Trouble in Paradise? (Part 11)

or What is the Hidden Agenda for Proponents of Growth in Blount County?

The unelected “economic development” czars seek to “fix” Blount County by changing its demographic profile. The existing population mix—that means you–isn’t good enough. Residents foolishly “happy with the way things are” must yield to self-appointed social engineers who think they know better. In the name of “progress,” Blount County must assume a new identity—and learn to like it. In short, Blount County must become younger, more crowded, and “hipper.” If you don’t recall voting for this, it’s because you didn’t. No matter: Bryan Daniels’ crew is intent upon transforming your community anyway. This must be stopped.

Thanks to the Tennessee Star Report (here)!

What makes Blount County different than Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis, or—for that matter—Portland, Minneapolis, Austin, Seattle, Chicago, and a host of other dysfunctional cities? Aside from having a smaller population and a semi-rural location, the difference is largely one of demographics. Exurbs such as Blount County avoid the woke politics and noxious characteristics of larger urban centers (punitive taxes, crime, vagrancy, public drug use, racial unrest, chronic congestion, etc.) because the electorate—mainly homegrown residents rather than transplants—embraces traditional middle-class values.

And the reason that Blount County voters embrace middle-class values is simple: the county is overwhelmingly middle-class. For the most part, Blount County residents proudly earn their living as farmers, industrial workers, small businessmen, and in blue-collar trades. (The area also attracts many retirees.) The prevailing culture is middle-class. Families predominate over college-age singles. Pickup trucks outnumber Teslas and hybrids. BBQ is favored over sushi. Carhartt and camo are more common than Patagonia or Lululemon. Dunkin and Weigel’s sell more coffee than Starbucks. The leading motorcycle brand is Harley, not Ducati or BMW. Musical tastes incline toward country, southern rock, and bluegrass rather than hip-hop. Recreation centers on fishing, hunting, boating, and rooting for the Rebels and Vols. Rural King is a major retailer.

Hipsters and yoga studios are as uncommon as Democrats, explaining why President Trump carried Blount County 71% to 27% in 2020.

Change the demographics and you get a different picture. Leftist hellholes tend to be feudal economies divided between wealthy elites and the service class, with nothing in between. California’s tech economy has attracted highly-educated professionals (many of whom are foreign nationals) to Silicon Valley and similar meccas for venture-capital funded start-ups. Austin, Texas has become a knock-off of Silicon Valley, complete with a legion of H-1B visa holders from India. In Austin, blue state hipsters outnumber native Texans, and the millennial/Gen Z cohort has achieved hegemony. In cities and states lacking a stabilizing middle-class, or a significant number of responsible adults (a/k/a retirement-age Boomers), the politics skew sharply left. Austin has a democratic socialist city government and defunded the police.

In the blue portions of this divided country, it’s not a pretty picture. At least in America’s cities, younger voters tend to be college-educated and very liberal, and vote accordingly. The lower the median age, the more “progressive” the resulting politics. Socialist firebrand AOC is the choice of New York City voters; college-educated liberals in Minneapolis elected Somalia-born Ilhan Omar. The remaining members of Congress’s notorious “Squad”—Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib—are radicals representing Boston and Detroit, respectively. In contrast, east Tennesseans elected Congressman Tim Burchett, a conservative Republican.

Blount County is a microcosm of what America used to look like (and still looks like in the unspoiled portions of “fly-over country”). Most people like it just the way it is. If they wanted to live in the unsafe squalor of Memphis, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Baltimore, they would move there. Instead, they stay in (or move to) the bucolic tranquility of Blount County, nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. People raise families and go to church, you can tell the men from the women, and the residents are uniformly friendly. The reason many people move to Blount County in retirement is because it is so peaceful and safe. Blount County is a refuge from the chaos and conflict that reign elsewhere.    

Some people want to change that. Some people want to turn Blount County into a suburb of Knoxville (think of the sprawl and congestion in Farragut)—or worse, a miniature version of Nashville. Unfortunately, these people, led by Bryan Daniels, President and CEO of the Blount Partnership (a consortium of the normally-separate functions of chamber of commerce, tourism bureau, and economic development), seemingly control local government in Blount County. Follow the money, and it will lead you to the influential insiders who comprise the downtown establishment.

If you wonder what is the impetus behind rampant overdevelopment in Blount County (the explosion of apartments in Alcoa, three Amazon warehouses (so far), cookie-cutter subdivisions proposed at Pate Farms and Best Farms, huge taxpayer subsidies doled out by the so-called Industrial Development Board to lure companies to relocate or open plants here, etc.), Bryan Daniels explained in a recent issue of Horizon, a quarterly magazine published by the Daily Times and distributed to its readers.

