Look Out For the Little Guy

Home and business owners in the "Mission District" have legitimate concerns

This past Friday, The Glowing Body yoga studio and café and Magpies, the bakery that's been serving up sweetness in the Old City for over five years, held a grand opening at their new space over on N. Central Street. It was, by all accounts, a huge success. One observer counted more than 50 cars parked around the building, along Central and Irwin. And, seeing as the corner's conveniently close to both Old North and Fourth and Gill, I suspect a fair number of folks arrived on foot.

Getting more traffic, both drive-ins from elsewhere in Knoxville and pedestrians from the neighborhoods next door, is one of the prime goals of the city's current Downtown North redevelopment initiative. And the ongoing evolution of the area's bohemian-vibed business is a testament to the stability and maturity of both Fourth and Gill and Old North (indeed Magpie's ace of cupcakes, Peggy Hambright, is an Old North homeowner). Hopefully, having an adjacent business district of artsy, funky shops and eateries nearby will only further north Knoxville's nascent renaissance. (Spent much time in East Nashville, lately?)

There is, however, the elephant in the middle of the room. Or, to be more accurate, the homeless guy passed out in the middle of Broadway. I was pleased by the promises of tougher love put forth by Ginny Weatherstone, director of Volunteer Ministry Center in last week's cover story by Rose Kennedy. The service providers are, or at least should be, the primary point of contact between Knoxville and its homeless population. And they, more than anyone, set the tone of the relationship and establish expectations.

And the expectations, quite frankly, aren't all that high. Despite being sometimes cast as intolerant yuppies that have it in for the homeless, folks in Fourth and Gill, Old North and the owners of businesses along N. Central tolerate the homeless far more than most Knoxvillians would. And the things they take issue with—people passed out on the street, door-to-door panhandling, and the occasional petty theft—would probably induce panic on the part of more suburban homeowners' associations.

Nor are the thorny issues surrounding what some call north Knoxville's "Mission District" the usual case of haves versus have-nots. In truth, the conflict mostly pits the home and business owners against the institutions that provide shelter and service for the homeless. Looked at from that perspective, the dynamic is a little different. Knox Area Rescue Ministries, according to the IRS, has annual revenues of $6.5 million. Magpies would have to sell a lot of cupcakes to make that kind of dough. The same report also lists a six-figure compensation package for KARM's CEO, still more than most households in supposedly "gentrified" Fourth and Gill make.

And, while a lot of renovation has gone on in Old North and Fourth and Gill, the individual numbers involved pale in comparison to those racked up by the shelters. The "Big Three" service providers are housed entirely in buildings that have been built or substantially rebuilt within the last decade or so. Working with seven-figure construction budgets and major contractors like Denark, these projects dwarf almost any in the adjacent historic neighborhoods. The budget for the latest, VMC's renovation of the old Minvilla/Fifth Avenue Motel, has nudged "a little north of $6 million," according to a June article in the News Sentinel. That is, to put it in the perspective of the small businesses struggling to establish themselves on N. Central, almost 10 times the total renovation budget for the old Colorama building, now home to Magpies and Glowing Body.

So, as the Downtown North redevelopment moves forth and the city struggles to balance the sometimes-conflicting desires of residents, businesses, and non-profit service providers, it's important to remember that the homeless aren't the only "little guys" that need looking out for. m