Chattanooga-based foundation to debut black specialty Tennessee license plates

Contributed photo by Millennial Debt Foundation / All-black license plates will hit the roads later this year after the Millennial Debt Foundation went through a process to get them issued.

Turns out dark blue probably won't be the only new color on Tennessee license plates this year.

A new black specialty plate should be available to drivers statewide well before year's end, according to Lindsay Conrad, the brand-new executive director of the Millennial Debt Foundation. The Chattanooga-based foundation has been at work on the project since early 2021, she said.

"It's Tennessee's first true all-black license plate. It looks pretty cool," said Conrad, a Bradley County native who said she earned her undergraduate degree at Maryville College and a master's degree in economics at Vanderbilt University.

The plate initiative was launched by the foundation on the watch of its then-CEO, Weston Wamp, who was sworn in Thursday as Hamilton County's new mayor. Conrad said she succeeded Wamp as the foundation's chief executive that day, and the new mayor will serve as volunteer board chairman.

Meeting the day before his inauguration with the Times Free Press editorial board, Wamp said the state's specialty plate program "is a revenue-share with nonprofits that are domiciled in Tennessee."

"You pay extra for a specialty plate," he said, "and a portion of the extra you pay goes to [the nonprofit]."

Conrad said the organization will get $16 per plate.

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"One of the missions of MDF is to ignite a passion in millennial-age folks for sound fiscal stewardship and giving back more than we take," she said. "[The plate program] will serve as a revenue stream as we promote that message."

The specialty plates are part of an MDF initiative called In the Black -- a nod, Conrad said, to both accounting lingo and "Back in Black," a 624-page report written in 2011 by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, who died in 2020. According to the Library of Congress website, Coburn's report "outlines how the federal government can reduce the deficit by $9 trillion over the next ten years and balance the federal budget."

Conrad said the plate plan started to gain momentum at a March 2021 event at which Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, was joined by his two immediate predecessors, Republican Bill Haslam and Democrat Phil Bredesen, in a discussion on "the escalating national debt and the need for the federal government to refocus on spending responsibly."

Wamp told the Times Free Press editorial board that "we had an idea that [a black] plate would be a cool symbol of the [In the Black] initiative."

Conrad said the plate plan got off to a fast start, adding that the requisite 1,000 written commitments, at $35 per, were harvested in about six weeks late last year, "much more quickly than we thought." But at that point, Wamp said, progress slowed considerably.

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"The plate got hung up in bureaucracy," he told the Times Free Press editorial board. "It was the victim of the state rolling out the new blue plates, and a tornado came through middle Tennessee that significantly damaged the state's plate [manufacturing] facility."

Conrad said she doesn't know whether there's a specific goal for plate sales, but "I'd love to see 5,000 to 7,000 sold across the state."

"We certainly want folks to buy the plate because it looks great," she said, "but also because they love the idea of becoming part of this movement."

Next up for the foundation, Conrad said, is the unveiling of a series of debt-reduction recommendations, some of which are being drafted by Austin Smythe, a onetime aide to former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan.

"It's a pinnacle for us to roll out this document," she said, adding that the MDF is looking at a wintertime event in Washington, D.C.

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In Tennessee, Conrad said, In the Black has recruited about a dozen "advisers ... for the purpose of promoting a message of responsibility in government." She said In the Black hopes to introduce those advisers at kickoff events, likely in Nashville and Chattanooga, timed to coincide with the arrival of the black plates in county clerk offices statewide.

"We've made a pretty good splash up to now," she said, "but now we're ready to really bring people into the fold, issue a call to action and prioritize a message of stewardship."

As for Wamp, he said he has already supported a nonprofit group with his own license plate, supporting the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. But instead of trading that in for an In the Black plate, he will be getting a county license plate. He said his wife, Shelby, will get the In the Black plate instead.