Downtown Knoxville's Renaissance Man

Bill Lyons' contributions to Market Square began well before he worked for the city

It is appropriate that there be some remembrance of Bill Lyons on Market Square. Mayor Bill Haslam has named a pavilion in his honor. Return with me now to those contentious days in 2001 when the future of downtown Knoxville was at a crossroads. As deputy to Mayor Victor Ashe, I had a ringside seat at the fight.

Ron Watkins and Earl Worsham had a bold plan to transform downtown Knoxville. It involved connecting the World's Fair site to Market Square and involved condos, movie theaters, television production and, most controversial of all, a dome over Market Square. Renaissance Knoxville was supported by the business community and pushed by Chamber honcho Tom Ingram. It was a continuation of the grand plan that had a new convention center under construction. The convention center was on time and under budget, but there were those who believed that it would be a money-losing white elephant without some sort of attractions around it to draw convention visitors and to get them across Henley Street into downtown.

The financing of the convention center was based on legislation that allowed any growth in state sales tax in downtown to be used to retire the debt.

Opponents of the grand plan, led by property owners on Market Square, said it was too expensive, too complex to work and it would not be fair to existing downtown property owners. The Market Square dome was about as popular as herpes. In those pre-blogging days the opposition had a forum provided by Jesse Mayshark at Metro Pulse, and a listserve called K2K.

What was not generally known is that Ashe was not enthusiastic about Renaissance Knoxville—but he was under tremendous pressure to fund it. Ashe was more concerned about parks and greenways and neighborhoods and was leery of master plans.

Sitting in the downtown offices of the News Sentinel for 20 years, I had watched downtown deteriorate. TVA cutbacks emptied one of the towers. Lunch restaurants were closing. Buildings along Gay Street were being torn down. Office buildings were being emptied as businesses moved to the suburbs. After 5 p.m., Gay Street looked like a ghost town.

At some point during the debate during that year, the senior staff reached a consensus. Renaissance Knoxville did not have community support, especially downtown, but we had to have a coherent plan for downtown going forward. But without the enthusiastic support of the downtown community, any plan would be a failure. The Ashe administration had heard the stakeholders loud and clear.

Working with Leslie Henderson, the director of development, the staff came up with a plan. Leslie's office would produce an alternative building code. A facade grant had been successfully used to save the Miller's Building. A parking lot lease led to the Sterchi Lofts. Renting the first floor of the Emporium would cash-flow development of that building. Working with David Dewhirst, Buzz Goss, Wayne Blasius, and Leigh Burch, among others, getting large empty Gay Street buildings occupied with condos would be a priority.

There would also be a concerted effort to upgrade Market Square. But the contentious debate over downtown development had created hostility and distrust among Market Square property owners, making it difficult for the city to proceed.

Bill Lyons was on the board of KCDC, the city's urban renewal agency. Lyons was the perfect choice to head the effort. He led community forums, he helped downtown property owners develop their ideas, he was the liaison with the city. Without his herculean efforts, Market Square would not be what it is today—a vibrant city center. He got stakeholder buy-in to the process which has led to downtown's resurgence.

Lyons played a key role in the future of downtown before he ever worked for the city. He has since worked for Haslam to shepherd downtown development.

A Bill Lyons Pavilion seems the least we can do.