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VOL. 7 | NO. 41 | Saturday, October 4, 2014

Downtown Knoxville Tourism Finally Finds its Stride


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Historic Gay Street, anchored by the renovated Tennessee Theatre, features shops and restaurants.

(Chase Malone/The Ledger)

When Kim Trent moved to Knoxville in 1990, she could stand along Gay Street on a Sunday and be the only soul in sight. Today, she’s a face in the crowd.

“There are so many people downtown on any given night that it’s amazing,” says Trent, executive director of Knox Heritage, a historic preservation group that was a catalyst for revitalization.

Knoxville could always depend on University of Tennessee football games to bring some 100,000 fans to the city six or seven times a year. Then there was residual tourism from the Great Smoky Mountains, the nation’s most popular national park with some 9 million visitors annually.

But downtown Knoxville was largely forgotten, and many of its historic buildings crumbling, even though it was the home of the 1982 World’s Fair and still sports the landmark Sunsphere and World’s Fair Park.

The same suburban flight that affected most large cities in the 1970s was hard to overcome and slow in taking shape. But today, thanks to public, nonprofit and private ventures – and a lot of blood, sweat and tears – downtown Knoxville is a destination for tourists and local residents who flood restaurants, shops, hotels and cultural spots.

“We’re an overnight success that took 20 years,” says Trent, laughing somewhat at the city’s newfound notoriety.

‘A great draw in itself’

The city was featured recently in a New York Daily News article, “Knoxville exudes Southern graciousness and makes a perfect weekend getaway,” that focused on attractions such as the boutique Oliver Hotel and the eclectic collection of stores and restaurants at Happy Holler.

“People contend that downtown Knoxville is the biggest tourist attraction in the city,” Trent says. “It’s become a great draw in itself.”

From the Tennessee Theatre to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, Knoxville Museum of Art and Urban Wilderness, all of which are relatively new or revitalized, Knoxville offers something for everyone in the family, says Erin Donovan, communications director of Visit Knoxville, the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

With 3.13 million visitors to Knox County in 2012, 5.8 percent of the state’s 54 million tourists, at $289 per visitor, the county tallied $904 million economic impact for group tourism.

“You can come here and make a day out of it or a week out of it,” says Donovan, a former television reporter whose office not only pushes Knoxville tourism but participates in it as well through a free concert daily through radio station WDVX in its Visitors Center.

Movies on Market Square, which has gone through its own rebirth, Tuesday and Thursday concerts, Jazz on the Square and any number of Visit Knoxville initiatives give families a reason to come downtown for inexpensive activities, Donovan points out.

The Knoxville Museum of Art has been the beneficiary of a $6 million renovation.

(Chase Malone/The Ledger)

How it started

Knox Heritage formed some 40 years ago in response to flight from downtown Knoxville into the suburbs and the ensuing competition with retail developments that followed as part of a national trend.

The going was slow as the group focused on saving downtown buildings, engaging developers and working to bring awareness to the importance of preservation as part of the visitor experience, Trent says.

Some of the city’s older buildings were modified or demolished to compete with the new-look suburbs, but a funny thing happened when the Bijou Theatre was on the brink of being torn down, according to Trent.

“A lot of people came together who were tired of all the demolition,” Trent says.

The Bijou is now home to movies, symphony performances and concerts, another in a growing line of renovation success stories.

Then, the city of Knoxville got involved, at the direction of former Mayor Victor Ashe, with a project to preserve the Miller’s Building, an iconic old department store that was to be razed.

Instead of falling to the wrecking ball, it was renovated and now is home to the Knoxville Utilities Board at South Gay Street and Union Avenue.

Under former Mayor Bill Haslam, now the state’s governor, that trend continued and is perpetuated by Mayor Madeline Rogero. “We’re lucky it’s been a priority for the last three mayors,” Trent says.

The Sterchi Building was the next major renovation project that turned downtown Knoxville in a new direction. A Knoxville developer transformed it into a 100-unit residential complex that was fully leased the day it opened.

“That’s when people sat up and said, ‘Wow, there’s hope for downtown,’” Trent says.

