Harris: Focus on economics at forum

A panel of economists debating policy isn't the sort of thing that's going to fill Neyland Stadium with thousands of rabid fans.

But understanding what drives the economy and the policies that influence its direction is important, and Knoxville now has a home for serious economic discussions.

The freshly minted Knoxville Economics Forum will make its public debut 7:30 a.m. Oct. 15 at Club LeConte with a speech by Kelly King, chairman and CEO of BB&T Corp. and a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

His topic: "After the Crisis."

The nonpartisan Knoxville Economics Forum was created as an outreach of the Department of Economics at the University of Tennessee. Its mission: "We aim to provide a platform for the serious discussion of economic policy matters as they relate to East Tennessee," the group says on its website.

The forum plans to host distinguished speakers at least once a quarter. Membership and attendance at forum events are open to anyone with an interest in economics, said Marianne Wanamaker, assistant professor of economics at UT.

"The idea behind it is that there are people in town who are interested in economic policy - not just business practices but the bigger picture," Wanamaker said.

Presenting quarterly speakers provides the economics department a means of addressing the public interest in economic issues that the department didn't have before, Wanamaker said.

The forum is patterned after "economics clubs" in cities across the country, said UT economics professor Matt Murray, who has long wanted to bring something similar to Knoxville.

One of the best known of the established city economic groups is the Detroit Economic Club. For decades, presidents, senators, military leaders and corporate executives have made major policy speeches to the Detroit group.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to the Detroit club in August. In 2007, when he was running for the Democratic nomination for president, then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama gave an environmental speech to the Detroit club that wasn't well-received by Detroit's automakers.

Don't look for presidents on the Knoxville forum's schedule - at least not right away - but it is talking "to people of a heightened national profile" who might be interested in scheduling a speech, Wanamaker said.

Capturing national attention may take awhile, but speaking invitations from the Knoxville forum quickly should become a must-have for Tennessee governors, senators and other state politicians.

Although the forum is the brainchild of the UT economics department, organizers hope the group eventually will stand on its own and the economics department can step aside, Wanamaker said.

Membership in the forum is free, but dues may be charged in the future.

Reservations are required for King's speech and can be made online at http://www.knoxvilleeconomicsforum.org. Admission is $20.

Business writer Roger Harris may be reached at 865-342-6342 or rharris@knoxvillebiz.com.

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