In the summer of 1982, the turnstiles alleged that 11 million people attended the Knoxville World's Fair. Three of them came downtown. And two of them were lost.
Okay, I made that up. But it is fair to say the beehive of activity on what is now World's Fair Park had little impact on downtown Knoxville. Efforts to tie the site to downtown since then have also had little impact. World's Fair Park is an island of greenery and a nice self-contained area that sits between downtown and the University of Tennessee campus.
It is an island in the way that downtown Knoxville is an island—hemmed in by the river, the interstate, and UT. There are those who have vainly tried to expand the boundaries of downtown into other neighborhoods, but I argue that downtown Knoxville is like Manhattan. The inability to sprawl makes every foot of land valuable, and preserves the value of existing buildings and makes community possible. It's a small town in a bigger town.
The third island in the chain is the UT campus, also hemmed in by geography.
Efforts to tie these three islands together over the years have included trolleys, a green way, shuttles from downtown parking decks on game days. There is now a discussion and a task force discussing, among other things, moving the Clarence Brown Theater from the UT campus to the South Lawn of the park. Some would argue that it ties the campus directly to the park and thus is a tie to downtown.
I am not one who believes the city has a secret plan for the site, though others involved may have an agenda. If there is one thing Mayor Madeline Rogero and Deputy Mayor Bill Lyons have a fetish about, it's "process."
But I think they have the cart before the horse.
Before anyone discusses what cultural attraction might be built on the South Lawn, there needs to be a serious discussion about whether anything ought to built there.
I have read and heard a great deal of criticism of the task force. I haven't heard anybody arguing that something other than a theater be built. The criticism I hear is in the form of a question: Why?
Why take the biggest expanse of green space in the heart of our city and build something else on it? Why not preserve the open space that's left?
I can sympathize with UT in having limited space on campus and wanting to expand out. But then again, we didn't tell them to take up large chunks of the campus for athletic facilities and parking lots.
There is also the question of having another venue for performances—after all the effort to preserve and protect the Bijou and the Tennessee theaters. And the taxpayers have an investment in the Civic Auditorium. What is the city's rationale to turn green space into competition with sometimes financially fragile existing venues?
But again, rather than discuss what ought to be built, the public needs to be asked whether they would support the idea that the green space be preserved in the future and protected from any encroachment.
The South Lawn was the original site selected for the convention center. Because the city already owned it. And buying land and tearing down buildings on State Street would be too expensive. (That would be the parking lot on State Street that Knox County cleared for a Justice Center never built.)
Consultants then recommended the convention center be moved to face Henley, the better to promote downtown don't you know. That required tearing down the UT conference center parking garage and building them a new one. And paying to move the KUB substation. It added millions to the convention center debt.
But the South Lawn was saved and it has been a nice venue for outdoor events and concerts. It's what makes World's Fair Park a park. Let's keep it.