Tim Kelly has always gone to the beat of his own drum. Whether as an entrepreneur, supporter of the arts or literally getting behind a drum kit with other musicians, he has steered his own path. Long known for the automotive dealership that bears his family name downtown, over the years he has branched out his business ventures to include one of the biggest Honda motorcycle dealerships in the region (Southern Honda Powersports), Chattanooga Whiskey and the Chattanooga Football Club (CFC). Known as a patron of the arts (a proud supporter of Nightfall and other artistic endeavors) he is looking to expand his reach by dipping his proverbial toes into the potential caustic pool of local politics. Kelly is one of 15 official candidates running for mayor of Chattanooga (and one unofficial – running as a write-in candidate). With so many candidates coming from different areas and agendas, how can the longtime Chattanooga business owner and city cheerleader make himself stand out from others? We sat down with Mr. Kelly to get insight on that.
Are you a native Chattanoogan?
I was born here, raised here went to New York for four years of school and then came back.
You’ve been in the business community for many years with multiple successful endeavors, most of which people are most familiar with is Kelly Cars, that has been around for many generations. Why do you want to go from the private sector to the public sector and run for public office?
I grew up with parents who were very involved with the non-profits. It’s par for the course in Chattanooga when you get here when you’re in the business world you do a stint in the non-profit sector because it was your civic duty. I’ve done that too since I’ve been back. I bought the car business and started a couple of businesses. My mother and father have done a ton of non-profit work and at some point I realized I was kind of in the backseat driving. I was really effectively involved with public policy back then by proxy. And then 2016 came along – I’m got getting into any political stuff, I just realized if you aren’t happy with leadership, then you have no right to bitch about it until you tried. I’ve been in Chattanooga this whole time – for the past 30 years now and I feel like it’s in a place where it’s either going to slide backward precipitously or move forward potentially dramatically. If not me, then who? I feel like I can make a difference and I want to try.
Being in the private sector, what perspective do you feel you can bring to the office of mayor that a career politician doesn’t – and we’ve had plenty of career politicians in office or those involved in government service that have gone into the mayor’s office for many generations now.
It’s funny. I didn’t think of it at all before this process started, but since it started it’s occurred to me pretty powerfully that the value of a businessperson in a political role – particularly an executive political role as opposed to a legislative role is not that we understand business better – I mean, that’s important. There are a lot of frustrated businesspersons in Chattanooga currently. We haven’t had business mayors in 16 years, but it’s really that we understand organizational management better. Because all a business is a small pile and build a team. If your team sucks your pile goes away and you’re not in business any more. It’s literally an exercise in organizational management. I think that’s what I can bring better than that will change things more than anything – a city that works better.
What do you see the benefits of being a mayor for yourself? What do you think you could learn by being the mayor of Chattanooga?
I’m not a natural politician. I was never a guy that ran for student council. I understand it’s not business, so I’m probably going to have to be more patient than I’m used to. I don’t have any further political ambitions. I don’t want to go to Nashville and I damn sure don’t want to go to Washington. It sounds like a line, but I love the city and want to do what I can to move it back in the right direction and try to make it a better city. It’s not much more complicated than that. I don’t have any other designs. I was listening to an Andrew Yang podcast the other day and what he said resonated and it’s exactly what I think and it’s what you see with entrepreneurs. I hate to see wasted potential. It drives me crazy. The situation where something’s not functioning well or efficiently as it could and that’s where Chattanooga is. There’s all this great potential and we’re not living up to it. If we could just be the city we are in the brochures. We have the raw material to do that. That’s what I want to see happen.
Why don’t you think Chattanooga has not lived up to its potential?
