide a convenient forum for people to vent, share their concerns and express frustration. That's part of the job. It's actually not bad that we have a peaceful way for people to express their frustrations with the world, and some of which might be under control."
"What I tried to do is think globally but act locally. I can't control violence across the globe, but we can try to interrupt and reduce violence here in Knoxville. I'm really proud of starting our Office of Community Safety and Empowerment. ... We are leaders in violence reduction in the country."
Finishing what she started
"They say the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry," Kincannon said, talking about how her first term coincided with tough times. She said the majority of her time was spent dealing with the unprecedented events of 2020 and 2021, including a national rise in gun violence.
She planted the seeds for efforts to make the whole city more sustainable, citing her efforts to stock the city with electric vehicles.
Now, she can really dive in.
"We're going to have an over $4 million partnership with Trees Knoxville and (The University of Tennessee at Knoxville) to plant more trees, better trees and equitably site them."
"I love sustainability because it's a crisis that's affecting our whole planet ... and we have the ability to act globally on improving our public transit. The first four years we've been able to not only respond to crisis, but put things into place that we can implement. Now it's time to execute."
"I feel so grateful that voters had confidence in me to help me to help me continue to lead for another four years. I know better what I'm doing."
Focusing on East Knoxville
Kincannon made a promise: Her second term will usher in a commitment to supporting communities in the eastern part of the city. She's backed it up with a streetscapes project, a new fire station and a steadfast commitment to the Magnolia Avenue corridor between the stadium in the Old City and Chilhowee Park.
City planners and leaders can't tell people to move their businesses along the corridor, but she hopes incentives like tax increment financing and payments in lieu of taxes will do the trick.
Alongside that growth is a real fear homeowners and renters won't be able to keep up with rising payments. She told Knox News her office is finalizing details to incentivize the protection of existing affordable housing that would freeze property taxes.
"Unfortunately, a lot of Chilhowee Park is a parking lot. I would like to consider ways we can turn that back into the park it once was. (It's) a long legacy and an important part of our whole city, particularly East Knoxville. In more recent years, it hasn't been as heavily utilized."
"The city can't start businesses. That's not our job. But we can set the table with our public investments on streetscapes and infrastructure. We brought, in my first term, high-speed internet to everybody in the KUB electric district and they prioritized bringing that fiber to parts of town where the digital divide was extreme."
"If you're a longtime resident of a building and then it doubles (in rent) and your salary stays the same ... that's a real hardship for people. Preserving naturally occurring affordable housing (is a priority). We need to grow our housing supply at all levels, but the affordability is a particular focus and a huge need."
"One thing I learned from other cities that they are doing that we haven't done yet is ask the philanthropic community to contribute to our affordable housing funds. I'm having conversations with (potential donors) and those conversations are going very well."
Making pleasant spaces
Kincannon said one of the most important parts of her job is making spaces people will enjoy using. She boasted a list of projects her staff has either started completed or is planning on starting, including improvements to the Western Heights housing community, working toward transforming the former McClung warehouse space in the Old City and revitalizing the sanitary laundry facility, a building on Broadway that's been boarded up.
She remembered a time when leaving downtown meant deserting all activity but said that time is long gone. She loves that downtown is great for locals and visitors but is excited Sevier Avenue to the south, and Central Street and Broadway to the north are becoming destinations as well.
"There's a list of all the projects that have been completed and that are budgeted but still not completed. It's a long list, we're doing a lot of things and I'm really proud of our employees for getting so much done."
"I call these the 'nodes' (I'm proud of): Burlington, Bearden Village, Happy Holler, Sevier Avenue. We're hoping to create a great public space next to the pedestrian bridge on the South Waterfront."
"I love our city and I love being mayor of Knoxville, it's a dream job for me ... I really love just making sure that our city is well run."
Allie Feinberg reports on politics for Knox News. Email her: email@example.com and follow her on X, formerly known as Twitter, @alliefeinberg.
Support strong local journalism by subscribing atknoxnews.com/subscribe
As someone deeply immersed in urban governance and civic development, I find myself captivated by the intricacies of municipal leadership and the tangible impact it has on the lives of citizens. My expertise stems from a combination of academic pursuits, hands-on experience in urban planning initiatives, and a genuine passion for creating vibrant and inclusive communities.
In the article about Mayor Indya Kincannon, she emerges as a figure grappling with the multifaceted challenges of leading Knoxville through unprecedented times. I appreciate her commitment to "space-making," a concept resonating with urban development strategies aimed at fostering comfort and community engagement.
Mayor Kincannon's acknowledgment of the "age of rage" during her first term highlights her adept understanding of the complex socio-political landscape. The mention of the Office of Community Safety and Empowerment reflects a nuanced approach to public safety beyond traditional law enforcement, indicating a grasp of comprehensive community well-being.
Her resilience during the upheavals of 2020 and 2021, including the global pandemic and social justice movements, underscores the dynamic nature of contemporary municipal leadership. The emphasis on acting locally in the face of global challenges aligns with a growing trend in city governance, recognizing the significance of grassroots initiatives.
The mayor's focus on sustainability, exemplified by the city's partnership with Trees Knoxville and the University of Tennessee, showcases a forward-thinking approach. The commitment to enhancing public transit and the introduction of electric vehicles aligns with a broader movement toward eco-friendly urban planning.
I appreciate Mayor Kincannon's dedication to East Knoxville, as evidenced by the streetscapes project, a new fire station, and efforts to incentivize the protection of affordable housing. Her recognition of the delicate balance between economic development and the preservation of existing communities reflects a deep understanding of the challenges faced by rapidly growing cities.
Furthermore, her engagement with the philanthropic community to contribute to affordable housing funds demonstrates a proactive approach to addressing housing issues—a challenge many cities grapple with.
The emphasis on creating enjoyable public spaces, revitalizing existing areas like Western Heights, and transforming unused spaces like the McClung warehouse aligns with the contemporary urban design philosophy that prioritizes both functionality and aesthetics. The focus on various nodes within the city, such as Burlington, Bearden Village, Happy Holler, and Sevier Avenue, indicates a strategic approach to urban development, recognizing the importance of diverse and vibrant neighborhoods.
In conclusion, Mayor Indya Kincannon's second term agenda reflects a seasoned leader's commitment to navigating the complexities of modern urban governance. Her initiatives span from addressing immediate challenges to fostering long-term sustainability and inclusivity—a testament to her comprehensive understanding of the diverse needs of Knoxville's residents.