Downtowners — residents and business owners — attended a festive party at Radius Rooftop Lounge recently to celebrate Rick Emmett’s retirement from his position as downtown coordinator for the City of Knoxville. But I think I speak for everyone when I say we had to force ourselves to put on a happy face at the event.
Don’t get me wrong. After working for the City of Knoxville for over 30 years under the leadership of five different mayors, Emmett, 67, deserves his retirement. But he’s done such a good job as downtown coordinator for the past 12 years, that many of us are concerned about him leaving. His duties are to be divided among several others at City Hall. Point person will be another friend of ours, Chip Barry, the deputy chief of operations, but downtown coordinating will not be his only job, as it was Emmett’s.
“Rick is one of those rare people who has been in public service a long time, but has no enemies!” Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon said at the farewell event hosted by the Downtown Knoxville Alliance. “Rick anticipates problems. But when he comes to me, he doesn’t just bring the problem, he brings a solution.” She added that she always was confident that Rick “had my back.”
Emmett is a consummate relationship person. And this has been particularly important in his role as downtown coordinator. He knows everyone from the street people — he can call them by name — to the business owners. He also knows when to use what some of us call “the special ops unit.” This means sometimes things “just happen” and problems get solved. But it might not be through the normal bureaucratic processes.
Case in point. Several years ago, a well-known habitual vagrant set up headquarters on a bench on the 100 block of Gay Street. Day after day, the same person would occupy the bench from sunup to sunset and beyond. Residents and business people on that block lodged numerous complaints with the City. Not about the person for being there all day every day, but for the massive amounts of debris and garbage the person would surround themself with during the day and leave behind every night. The residents and businesses were tired of cleaning up the mess every morning. But it didn’t really seem to rise to the level of a police matter. So, what could be done?
Here’s what happened. One night, after weeks of complaints, the bench just disappeared! Poof! It just vanished with no explanation. Problem solved. Nobody got arrested or ticketed. The problem just ended. Now, of course, the vagrant went somewhere else, but the people on the 100 block got some relief. They were relieved of the need to do a massive cleanup every morning. And they were ecstatic with the solution. I could cite numerous other examples, but I think you get the idea. As Mayor Kincannon said, Emmett “thinks outside the box.”
Emmett says he has no specific post-retirement plans. He is a talented amateur musician and songwriter. And, based on his long government tenure, there could be consulting opportunities. But, speaking for his downtown friends, we hope he’s not a stranger here!
And we hope that downtown continues to get the special attention it needs. It is, after all, Knoxville’s living room. This is the part of town we put on display to visitors. Businesses and residences literally are stacked on top of each other, and the vagrancy issue is particularly acute. Downtown needs to be clean, safe and attractive in order to help the whole of Knoxville continue to thrive.
(My friend Georgiana Vines wrote a column about Emmett’s retirement for the Knoxville News Sentinel. You can read it here. Mike Steely of The Focus did a great interview with him. You can read it here. )