Daniels’ contribution to the Winter 2021 issue of Horizon is titled “Growth: What is it good for?” The article is essentially an advertisement for his self-serving vision of “economic development.” The overarching tone of the article is one of condescension, mixed with veiled contempt. We should be grateful for Daniels’ guidance and assistance because he knows better what Blount County needs, and he is here to help us. Daniels views himself as a visionary and a savior. Left to our own devices, the unenlightened residents of Blount County would be content with the status quo. Daniels insists that Amazon warehouses and similar projects will improve residents’ “economic well-being” and “quality of life,” while ignoring the accompanying congestion, truck traffic, and pollution they will generate.

It is not enough, Daniels asserts, that a community is a great place to live and work; focusing only on quality of life “is what dooms many communities.” Get it? Without Daniels’ behind-the-scenes maneuvering, Blount County is “doomed.” In order to thrive, the community must take affirmative steps to attract businesses and certain demographics. In Daniels’ words, “Blount County still must make the basic business case to desirable prospective employers.” This is where Daniels and his well-funded team of “economic development” apparatchiks come into play. They wheedle and cajole companies such as Amazon to come to Blount County, with tax breaks, subsidies, and other economic incentives—making backroom deals with your tax dollars. Otherwise, Daniels insists, the county would miss out on economic growth—and ultimately die.

The claim that businesses would not move to Blount County without Daniels’ machinations is risible for several reasons.

The area offers abundant water, cheap electricity, low taxes, and a favorable business climate. Land is plentiful and reasonably priced. The cost of living is low. Tennessee is a right-to-work state. Blount County offers convenient access via truck, train, air, and water to major markets. These factors motivated Alcoa, Inc. to establish a thriving company town in Blount County a century ago, without social engineering by “economic development” officials. Daniels obviously has an inflated sense of his own importance. Industry came to Blount County long before Daniels arrived. He likes making deals with other people’s money; it makes him feel like a big shot. If he wants to pretend that he is an entrepreneur, he should indulge his ego with his own money.

But more is at work than simple vanity. Daniels wants to change Blount County because he doesn’t like it the way it is. Daniels feels that Blount County has too many retired people. He is concerned that between 2015 and 2019, the population of those aged 65 and above increased 14.3%, while the cohort between 18 and 44 rose only 1.5%. Despite the fact that retired residents pay taxes without making any demands on the public education system—making them desirable additions to the community—Daniels feels otherwise: he claims that “the influx of retirees…outpaces the needs of our young people between the age of 20-40.” Whatever that means. Florida seems to do fine as a retirement destination, but Daniels knows better. We need to attract more young people in order to keep Blount County “viable.”  

Although Maryville is already a college town, Daniels is obsessed with recruiting more young people to Blount County. He is concerned that “the county is not perceived as a place for younger people.” So what? He ominously notes—without explanation–that “Increasing its attraction to the younger demographic is an important balance to strike.” Daniels frets that the existing assortment of restaurants and nightlife in Blount County is “enough for some people, but not enough for others, especially the target younger demographic which are [sic] needed to keep the county viable.” Translation: we need more bars and nightclubs so young people can party until the wee hours.  Otherwise, we are doomed. I’m not making this up; these are his words.

How does Daniels know that “young people are underrepresented in the population”? Is there an accepted metric for this dubious proposition? The demographics of communities vary widely and are a matter of private preferences based on climate, geography, family, cost of living, taxes, recreational amenities, and many other factors. Some areas aggressively recruit retirees because they are viewed as an asset. Daniels’ disdain for senior citizens is simply his personal prejudice. He has no warrant to impose this peculiar perspective on the community without an electoral mandate. Daniels acts as if he is an elected official, but he is merely a bureaucrat who operates without transparency or public accountability, using taxpayer funds to make deals with his business cronies.

Toward the end of his revealing Horizon essay, Daniels makes it clear that his goal is to transform Blount County into a hipster enclave—the exact opposite of what it is currently. In his own words:

Two groups that are needed for continued growth are the “Young and Settled” and “Young and Unsettled” within the 20-40 age range. The Young and Settled group of current and potential residents are most likely married, and either have children or on the precipice of beginning a family.

The Young and Unsettled target demographic are [sic] usually single and not married, do not have children, and are toward the beginning of their careers. This is why focus on urban centers to create those opportunities is so important. This includes downtown living areas, opening shops and retail outlets to face the greenway to create gathering places.