Pick an area, right? From novel recreation to the entertainment scene – that’s gotten better but Chattanooga positions itself as the best mid-size city in the country or whatever and I don’t know if we can say that right now. But I think all the raw materials and elements to get us there. I also think we’re in this perilous position economically where Nashville’s not a friend, Atlanta’s not a friend. The cavalry ain’t coming. We’ve got to really get our act together and more attention about economic strategy and then have that slide down the pole to this dystopian city with $12 jobs as a Gatlinburg by the river. Nobody wants that.
One of the criticisms I’ve hears about many previous mayors is that their efforts have been concentrated on downtown proper. How do you plan to address that?
The neighborhoods in Chattanooga I think is where the greatest potential lies. We’ve got some great historic neighborhoods that have been neglected. We’ve gotten great housing stock, great potential but we have not really given them the resources and the programs directed to resource them and develop them sufficiently. Downtown’s important. It’s an important part of quality of life for the market, but yeah, I think there’s been too much focus there. I’m thinking of Brainerd in particular.
There’s also been criticism of too much attention put into the arts and not enough into the infrastructure.
That’s a tough one. I do think that one of the things I want to focus on as mayor is sharpening up our sense of collective identity. What does Chattanooga stand for? Who are we? There are a lot of talented people in Chattanooga who could be somewhere else making more money but we’re all here for some reason. I think if we could answer that question of why, we would have a better idea what that is. But I think a lot has to do with the arts and culture specifically. I think we need to continue to put effort into the arts and culture, but not so much with these pet programs as much as broad based support for local art and artists and local culture.
What is your opinion of the school system here?
That is the thing I’ve worked on more in any single non-profit issue over the last ten years from being on the steering committee of Chattanooga 2.0 and the most important group that the county mayor put together. I think we’re making progress. Of course the city mayor can’t do much about it, but I do think fundamentally and foundationally that education is the single biggest issue. It fixes a ton of problems. If we don’t get it right we’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titantic. The one thing the city mayor can do that I think is going to do is really focus on early childhood education starting in the disadvantaged neighborhoods. All the research and all the evidence says I you get it right with kids under six they’re going to be on a trajectory that will carry them to success even if they have a sub-par K-12th grade education. Conversely, if you don’t get that right then all the money in the world in K-12 is not going to make a difference. So I really want to focus on childhood education – some of the stuff Berke has started to open that up. Parents move to Chattanooga because they know they can get quality early childhood education.
Chattanooga is known for the fastest internet in the world and on the cutting edge technology-wise. Do you think we’re taking advantage of the raw materials we have here?
I think we could do more. EPB does a great job. EPB is probably our greatest institutional asset as a city we could leverage more. Some cities have done programs where they’re paying people to relocate. Tulsa does this. I’d love to see a program where we maybe give new residents that move here with certain skills and certain auspices maybe give them a year of gig internet for a year as an incentive to relocate. EPB also has a great potential to do programs to bring the on point computing – there’s potential there for a real anchor there to build jobs. The ed-connect we just did is the first time in a long time – I think five years back that you could really point to a good ole tradition on private/public partnership to accomplish something meaningful, significant, beneficial that’s transcending petty politics in the infrastructure. I would love to see EPB do stuff like that and I think they want to do stuff like that.
One of the big issues is law enforcement. How would you like to see law enforcement addressed in the city? Depending on who you talk with you get 12 sides of any particular story.
I definitely don’t want to defund the police. I do think there’s plenty of room to restructure the police force budget to be more effective. There are a lot of police positions in the budget that can’t be filled, haven’t been able to be filled for a lot of years. I hear people saying we need more cops on the streets. I’d rather give a raise to the cops and use that budget overlap to fund social services. And a lot of places where we don’t want to be. Cops don’t want to do accident reporting. Use as an example, Memphis where a third party system to do that. We need cops to do what they do best. I have a lot of friends who are cops and there are a lot of areas where they will tell you that a social worker is better off dealing with a situation to deescalate a situation where we’re wasting an armed officer’s time. That being said, you never know when a situation is going to get ugly, so I’m not naïve about that. It’s not a simple problem or it would have already been solved, but I definitely think there are some structural improvements and avoid the George Floyd incidents.
