March 14, 2023


Photographer Diane Arbus was born 100 years ago today.

In today's report: One Knoxville SC will host the city's first professional soccer match when it meets Lexington SC on Saturday at the University of Tennessee's Regal Soccer Stadium. The club, which will play an expanded schedule against teams across the country, has had to exponentially increase its investment in salaries and travel to join USL League One. The team is also sponsoring youth and adult recreational soccer and supporting local causes through a new partnership with United Way of Greater Knoxville. We sit down with One Knoxville SC co-owner Drew McKenna to talk about the team and the business on the eve of a historic season.

As we reported last week, under the final budget approved for the new downtown stadium, the projected annual contribution to debt service for the City of Knoxville and Knox County governments will be about $800,000 each. (That number could drop over the course of the 30-year bonds, depending on how much tax revenue comes from stadium activity.)

The city has not identified a specific funding source for its contribution, which will most likely come via its regular annual budget. But Knox County has said from the start that it plans to pay out of its hotel/motel tax collections. By state law, hotel/motel taxes must be used to promote tourism, and the stadium counts.

So how big a hit will $800,000 a year be to the county's revenue stream? Not too big, it appears. We asked county Chief Financial Officer Chris Caldwell about recent years' receipts, and he said the county is currently seeing its highest-ever takes from the 5 percent occupancy tax paid by all guests in local hotels.

In the 2021-22 fiscal year, the county collected $12.17 million in occupancy taxes — which was above not only the pandemic-squeezed prior years ($7.4 million in 2020-21, $7.1 million in 2019-20), but also a nearly 40 percent jump from $8.8 million in 2018-19.

Caldwell said the driving forces appear to be a strong bounce-back in the hospitality market plus rising room rates across the industry, as inflation and demand have pushed prices up. This year looks set to continue the trend, with a projected take that could reach $13 million.

The last two years have exceeded the county's budget projections to the extent that it currently has about a $3.8 million surplus in the account — by itself, enough to pay nearly five years of projected contributions to the stadium. Caldwell also noted that the county is currently paying $1.5 million a year in debt on the Knoxville Convention Center, which will be paid off in 2032.


With book-banning having one of its periodic resurgences in parts of the United States — including Tennessee's Williamson County, a bastion of the conservative activist group Moms For Liberty — we thought we'd check on the state of things in Knox County Schools.

At the moment, it appears mostly quiet on the school library front. Carly Harrington, the district's communications chief, told Compass that only one book is currently subject to a parental challenge, which is currently under review.

The book is Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not So Dorky Drama Queen by author Rachel Renée Russell. It's the ninth book in a hugely popular series about a middle-school girl, her friends, enemies and social and classroom tribulations. Harrington said it was challenged by a parent at Farragut Primary School, although she did not have details about what specifically triggered the objections.

Russell's series doesn't turn up on lists of the most challenged children's books, but online searches show objections from some parents to its depiction of mean-girl social dynamics. According to the ACLU, one Texas school system relocated Dork Diaries from elementary to middle school libraries.

Russell has said the main character is based on her own middle school experiences. The series is often compared to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books about a middle-school boy. Like those books, Russell's are most popular with elementary-age children.

Harrington said the KCS review of the complaint should be completed soon.

Meanwhile, national and state-level polls consistently show strong majorities of Americans and Tennesseans opposed to banning books from schools or libraries.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally announced yesterday that he is stepping back from his engagement on social media, after enduring several days of headlines and mockery for liking provocative Instagram posts by a young gay man. In a statement, the longtime Oak Ridge legislator also defended his record on LGBTQ rights, insisting that neither he nor the state Republican Party engages in anti-gay bigotry.

You can read the full statement at the Tennessee Journal, but here are some excerpts:

"... I apologize for any embarrassment my postings have caused my family, friends and colleagues. For this reason, I will be pausing my social media activity in order to reflect and receive more guidance on the use of social media.