Moving forward, Blount County should find ways to continue to attract and retain the Young and Settled demographic. Additionally, the bigger lift will be appealing to the Young and Unsettled demographic, which does not have as much reason to locate themselves [sic] in Blount County. (Emphasis added.)

Daniels’ end game, then, is to attract young, unmarried people to Blount County. This is the ultimate goal of his “economic development” agenda. Daniels is working hard to give the “Young and Unsettled” a reason to move to Blount County. He apparently believes that downtown Maryville should look like Knoxville’s Old City: a congested urban space full of bars, nightclubs, and tattoo parlors—not to mention bums and crime. What Daniels doesn’t mention is that the so-called “Young and Unsettled” demographic is likely to be comprised of liberal Democratic voters. Daniel’s growth agenda is really an ambitious plan to transform Blount County’s politics. This is not mere conjecture on my part. The slick marketing materials prepared by Daniels’ Blount Partnership (using taxpayer funds) to attract tourists and business visitors are full of images portraying Blount County as a “hip” destination.

I previously complained to Daniels about the 2021 Vacation Guide prepared by his organization (with hotel tax monies) on the grounds that it contained a photo of Nathan Higdon, a local LGBTQ activist and Knox Pride officer who serves as Chairman of the Blount County Democratic Party. The photo had Higdon posing in the McGhee Tyson Airport with a roller bag, pretending to be a businessman traveling to a meeting. The accompanying caption read in part: “Your meeting is about to get way hipper.” Normal people living in Blount County are not “hip” enough for the Blount Partnership’s taste?

Daniels bristled at my complaint, responding that “We welcome all people to experience the best our community has to offer…. We are purposeful in targeting a younger demographic to visit because we are hopeful that during their vacation or attending a business meeting, they choose to relocate to our community and be a part of our labor force.”  Higdon is not just a millennial with a man-bun; he brags that he is the “Lube Guy,” responsible for distributing “pallets” of “condoms, lube, and hand sanitizer” for Pride Month in Knoxville. Higdon is also a leader in the radical left-wing group Indivisible East Tennessee. Higdon is a far-left extremist and a Democrat organizer. We don’t want or need more people like him relocating to Blount County.

Daniels defends the use of this vile person —a self-proclaimed homosexual “lube guy”–as a model in Blount County’s official Vacation Guide, characterizing my objection as frustration “with our community’s inclusiveness.” If this is Daniels’ vision of “inclusiveness,” I am confident that an overwhelming majority of Blount County residents reject it.

Making Blount County “more hip” is a preoccupation for the downtown crowd.  Daniels’ lavish PR campaign to rebrand Blount County as a haven for the “Young and Unsettled” did not end with the 108-page 2021 Vacation Guide. Blount Partnership also commissioned a video infomercial distributed by PR Newswire, with a press release bearing the headline “Blount County, Tennessee Offers a Hip Meeting and Convention Destination in the Smoky Mountains.” The video’s theme is “Your Next Meeting is About to Get Way Hipper,” the same message as the caption accompanying the photo of the “lube guy” referred to above. The text of the press release is clearly directed at the “Young and Unsettled” demographic with which Daniels is preoccupied: “But Blount County, Tennessee, nestled in the Smoky Mountains, is quickly becoming a top choice with its scenic mountain views, opportunities for outdoor adventure, a whiskey trail, craft breweries and food to tempt even the snobbiest gourmand.”

In fact, Nathan Higdon is also prominently featured in Blount County’s infomercial, posing as a business traveler wheeling a roller bag through the airport. Check it out. (Higdon’s the one with the greasy hair, scraggly beard, and man-bun.)  The same video is linked to the Blount Partnership website. You get the drift. Daniels, Blount Partnership, and the downtown establishment are out of touch with our community. They do not promote Blount County based on its wholesome image and excellent quality of life. Their pro-growth agenda is an excuse to transform Blount County into a hipster destination like Portland. They want Blount County to become “Way More Chill.” Who even talks like this? They hold Blount County’s residents and their middle-class culture, values, and lifestyle in contempt. They want to replace you with “Young and Unsettled” hipsters like Nathan Higdon. And they are using your tax dollars to finance this outrageous project, without your approval.

Is this what you want for Blount County? If not, get engaged and vote for change. We have elections in 2022. Make them count.

Postscript: The Blount Partnership seems to have gotten the message. A subsequent growth plan issued by the Blount Partnership acknowledged that it “conducted a communitywide survey in 2022 and 62% of respondents believe Blount County is growing too fast, and some question whether we have the infrastructure to support it.” Bingo! And the later document, entitled “Perfectly Blount,” did not contain a single photo of Nathan Higdon.

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