Downtown is ‘still changing’

Knoxville has a Central Business Improvement District, and the downtown area is part of a special tax district in which property owners pay a little higher tax that goes into a pool that helps fund items such as façade improvements and nonprofit activities and events.

Knoxville also offered incentives for private residential development.

When people started moving back to downtown, shops and restaurants followed, according to Trent, then tourists began discovering its nuances. Over the last decade and a half, the city has seen a domino effect.

Old City, a neighborhood filled with bars and restaurants that has seen its own revitalization, began to rock ‘n’ roll, old mills became apartments and bars. Market Square was rejuvenated and filled with tenants.

“It’s all been small steps to create this thriving downtown we have now, and it’s still changing,” Donovan says.

For instance, the Farmers Market has become so popular that it’s putting on a winter market this year, according to Donovan.

Likewise, Blue Slip Winery experienced so much success that owners decided to move to a new location at the Southern Railroad Depot.

Entire downtown is ‘an attraction’

Local leaders have tried to be smart about development, too.

The Regal Riviera movie complex, another people magnet on Gay Street, was initially set to take an entire downtown block, but Knox Heritage worked with Haslam to preserve older buildings and still find a way for the cinema to be constructed, according to Trent.

“It’s just a better situation from an urban planning standpoint and people love it when they come to town,” she says.

And, rather than trying to depend on a silver bullet, such as an aquarium or some other major attraction, Knoxville put most of its emphasis on the creation of a wide-ranging arts and entertainment infrastructure, making the entire downtown area the main attraction, rather than one entity, Trent says.

Knoxville isn’t alone, either, as major cities across the nation work to bring people back into urban areas. In fact, it’s worked so well in Knoxville that Knox Heritage is now operating in a 16-county region.

“They’re trying to take the valuable lesson learned in downtown Knoxville and spread it to the surrounding counties,” Trent says.

Reviving a palace

Tennessee Theatre Executive Director Becky Hancock says the classic movie palace built in 1928 is “one of the cornerstones” of Knoxville’s downtown renovation over the last decade.

It closed in the ’70s and nearly “went through demolition by neglect,” Hancock says. In 1980, a local businessman bought the building and invested $1 million in transforming it into an arts venue before donating it to a nonprofit foundation in the ’90s.

Given the task of determining its future, the foundation undertook a massive fundraising project and completed a $30 million renovation in 2005, using public and private funds.

The theatre now attracts some 120,000 visitors annually to 40 events, including recent performances by Michael McDonald, former front man for the Doobie Brothers, and Johnny Mathis. It’s also home for the Knoxville Symphony, six Broadway titles, and classic movies.

Modern technology – including the ability to show digital and 35 mm movies – couples with house curtains, chandeliers, lighting, paint and rewoven carpet, all returned to the 1928 look, to make it a place to behold.

“It was one of the projects of the early 21st century that said, yes, reinvesting in downtown was important,” Hancock notes. “Our project started bringing warm bodies back to downtown.”

Some people come to the theatre to hear Mighty Musical Monday, which is played on the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ before movies and a monthly concert.

For Hancock, a native Knoxvillian and UT graduate, the turnaround is personally gratifying. When she was in college in the late 1980s, she and other students didn’t visit that part of town.

“It’s really fun to see how downtown Knoxville has come around as a place where it’s hard to find parking on the weekend,” she says.

Artistic ‘destination’

The way Angela Thomas sees it, Knoxville is more than a stop-off before a mountain hike.

The Knoxville Museum of Art is emerging from a $6 million renovation – thanks to a generation donation – and held a grand reopening in May highlighted by a massive glass installation, Cycle of Life,” created by local artist Richard Jolley in its Great Hall.

“We worked closely with Visit Knoxville and made this part of the larger Knoxville story,” Thomas says.

As a result, people are making the Museum of Art a “destination,” then visiting the rest of Knoxville, and vice versa, she says. In the past, someone from New York wouldn’t come to Knoxville to see a museum, but they will now, and it’s boosting attendance while helping the entire city.

Monthly numbers are up to nearly 5,000 from 3,500 the previous year, according to Thomas. And though she can’t say Knoxville’s revitalization was the impetus for the donation and museum renovation, she says, “The timing’s just added to the whole Knoxville synergy of everything.”

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