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VIProfile: Ben Bentley

By Gay Lyons

Ben Bentley, CEO at Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation (KCDC), and his wife Kate, Alabama natives who met as students at Birmingham Southern, were looking for something different after graduating. “We knew we wanted to go somewhere new,” he said. “We didn’t particularly care where.”

The couple landed in Denver where both worked and attended graduate school. Ben earned a masters in public policy; Kate earned a masters in education. At that point, they started mapping out their future.

“We’re both about to have graduate degrees,” said Bentley. “Where do we want to go? We wanted to be closer to home. We knew we’d have children at some point. I wanted to be at a federal agency that had field offices outside Washington, D.C.”

Bentley found what he was looking for at Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Nashville. A promotion led to a brief stint in Denver followed by a return to Nashville as COO of Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency prior to his accepting his current position at KCDC, the local agency whose mission, according to its website, is to “provide affordable housing in a cost effective manner and to support and promote ideas and programs which encourage residents’ self- sufficiency.”

“At the federal level, it’s about process,” said Bentley. “At the local level, you get to see how those programs make a difference in people’s lives. In the federal bureaucracy, I didn’t work with people at a human level.”

Besides the opportunity to work at a “human level,” Bentley was interested in KCDC for two reasons. “From my time at HUD, I was familiar with KCDC and knew it was professionally and effectively run. In addition, KCDC now has the ability to utilize equity and debt to reinvest in existing affordable housing. Previously, you couldn’t mortgage to improve the property.”

“I thought I could make a positive impact in the community or this would not have been the opportunity for me,” said Bentley. “I thought I could make a difference.”

The Bentleys had no “real connection to Knoxville prior to locating here. We had come to some UT football games. Everyone said Knoxville was a great place to raise a family.”

“There was a sense of optimism,” he continued. “It was a medium sized city poised for growth. It could be managed growth in a way that brought about a greater sense of equity. The faster the growth, the more it accrues to the people who have the access to capital and ownership of land and assets. We were in Nashville before it exploded. Knoxville being on a more steady trajectory allowed for a greater measure of planning. It created an opportunity for strategic investment and policies that would promote further growth while also investing to avoid negative consequences of that growth.”

As with other organizations, covid has affected KCDC. “We do a lot more virtually. It’s helped us understand how we can maintain efficiency and effectiveness and offer flexibility. Effective community engagement is a challenge. If you’re trying to plan for something new, it’s difficult to capture public input virtually. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.”

The Bentleys--Ben, Kate, 6 year old Charlie and 2 year old Hannah--are enjoying East Tennessee. “We spend a lot of time outside,” said Bentley. “Ijams, Lakeshore Park and and Suttree Landing are the places we go most frequently. The access to natural beauty is great.”

“The best thing about Knoxville is the people,” he continued. “They’re approachable, down to earth, willing to help. I really like the fact that there’s a great historic housing stock, and neighborhoods and businesses are coming back. It’s great to see the transformation of vacant storefronts into small, locally owned businesses.”

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