The Women's Basketball Hall of Fame is more than just a local visitor attraction. It's a national shrine to women's basketball and by extension a tribute to the remarkable accomplishments that women have made athletically over the past century.
When Gloria Ray, then the dynamo head of the Greater Knoxville Sports Corp. (GKSC) spearheaded the Hall of Fame's creation in the late 1990s, about $4 million was raised privately, and Ray sought a grant from Knox County to cover the balance of the facility's $8.3 million cost.
The reason for turning to the county rather than city for public funding was that the proceeds of the county's 5 percent hotel-motel tax must be dedicated to tourism-related activities, whereas the city had no such revenue stream. Then-County Executive Tommy Schumpert demurred on making a grant but concluded that the county could draw upon a portion of the hotel-motel tax take that must go "for retirement of any bonds issued by the county for the acquisition, construction, and equipping of a tourist-related facility." So the Hall of Fame was built and owned by Knox County with the proceeds of a $8.3 million bond issue. County Commission also approved a 15-year contract with GKSC to manage it for a $150,000 annual fee that covers about a quarter of the hall's operating expenses.
The $4 million that had been raised privately was placed in a segregated bank account, and Ray retained hope that it could someday be applied toward the Hall of Fame's acquisition. But any sale agreement on the county's part would have invalidated its tax-exempt bond issue.
Now, 14 years later, Knox County has a mayor who's determined both to sell the building and cut off all funding to the Hall of Fame.
"It's not the role of Knox County government to support a Hall of Fame," asserts County Mayor Tim Burchett in an interview. "I think it needs to stand on its own financially... and I would like to see Knox County get out of that altogether."
When it comes to the process by which the building would be sold, Burchett envisions soliciting proposals from all comers. "We don't have to continue in that building. The Women's Basketball Hall of Fame can stay in Knoxville, but it can rent space at West Town Mall," he allows.
Never mind the fact that it's located on Hall of Fame Drive, a street that was named in its honor and has become a major thoroughfare. Never mind the fact that the iconic 10-ton basketball (the world's largest) that adorns its roof cannot be moved without serious risk of damage. Never mind the fact that one of its most engaging exhibits—a vintage stretch limo in which a fabled women's basketball team of the 1930s toured the country—was placed inside before the walls were built and can't be driven out.
There is some merit to Burchett's assertion that, "They've been asleep at the switch for a while and have rested on their laurels... To be competitive, they're going to have to get younger people drawn in, have to have more interactive things, with more investment made into it."
But he rules out any further support on the county's part even as he's putting the onus on "them" to come up with the money to pay for the museum if it is to be sustained. It's unavailing to point out to him that the nation's two other basketball museums—the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. and the more recent National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City—both got substantial governmental funding for their new facilities ($20 million for Naismith and $10 million in the case of Kansas City).
All of this comes at a time when there's a near leadership vacuum here in the wake of Gloria Ray's forced removal as head of the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corp. (KTSC) following revelations that her compensation, which exceeded $400,000, was deemed scandalous. Based on her success in bringing sports events to Knoxville, Ray was enlisted in 2002 to take the helm of this new entity that put her in charge of attracting bookings to Knoxville's foundering new convention center. A nominal separate entity, Sports Management Inc., was formed at that time to govern the Hall of Fame and an able administrator, Dana Hart, was named its vice president and general manager, but Ray remained in charge.
The job of getting SMI on a free-standing, self-supporting footing has fallen to Dave Conklin, a retired airport authority official, who had been serving on the SMI board and has been named its interim president. Conklin says he hopes to complete SMI's transition to free-standing status by the end of the year, but "there are a lot of questions that have to be answered. Right now it's more a matter of identifying what all the questions are."
One early accomplishment was to get a three-year extension of a licensing agreement to use the name Women's Basketball Hall of Fame that was due to expire in May. Carol Callan, who heads the national women's basketball governing board that holds rights to the name, visited Knoxville last month and offered high praise for the way in which the Hall of Fame has been conducted here, especially the annual ceremony for new inductees selected by her organization that's held here each June. "It's been a tremendous asset for us, and our goal would be to continue to have the hall here," Callan says.
However, Burchett may be on his way to destroying that good will as well. He was infuriated not to be made aware of or included in the meeting at which the licensing agreement was extended, and says, "That aggravates to the point [pause]... that they don't see fit to come see their largest stakeholder. When I have an audience with them, I'm going to let them know of my displeasure."
It would be a huge black eye nationally for Knoxville to lose the Hall of Fame. But unless Tim Burchett gets off his destructive bent, he could well throw the punch.
To counter that, what's needed now is constitution of a strong Hall of Fame governing board. The obvious choice to take the helm is outgoing University of Tennessee Women's Athletic Director Joan Cronan.