T. Wayne Waters photo
William Edward “Bill” Haslam was a little tired when he sat down to talk in his City County Building office in downtown Knoxville late one hot summer afternoon. Serving as mayor the largest city in east Tennessee while simultaneously waging a demanding gubernatorial campaign will take the wind out of a man, even one who is a fit, trim 52-year-old with a love for running and bicycling.
Yet as we talked Haslam often leaned out from his chair to stress a point, his sleeves rolled up in down-to-business fashion, his hands fully engaged in the conversation, and it became clear the two-term mayor and now duly elected Republican nominee for governor still has plenty of energy and enthusiasm for political service.
Haslam was first known in Knoxville as the youngest son of the rich and powerful Jim Haslam, founder of Pilot Corporation (now Pilot Flying J) and generous philanthropist. His first job at age 13 was pumping gas at the family-owned station.
Haslam attended Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., where he met his wife of 29 years, Christen (Chrissy). He graduated with a degree in history and the couple moved back to Knoxville where he took on managing the family business. He quickly became more than just “Jim Haslam’s son,” and had a son of his own right, Will, now 26. Haslam’s two daughters Annie and Leigh are 23 and 20 respectively.
Eventually, Haslam worked his way up to serve as president and director of the travel center/convenience store company. Pilot grew significantly during the younger Haslam’s tenure. Then from 1999 until 2003, Haslam served as CEO of SAKS Direct, an e-commerce and catalog division of Saks Fifth Avenue.
At the urging of friends Haslam ran for and was elected mayor of Knoxville, Tenn., in 2003. The city had a serious revenue deficit problem and its downtown, though already undergoing redevelopment efforts, was not yet the vibrant residential and entertainment center it has become since he came into office.
Haslam has been personally instrumental in securing at least three of downtown’s newest and biggest successes—the renovated and reopened Bijou Theatre, the restored and reopened S&W restaurant and the new Regal Riviera eight-screen movie theater. He even bought $2 million in bonds himself to help finance the latter project when it appeared no one else would.
With the revitalization, Knoxville has been inundated with high rankings for everything from “Best Places for Business and Careers” and “Best Metro for Business and Expansion” to “Best Places for Doing Business in America” and “Best Places for Relocating Families” in publications like Forbes, Inc. Magazine, BusinessWeek and Expansion Management Magazine.
Haslam’s re-election in 2007 brought him 87 percent of the vote—a majority that helped fuel his bid for governor. In the Republican primary this August, Haslam took nearly as many ballots as both his competitors combined. His platform heralds “traditional values and commitment to preserving our 2nd Amendment rights, traditional marriage, and the protection of the unborn.”
Haslam established himself as Knoxville’s favorite son. Now he is clearly the same for the state’s Republicans. Will he be for all of Tennessee?
Wayne Waters: How big a role do you think the Smokies region plays for Knoxville, and vice versa, for that matter?
Bill Haslam: It’s significant to note that the city of Knoxville’s historical connection to the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The city even put money into buying parkland. City leaders at that time understood how important it was to save the park and that the park would benefit the city of Knoxville. They saw the reciprocal value and invested real city dollars, which is unusual.
So, the people of Knoxville have always had a special bond with the park and with the whole Smoky Mountain region. Knoxville benefits from tourists coming through here on the way to the park. One of the reasons it’s the most visited national park is the proximity of I-75 and I-40. All of that helps the city of Knoxville. I can’t tell you how many people I know who moved here [Knoxville] because they came here during a vacation to see the park and they decided to stay.
For a lot of Knoxvillians, the park has always been kind of our favorite playground. For me personally, I love to hike in the Smokies. My wife and I both celebrated our 50th birthdays two years ago and, to celebrate, we brought in some friends and took them up into the mountains and we hiked and played in the water and did all the things available in the Smokies that we love.
WW: You’ve now served the better part of seven years as mayor of Knoxville. Looking back for a moment, what were your goals coming into the office?
BH: Ultimately, we wanted to make Knoxville America’s best place in the nation to live, work and play—and raise a family. We worked really hard to recruit jobs and bring them to town. We worked very hard to make downtown the center point, not just of Knoxville but of our entire region. We worked to bring in the movie theater, to restore some historic buildings, to make Market Square an active, vibrant hub for the city.
But, you have to remember that at the end of the day the thing people care most about is their house on their street in their neighborhood.
WW: Did your priorities change as time went on?
BH: I think sometimes your priorities change because you see what you can get done and what you can’t. Everybody seems to think, ‘Well, you’re the mayor. You can do whatever you want.’ But that’s not really true.
We’ve also focused really hard on developing the South Waterfront to make it a vital part of the city by taking advantage of the Tennessee River. We have a wonderful plan and everything’s set up, but unfortunately with this economy things have developed a little more slowly than we would like. But we aren’t abandoning the plan. We’ll work long term on that and provide great value for the city of Knoxville.
WW: Whether you move into the governor’s mansion in January or not, there will undoubtedly be projects that were initiated during your mayoral tenure that won’t fully blossom until sometime after you’ve left the office. What do you think are some of the more important projects that could come to fruition in the next few years?
BH: That’s a really good question. Again, I’m a real long-term believer in the South Waterfront. I don’t think that much will happen there within the next few months, though, just because of the economy.