Another criticism I’ve heard is Chattanooga hasn’t seen quality job growth.
100 percent. I read a book called “The New Geography of Jobs”. I got some other people to read it to make sure I wasn’t crazy. Everybody I’ve asked to read it thinks it’s smart. The thesis of it is that basically that the nature of work is changing. If you think about Google or any big company – an ad agency. The nature of work is becoming more intellectual and creative in nature. It lends itself to aggregation big metro in big cities. We’re in front of two of them – Nashville and Atlanta. If we’re not being careful, I’m not sure if you’re a movie fan, but in ‘Total Recall’ you’ve got that home planet where all the money and all the management is and all the mining planets where literally they were being extracted from. That’s how cities in America are a real danger in of becoming these plans of ten and 12 dollar an hour jobs. I’m a big fan of localism and the thinking of impact investing – follow the money, right? Look at Starbucks – all have money. Outside of the manager’s salary is getting scraped out on a daily basis and sucked up to wherever it’s going. I think we need to be much more intentional – a) thinking about keeping money and recycling capital locally – be very intentional about localism from an investment policy to an economic policy. And then again, we’ve got to get our act together and attract those companies that pay higher wages based on quality of life. That same book – everybody sort of struggles with this – the chicken and egg problem around with capital. I just got through with my second tour of duty with the Chamber board. A lot of time I think it was capital but we need to attract investment banks or some other kind of investment capital to Chattanooga. This book is the opposite. If you attract talent that the capital will follow. We’ve got to basically got the ace of spades up our sleeve. We can attract talent with our quality of life. I think we have to do a better job of marketing ourselves to really talented people. With the Covid crisis if the work from home thing is permanent real then why wouldn’t home be the best place for quality of life? You combine that with EPB and suddenly we have a hell of an economic opportunity to attract really talented people here. And if you get the incentive capital to follow then there’s no reason why we can’t turn lemons into lemonade.
Another criticism with many past administrations is affordable housing. How do you address affordable housing?
Two ways: one – you talk to developers, and I’ve talked to a bunch of them and they tell you currently new housing is not affordable housing. A lot of that they would say is due to a lot of silly regulatory hoop jumping that adds extra cost. There’s a lot of stuff we need to do in terms of common sense regulatory reform. I don’t mean just laying down for business and do whatever it wants, but common sense simplification of the processes so we can iron some of the costs out of that. The other thing though, is Chattanooga is really fortunate is we’ve got really good housing stock in a lot of these older neighborhoods that also needs to be historically preserved in a lot of cases that can be remodeled into affordable housing that CNE and Habitat for Humanity can do some great work and we can absolutely do it. I’m putting together a council with some really smart people in Chattanooga about this. I’m a big fan of the concept of neighborhood trust that can both construct and redevelop neighborhoods while acting as a buffer against gentrification, so there’s a lot of stuff we can do that and both create affordable housing.
If you’ve got somebody from out of town coming in where would you like to take them to show off Chattanooga?
Many times my roommates from Columbia come occasionally and visit Chattanooga. It’s really one of their favorite places to visit. One’s from LA, one’s from Wisconsin, one’s from Boston. This is their favorite place to come. We come here a lot. Early days we always took the fun thing we did – I don’t know if the trail exists, we pretty much bush-wacked a trail up Lookout Mountain and rode the Incline back down. The trail system here is one of the greatest assets we’ve got and one of my big areas of focus here is to act together around our ample assets. The outdoor assets we can make much more visible and market in a far better way. So the outdoor assets, my friends when they generally come here are generally stuff that we do. We’ll rent paddleboards, go down the Tennessee River, go trail running, we’ll go to a canyon close by. We’ll also go down the riverfront and of course take them to a CFC game if CFC is playing.
– Dave Weinthal
The Chattanooga City Election is March 2. Vote wisely.