by Matt Edens
It was one of the more surreal moments I remember from a County Commission meeting (although it has been a while since I actually sat in on a session). Some codger connected with a fraternal organization, whose flowing white robes and a silly hat lent a papal flavor to the proceedings, had come to the podium to address commission. But before the grand poobah of the honorable order of the whatever had a chance to speak, Commissioner John Mills leaned into his microphone and asked: â“Are you K2K?â”
Now, if youâ’re as confused by the question as the old man wearing the mitre was: K2K was an online community forum, back in the days when posting to online forums was still something of a fringe activity. The primary topic of discussionâ"downtownâ"seemed sort of radical, too, particularly from Knoxvilleâ’s default â“Cedar Bluff is the center of the universeâ” perspective. (This was BTCâ"Before Turkey Creek).
Cooked up by a handful of downtowners, back when a â“handfulâ” were about all the residents downtown had, the acronym stood for â“Knoxville 2000â” and its stated goal was to both kick-start the redevelopmentâ"and shape the futureâ"of Knoxvilleâ’s long-dormant downtown.
But, as some folks started to dream big about downtownâ’s possibilities, county government proposed dropping a great big jail smack dab in the middle of it. To them, it must have seemed like a no-brainer. No one went downtown, so who cared what got built there, so long as the county kept the costs down and kept whatever it was out of their back yard?
K2K didnâ’t, by any means, stop the jail. But its involvement did mark a turning point. At a crucial meeting, confused by rumors of some secretive â“organizationâ” opposed to a downtown jail, Commission blinked, voting to postpone the project. From then on, it became a political football and was, eventually, punted.
Or so most people thought. At its last meeting, Commission withdrew a resolution to sell off the State Street site once set aside for the jail. The reason, according to Commissioner Frank Leuthold, is that the county might just need a jail there after all. Personally, I suspect thatâ’s a pipe-dream. For starters, the projectâ’s chief proponent last time around is no longer sheriff. Iâ’m not sure how the State Street property fits into whatever Hutchisonâ’s post-Ragsdale plans are, but should he end up occupying the sixth floor of the City County Building, thereâ’ll be little need to build what, last time around, some folks derided as the â“Taj MaTim.â”
The changes downtown have been even more dramatic than the shakeup in the sheriffâ’s office. Where derelict buildings once ringed the proposed site, now high-dollar residential real estate and downtownâ’s new flagship retailer, Mast General Store, surround it. Iâ’m sure some folks still say downtown is dead, but Iâ’d also wager that whoever makes that claim hasnâ’t been downtown lately. People are on the street at night, and the State Street garage next door is often filled as crowds descend on the restored Tennessee Theatre or the new Regal Riviera. Heck, the Market Square garage was practically full the last Saturday morning when I swung by the farmerâ’s market.
Knoxville, after years of indifference, has finally found a use for its downtown. Surely its citizens can come up with something other than a jail for what amounts to downtownâ’s largest developable parcel. And, should a new jail be proposed again on State Street, the outcry itâ’ll cause will most likely make Commission miss the days when a handful of online agitators was all the opposition they had to overcome. Gay Street alone, once the Gallery, Burwell, and Holston are finished, will have as many half-million-dollar homes as several West Knoxville subdivisions. And who wants to look out on prison bars from the balcony of their penthouse condo?
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