I got in my time machine the other night and went back to visit myself in 2001 when I was deputy to Mayor Victor Ashe and involved in the effort to revitalize downtown Knoxville. My former self was anxious to quiz me on how the initiatives, then in the early stages, turned out.
I explained that downtown in 2013 still had problems. There were problems with too many people attending festivals, a fight over the location and permissions for food trucks to handle the crowds and the PBA has been called in to regulate parking on Gay Street. And a new ordinance is needed to deal with all the comic book character street entertainers wearing masks.
My former self stood up and yelled "hallelujah!"
I don't mean to make light of current controversies or problems downtown. I'm sure the city and the parties involved will work on them. I just want to offer some perspective on how far we've come in the last decade.
If you had suggested back in 2001 that downtown would become a thriving business and residential space, and that it would eventually be a destination attraction for concerts, festivals, and a farmer's market, most people would have suggested you were a hopeless visionary or just nuts.
Remember when parking on Gay Street wasn't a problem? Remember when the few businesses left downtown were begging people to come? Remember the amazement and excitement when the first Sundown in the City brought a huge crowd to Market Square?
The problems today are to be expected when you have a lot of people congregated in the pleasantly small, confined space of downtown Knoxville. People rubbing up against each other causes friction. But I would suggest that these problems, while important to the people involved, are preferable to the days when few people came downtown and no one outside downtown particularly cared about its future.
I remember listening to skeptics when the city tried to find parking for the Sterchi Lofts. And when the city leased space in the Emporium for arts groups in order to cash flow its development. Facade grants were criticized as a waste of money. Critics decried the spending to improve Market Square.
I remember a meeting where KCDC told us a building they owned on Gay Street needed a $100,000 roof repair or it was going to fall in. There was no viable prospect for the building at the time. But we spent the money as a leap of faith. The building is now occupied and on the tax rolls.
Starting from ground zero it has taken time, but the progress has been steady. There came a time when downtown residential numbers hit a critical mass. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I think the housing collapse may have helped. The recent housing downtown has been affordable apartments rather than expensive condos. This has increased the number of people downtown and it has also provided more diversity.
There are about 700 apartment units on the south bank of the river scheduled to be available in the near future. This will be a boon to battered South Knoxville merchants, but it also increases the number of people available to shop, eat, and entertain themselves downtown.
I have enjoyed going to Asheville, it's a nice place to visit. But it is more than local chauvinism to observe that I'd rather spend an afternoon in downtown Knoxville.
I lived in a downtown apartment in Nashville for a year. Yes, it has some nice tourist traps and restaurants. I like Second Avenue. But it lacks the community feel and neighborhood friendliness of Knoxville.
I'm sure going forward downtown will continue to have problems and controversies. It is inevitable, I suppose. But let's mediate them, work them out, and go forward.
The main thing to remember is that downtown is now a thriving place. And while it may upset some people who enjoyed the peace and serenity when it was a ghost town, let's remember from whence we came and just occasionally jump and shout "hallelujah!"