While I have made some mistakes in my use of social media, the characterization of me and my record as somehow 'anti-gay' is inaccurate. On a personal level, nothing could be further from the truth. I believe every person has value and deserves respect regardless of their orientation.

I am 79 years old, and was raised in a time when homosexuality was deeply shameful. And I absolutely still hold traditional Tennessee values dear. But I now have friends and even a relative who is gay. I have worked hard to try and understand this community better, and at the same time not compromise trying to protect children and my own values.

... I would encourage everyone to look at my record in its totality. It is both thoroughly conservative and compassionate to others. Though I may disagree with specific policies of certain LGBTQ activists, all people are deserving of love and compassion, no matter their race, gender, or any other attribute.

... Again, conservative and 'anti-gay' are not synonymous. Not generally and certainly not for me." 

McNally has been in the Legislature since 1978 and has been lieutenant governor and speaker of the Senate since 2017. Human Rights Campaign, a national LGTBQ advocacy group, says that since 2015, Tennessee has passed more anti-LGBTQ legislation than any other state.

As it happens, the same day McNally released his statement, the state Senate voted on a bill on the Human Rights Campaign's watchlist. The measure explicitly defines "sex" in state law as "a person's immutable biological sex as determined by anatomy and genetics existing at the time of birth and evidence of a person's biological sex." LGBTQ advocates say the bill will make it difficult for transgender people to legally identify as their gender, and will encourage discrimination against them.

"Let’s be clear," said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, "the goal of this bill is to exclude the LGBTQ+ community from nondiscrimination protections in the state of Tennessee and to perpetuate a false narrative of who transgender people are."

The bill passed the Senate 27-6, with all Republicans including McNally voting in favor.


After staunchly opposing several proposals to carve out medical or other exemptions to the state's criminalization of abortion, the anti-abortion group Tennessee Right to Life yesterday endorsed a more narrow measure: a bill proposed by state Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, that would protect doctors from prosecution if they terminate "an ectopic or molar pregnancy," or if they perform an abortion "to prevent the death of the pregnant woman or to prevent serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman." 

The bill would replace the "affirmative defense" in the current ban — which leaves doctors open to criminal prosecution even in cases of medical emergency — with an exemption, albeit in limited circumstances that would still need to be medically defined.

"As opposed to other bills that have been filed and/or presented this year, the clear and succinct language in this amended legislation helps doctors and patients without creating unnecessary exceptions or deleting large sections of pro-life laws in the Tennessee Code," Tennessee Right to Life said in a statement Monday. "Pro-life legislators and pro-life Tennesseans can be confident that these changes will not weaken the intent of the legislation that was passed in 2019 to protect the right to life of all unborn children in our state."

The bill is up for consideration today in the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Population Subcommittee.

Balendra Sutharshan has been named chief operating officer for Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He will succeed Alan Icenhour, who is retiring this spring after serving in the role since 2021.

Sutharshan joined ORNL in February 2021 as the associate laboratory director for the Isotope Science and Engineering Directorate, which conducts research, development and production of isotopes used in medicine, research and security. He begins his new duties as ORNL’s deputy for operations and executive vice president for operations for UT-Battelle on April 1.

“Balendra brings comprehensive experience to the position, including an extensive knowledge of ORNL’s nuclear capabilities, strong relationships across the national lab and Battelle systems, and a history of driving operational performance improvements and organizational strategy,” interim ORNL Director Jeff Smith said in a statement. “I am excited for Balendra to serve in this important role for ORNL.”

As the chief operating officer of UT-Battelle, Sutharshan will lead the development of operational plans and facility strategies to support ORNL’s missions. He also will play a lead role in the lab’s commitment to community engagement.

“It’s an honor to be part of an organization that empowers leaders and teams to pursue breakthrough science and technology and has roots back to the Manhattan Project,” Sutharshan said. “I look forward to strengthening ORNL’s operations and facilities strategies and continuing to support the lab’s engagement with communities where we work and live.”

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