Gloria in Excelsis

Does our highest-paid official deserve her salary? And by the way, have you ever seen her?

Folks have been asking me what I think of Gloria Ray, and especially whether she earns her annual compensation, which is slightly larger than that of the president of the United States.

I've been getting questions semi-regularly for the last several years: What's Gloria Ray really like, what's her perspective on the city, what is it she actually does.

Of course, people figure we're close chums. Naturally they would, because Gloria Ray and I have a lot in common. We both have offices on Gay Street, a five-minute walk from each other. I'm in her building, which is known as the Gloria Ray Building, maybe 50-100 times a year. And for the last decade or so, Gloria Ray and I have both been pretty thickly involved in promoting Knoxville.

For me, Knoxville tourism has become a sort of accidental second career, an unexpected side effect of journalism. I've written lots of tourism-oriented articles, for travel guidebooks and encyclopedias and airline magazines. More than that, I've helped dozens of reporters from big-city newspapers from Boston to Rome, working on tourism-related projects about Knoxville. When C-SPAN crews were here last year, I spent several hours showing them around. Over the last 20 years, I've led hundreds of tours and pub crawls of the city, for conventioneers, travel writers, visitors of various sorts. Without ever intending to, I've become the go-to guy to show Knoxville to newcomers, among them an English lord, a bestselling mystery novelist, a Pulitzer laureate reporter, a Swiss film crew, some newly appointed TVA directors.

Often these first-time visitors are unfamiliar with my day job, and think I work for the tourist bureau. And I have worked with the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corp. staff some, on this project or that, sometimes for pay, sometimes just to help out.

So what do I think of Gloria Ray?

In fact I don't know Gloria Ray. I've never met her in person.

I interviewed her on the phone once or twice, a decade ago, about the then-new convention center. She was enthusiastic about its prospects. Other times I've tried to call her at her office but didn't catch her in. I've been told she's hard to reach.

I did see her in person once. I was watching a show on the WDVX stage, and she was trying to get to the elevator to her office, and I was in her way. I felt bad about that, because she did seem to be in a hurry.

The fact that I don't know her surprises me, too. I'm on a first-name basis with the last several city mayors. I know the heads of the Chamber Partnership, the historical society, Dogwood Arts, the Beck Cultural Center, Clarence Brown Theatre. I know the conductors of the symphony and the opera, the directors and curators of our art and history museums, the organizers of most of our festivals, the directors of several tourism-relevant foundations and non-profits, the folks who plan Bonnaroo. I'm not bragging. It's a reporter's job to know people, and none of these folks are very elusive. You'll get to know them, too, if you just come out now and then.

These are folks I see at lunch, have beers with, run into on the sidewalk, see at receptions, at festivals, at meetings, at concerts, at gallery walks, at the farmers' market. We all know each other, and see each other pretty often, whether we really want to or not.

We don't see Gloria Ray much.

I've been asking around. You'd be surprised how many people are prominently involved in one way or another in promoting Knoxville tourism but don't know Gloria Ray. A few people who have worked full-time in Knoxville tourism for decades say they've never been in the same room with her. Some admit they're not sure what our highest-paid official looks like.

These tourism professionals aren't saying she doesn't doing anything. They're just not sure what it is. She has been, at least for the last several years, a woman of mystery.

To give credit, Gloria Ray was the maverick University of Tennessee Women's Athletic Director who helped create the Lady Vols phenomenon in the 1980s and '90s. Maybe it was natural, a decade ago, to believe that a genius in UT sports must surely also be an expert at municipal promotions. I've never been convinced that tourism and sports is a natural union—one addresses mainly short-term visitors from outside the region, the other mainly long-term residents within the region—but Knoxville's image, a decade or more ago, struck some folks as a Gloria Ray-sized problem. People couldn't wait to see what she'd do.

Before her reign at KTSC, she was primarily responsible for the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. If you have data suggesting it's a success, I won't argue.

A more obvious success has been the 2004 tourist center itself, an imaginative redo that incorporated a good cafe, an interesting gift shop, and radio studios with a stage for live shows. The Blue Plate Special is one of the very few things downtown Knoxville can boast as literally unique.

Since then, KTSC has been spinning on its own axis, and give or take the occasional Data Dog, has done some worthwhile work. I bet Gloria Ray does a lot behind the scenes to bring in conventions and some other events.

But we shouldn't assume that any improvement in Knoxville's tourist profile has come as a result of her work at KTSC. Her tenure has coincided with the dramatic and very tourist-friendly revival of downtown, especially of Market Square, the movie theater and renovated performing-arts theaters, several suddenly major festivals. How much does she know about them?

Maybe her remoteness is not her own fault. The more you pay somebody, the less you see them in their home town. Nobody can enjoy that much money just hanging around in Knoxville, going to shows and festivals and local attractions. Heck, if you're going to spend your time doing stuff in Knoxville, you might as well settle for a five-digit salary.