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To kick-off the first KAMA luncheon of 2012, we were delighted to have Kim Trent, Executive Director of Knox Heritage, speak on behalf of her organization. Knox Heritage works to preserve structures and places with historic or cultural significance in Knox County. Founded on April 1, 1974, Kim joked that “fools did rush in” on that fateful day. With a board of directors of 30 community leaders, Knox Heritage provides education for the community and is truly a preservation based economic development organization. In a nutshell, Kim said that, “real estate is what it really comes down to and saving buildings.”

The Culture Change Challenge

In the past, Kim said that preservation is a national issue that fights age old stereotypes of “little old ladies and white guys in suits.” Other erroneous images Kim conjured included “Hysterical Preservationists”, “The Paint Police,” and “A Culture of No”. Speaking of culture, one of the most important points Kim made was Knox Heritage had to change the culture internally before changing it externally. In the 80’s and 90’s, Knox Heritage was faced with declining membership, a decreased role in decision making, very little political influence, and no staff (not to mention money).

Shifting Attitudes – Shifting Communications

To move from a reactionary, resource strapped organization, Kim explained that Knox Heritage had to deal with shifting attitudes and shifting communications. In 1996, Knox Heritage shifted focus to economic development and added professional development people to the board. In 1998, a City of Knoxville budget survey revealed that 80 to 90% of those surveyed supported historical preservation. This game changing information helped create the Vintage Homes Program, which became a developer and job creator. In 2001, a survey of Knox County residents exposed a lack of brand name recognition for Knox Heritage, furthering the cause for more resources. Financial support came in for staff and to save historic places while pro-preservationists gained seats on city council. Kim explained that the creation of the Summer Supper Series went a long way towards building brand awareness in a fun, hip way while the J. Allen Smith House debate (and eventual destruction) brought enormous PR and name recognition.

Where We Are Now

While Knox Heritage has seen its fair share of change during the last 15 years, Kim was quick to point out that she and her organization are still learning and their evolution continues. With a 400% increase in membership, staff of five, a lead role in local decisions, and more financial resources, Knox Heritage has really shifted into high gear. In order to keep up the pace, Kim said that they have to be problem solvers and ready to overcome objectives. Perhaps the most poignant shift in thinking is Knox Heritage’s mission to “make it all about people, not buildings.”

Changing Perceptions

Far from the image of “little old ladies” or “white men in suits”, Kim wrapped up her presentation by painting a picture of her vision of Knox Heritage now and in the future. In addition to being entrepreneurial problem solvers, Kim was keen to note that you have to be able to sell no matter what your brand or product. Understanding marketing communications and keeping relationships honest with the media and citizens are core disciplines at Knox Heritage. Ultimately, Kim said, “Success is when we succeed in saving more places.”

For more information about Knox Heritage, please visit their website.

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