Is Gloria Still Gloria?

A once invincible political force is being closely questioned about compensation, goals

So how did Gloria Ray get to be Gloria Ray?

You may recall years ago when various destination attractions were proposed for downtown Knoxville: a baseball stadium, Renaissance Knoxville, the planetarium, Tivoli Gardens on the World's Fair site. One proposal after another came along, with much hype, only to founder in the end.

During all this, Ray came along and put together the deal to not only propose but to actually build the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. It had the primary backing of the Knox County Commission, not known to be a hotbed of feminism.

I once asked Ray how she was able to get such backing. The county's portion of the hotel-motel tax has been the primary source of the Hall's funding. Ray pointed out that she was a Fulton High grad and laughed that if the County Commissioners were Good Ole Boys, she was a Good Ole Girl. Aside from her friendships with members of the old 19-member Commission, she also had two arguments she used for good effect. At least 40 percent of the hotel-motel tax has to be used for capital projects, and the Hall of Fame qualified. She also promised the commissioners that every time they gave her a dollar, she would give them back five to eight dollars.

With all the controversy about projects not getting done, Knoxville was getting a reputation as the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. Here was a project that could get done, Ray would get it done, and she convinced them it was doable. And it was.

I wrote a satirical column at the time suggesting that the women were making the men look bad and had to be stopped. I proposed that we get Ray to move to Chattanooga.

The Women's Basketball Hall of Fame has not met projections and has not been the tourism destination intended. Its revenue comes from being rented out for local events (which is the primary revenue source of the Knoxville Convention Center as well).

But Ray's successes in building the hall and with bringing sporting events to Knoxville gave her a formidable reputation. Few people questioned her and those who might be tempted didn't have the nerve. When Tom Ingram got various local development agencies brought under the Chamber of Commerce umbrella, his efforts to include Ray's group went nowhere. She mostly ignored him and everyone finally decided it would be better to let Gloria be Gloria.

Ten years ago, when I worked at the city, I was designated to be the city representative on the Sports Corp. board. I went to about four quarterly meetings. It was an unwieldy board of 19 members gathered around a conference table. The chair was Bill Stokeley, another fellow no one in town wanted to mess with, and he was Ray's advocate for a long time. Ray would hit the board with a full-throated, well researched presentation. Her enthusiasm, grasp of the material, and her political skills tended to overwhelm the part-time board members. She didn't issue rubber stamps to the board members; you brought your own.

There have been rumblings in recent years. The nature of Commission has changed. Former employees have wondered about her group billing the county for promotional efforts and then billing the city to perform the same functions. Given the city-county split responsibility, there was little oversight by public agencies. And the large, unwieldy board didn't really provide much oversight either.

It appears that the ground has shifted under Ray's feet. It's a different County Commission. She doesn't have a powerful businessman as her board chair. And the discussion about what to do with the Hall of Fame has made prominent its failure as a tourist attraction. The luster has faded.

One can understand Ray's hubris. She has had some success in a town where it is not common. Her political skills with the media, public officials, and her board made her seem invulnerable. But news that she has $400,000 in compensation and that the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame will likely be sold at a loss has angered the public and one can expect the spotlight to continue to focus on her actions for some time to come.

Maybe Gloria Ray isn't Gloria Ray anymore.