With all the development downtown, there are now several people and companies looking at the possibility of making a move downtown which would contribute to the momentum there and really make a difference. I’m excited about the potential with that. Our philosophy was always to start by making the heart of the city strong. And I think once you make downtown strong, the heart of the city, you start pushing out from that position of strength. So south, it means pushing out on the waterfront.
Pushing west, we have a fundamental redesign of Cumberland Avenue to make it a much more pedestrian-friendly place and a more aesthetically appealing place. For a lot of people, Cumberland is their first picture of Knoxville coming off campus. Maybe they’re dropping their kids off at the University of Tennessee, they’re coming to a football game, or maybe they are a student. I don’t know that we’ve always put our best foot forward there, so really changing the look of Cumberland is important.
Pushing north, what we call the Near North, or Downtown North, we’ve made some real progress there in the Broadway-Central Avenue area. The city has done some façade grants. There are some businesses coming along. It’s a very different looking place already. And then as we work our way east out the Magnolia corridor, I’m hoping we can encourage a couple of big private investments that could make a big difference there.
WW: As you begin approaching the home stretch, do you feel like when it’s all said and done you will have accomplished what you wanted to as mayor of Knoxville?
BH: We wanted to get the city on sound financial footing and we feel like we’ve done that. We have the best bond rating we’ve ever had in the history of the city. It means, as a city, we’re borrowing less and that the professionals who make these determinations recognize that we’ve been very conservative in how we’ve paid down debt and how we’ve lowered our interest costs and saved money when other cities haven’t been doing that.
We wanted to set up a culture where Knoxville is a place where we work out problems rather than just arguing about them. We’ve worked hard to set that culture in motion. We’ve worked to make downtown a real center of activity and that’s happened.
You know, there’s always more you want to do. There are certain things that are going to take longer to accomplish. But by the end of serving two terms as mayor, and I’m not there yet, but when that time comes, I’ll be okay with what we’ve accomplished. You work really hard to get done what you can, you understand that it isn’t a perfect world and you make your best effort and hope you’ve made a difference.
WW: In your gubernatorial campaign, you’ve received criticism about making exaggerated claims, particularly in one of your television commercials, regarding the number of jobs you’ve generated in association with Pilot. How do you answer that?
BH: The point of our commercial was, when I came to work with Pilot we had 800 employees and now we have 14,000. I’ve never said that all the jobs were in Tennessee. Pilot is in 43 States. I’d never make such a claim. The point is, it matters to have a governor who understands why one company grows and another doesn’t. Why one company succeeds and adds jobs and another goes out of business. We have a company that’s grown in that way. I’m very proud of the company and what we’ve done and think it matters that I’ve been a part of a company that started in Tennessee and grown to be all across the country.
WW: Another criticism has regarded your refusal to disclose your total income. You’ve made accessible a summary report of your non-Pilot income for recent years but have refused to disclose your income from Pilot? Why haven’t you been willing to do that?
BH: The point of disclosure is to tell the people of Tennessee what you own and whether or not there are any conflicts of interest. I think it’s real clear to the people of Tennessee where my money comes from. And because it’s a privately owned company owned by 13 family members, me being the only one who decided to run for office, it’s really not fair to drag them into that as well. If I felt it added to the public discussion somehow, maybe I would.
WW: You served as mayor of Knoxville without being paid a salary. Do you plan to do that if elected governor?
BH: I probably would if I’m fortunate enough to be elected. I haven’t made a big deal of that because it’s a blessing to be in a position to be able to do that. But, yes, that would be my plan.
WW: What do you see as the primary differences between you and your Democratic gubernatorial opponent, Mike McWherter?
BH: I think, again, it matters to have served as an executive both in a private company outside of government and also within government. The 20-plus years I served in business really was great preparation for serving as mayor. But being mayor is also great preparation for being governor. I’ve learned a lot in a public role that applies very well. I understand managing a budget in a public situation, which is very different from managing one in a private company. I think those are things that will be a huge advantage if I have the chance to be governor. The seven years I will have served as mayor of Knoxville—it’s a very similar job description.
WW: If you become the next governor of Tennessee, what would you say are your primary goals for the state?
BH: I think three or four things are primary. The next governor is going to have to deal with a very difficult budget situation so the first thing is to make certain the state is on sound financial footing. Without that, it’s hard to do anything else.
The second one is, we can make Tennessee the best location in the Southeast for creating and attracting jobs. I honestly think we can do that. The third piece, and it’s directly tied to the jobs, is education. If there is a place we’re struggling as a state it’s K-12 education. We rank forty-second out of 50 states. Twenty-eight thousand kids will drop out of school this year in Tennessee. If you drop out of school, there’s a greater than 60 percent chance you’ll end up incarcerated. There’s about the same percentage chance you’ll end up on TennCare, the state’s Medicaid system. Your average income is $10,000 as a dropout. That’s not a great looking future for a dropout. We’ve got to address that. What’s making kids drop out? How do we keep them in and keep pushing more toward college?
The last thing is, just as for a mayor, at the end of the day it’s about having a great quality of life. You want people to choose to live in Tennessee. People, while they’re obviously concerned about job opportunities and want the best in terms of education, it’s the entire span of quality-of-life issues that impact how people decide where to live and where they decide to locate their business.