Dana Soehn

Dana Soehn

Friends of the Smokies

President & CEO

Hometown: Springfield, MO

What is your vision for Knoxville 10 years from now?

“I envision a future where the connection between the vibrant city of Knoxville and the treasured Great Smoky Mountains National Park is stronger than ever. As the community prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the park in 2034, I see a renewed appreciation for all public lands and a renewed commitment to steward these lands, resulting in improved access so that all can experience the gifts of relaxation, recreation, renewal, and rejuvenation in nature.

First and foremost, I envision a seamless integration between Knoxville and the National Park, recognizing it as an invaluable asset in our own backyard. I see a city that acts as a gateway to this natural wonder, promoting and encouraging residents and visitors alike to explore and experience the park. To ensure the appreciation and utilization of public lands, our community commits to enhancing and expanding outdoor spaces within Knoxville itself by prioritizing the preservation of natural habitats and biodiversity and creating spaces where residents can reconnect with nature and experience its restorative benefits. In this vision, we recognize that equitable access to outdoor spaces is crucial. Knoxville will strive to remove barriers that hinder certain individuals or communities from enjoying these public resources.

I see a Knoxville community that cherishes its proximity to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and stands as a model city for its connection to nature, inclusive outdoor spaces, and the belief that access to public lands is a right, not a privilege.

What is Knoxville’s Best Kept Secret?

One of Knoxville’s best-kept secrets is the significant role it played as the birthplace of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is thanks to the unwavering dedication and vision of champions like Knoxville Mayor Ben Morton, Knoxville Rotary Club President Colonel David Chapman, and Knoxville Automobile Club President Willis Davis and his wife Anne, that the park found its home in these majestic mountains. Recognizing the immense potential for tourism and economic growth, these early advocates ensured that the Smokies became a cherished national treasure, benefitting not only nearby communities but also Knoxville itself. There is a rich and colorful history detailing the strategies employed by these early park advocates to ensure that the federal decision makers and politicians visited the area firsthand so they too could experience the magic of these mountains and ultimately determine that there was no location more fitting for the creation of a National Park to showcase the rugged beauty of the Southern Appalachians.

What would you do to strengthen Knoxville?

“To strengthen Knoxville as a community, I would focus on showcasing its abundant assets and fostering a sense of pride among its residents. By uniting together in stewarding the beauty of the city and its network of public lands, we can create a sustainable and attractive environment that appeals to vibrant businesses seeking livability for their employees.

In this endeavor, I would emphasize the importance of promoting Knoxville’s role as an education center, leveraging our proximity to the flagship University of Tennessee. By nurturing collaborations between academia and industry, we can further broaden our growth and attract businesses that value the innovation and talent emerging from our educational institutions.

Additionally, I would highlight our connection to the esteemed Oak Ridge National Laboratory, positioning Knoxville as a key player in the scientific and technological advancements of our time. By fostering partnerships and initiatives that bridge the gap between academia, research, and industry, we can create an environment that attracts businesses on the cutting edge of innovation.

Ultimately, by showcasing Knoxville’s assets, fostering a sense of community pride, and leveraging our educational and scientific connections, we can cultivate a vibrant city that not only attracts businesses but also provides an exceptional quality of life for all residents. Together, we can propel Knoxville forward as a thriving community where economic growth, sustainability, and a strong sense of community go hand in hand.

What is your favorite Knoxville memory?

“One of my fondest memories in Knoxville revolves around the celebration of the National Park Service Centennial in 2016. As a Great Smoky Mountains National Park employee, I had the privilege of leading efforts to commemorate this significant milestone in gateway communities like Knoxville. As the home of my alma mater, my connection to Knoxville dates back to the early 1990s when I attended the University of Tennessee while also working at the park. Having the opportunity to celebrate this connection nearly 30 years later was a highlight of my career. The support and warm welcome my team received from the Knoxville community was truly remarkable. Collaborating with local leaders, we embarked on a journey to create multiple opportunities for the community to participate in the celebration. Together, we organized opportunities for the Smokies to be highlighted in community events, parades, and engaging educational programs that highlighted the rich history and natural beauty of National Parks throughout our area. This included a special partnership that led to the installation of a National Park exhibit at the McGhee-Tyson Airport. With the exhibit, we aimed to welcome visitors from far and wide, immersing them in the wonders of the Great Smoky Mountains and other National Parks within an hour’s drive of Knoxville. I’m proud that the exhibit remains today as a testament to our commitment to showcasing the beauty and significance of our national parks.

What is your favorite book or what book is currently on your nightstand?

The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese is what I’m currently reading. I’m in a book club so I’m constantly reading new things!

What is the best advice you have received from a mentor, and who was that mentor?

I have two answers here: 1) From a mentor who supervised me…”Be clear in your purpose and flexible in how you get there.” Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash. and 2) From one who I supervised who doesn’t yet fully realize that she was also a mentor to me…”Don’t forget to celebrate the small victories.” Along with this, she encouraged me by reminding me about the quote, ‘Focus on progress, not perfection.’ Great Smoky Mountains National Park Management and Program Analyst Kendra Straub.

What advice would you give to your 16 year old self?

“Cherish the relationships in your life. Invest time and energy into building and maintaining connections with family and friends. These relationships will be your support system during celebrations and challenges. Nurture them, listen deeply, and be present in their lives. Remember, it’s the quality of your relationships that truly matters, not the quantity. Above all, remember that there is a God and He wants the best for you. Stay in relationship with God and connected to your faith family. This is a deep well of comfort, guidance, hope, encouragement, and reminder that the worst thing is never the last thing.

Secondly, embrace your community. Engage in activities and initiatives that allow you to connect with those around you. Volunteer, participate in local events, and lend a helping hand whenever possible. Building strong ties within your community will not only enrich your own life but also contribute to the betterment of society as a whole. Embrace diversity, learn from others, and celebrate the uniqueness of each individual you encounter.

Lastly, spend time in nature. Walk in parks, hike in the mountains, or simply sit by a river. Nature has a remarkable way of rejuvenating your soul and providing clarity in times of confusion. It’s in these moments that you can find solace, inspiration, and a sense of interconnectedness with the world around you. Cherish the beauty of the natural world and protect it for future generations. Discover the things that bring you joy and keep them close to your heart.

Dana Soehn