How Others See Knoxville

How we look from the interstate, and other observations

You may get the impression that Knoxville is the stealth drone of cities, off the American radar. Hardly any city of its age and metropolitan size is so little recognized by name abroad.

And it's rarely encountered on our interstate highways. Drop in at the last interstate rest stop before home, sample the literature, and see what you can learn about that municipality up ahead. At the stop approaching Knoxville on I-40 East in August, I encountered a blizzard of fliers for Sevier County attractions and one solitary Knoxville brochure, for the worthy Knoxville Zoo. That was it. At another rest stop on I-75 North, the last one before the 40-75 junction, I found more colorful entreaties to visit Dollywood, the Titanic, the Dixie Stampede. The premises offered no obvious clue of the existence of any upcoming city called Knoxville, even though it was right ahead, the next big cluster of exits.

We're humble that way. Other cities are such peacocks. A rest area on I-26 in North Carolina, about 40 miles from any city, offers a big glossy magazine-style guide to Asheville—it has actual prose in it, with descriptions that make it sound like no other city in the world. Some of it is corny, but along with a couple of downtown Asheville walking tours, and several brochures about individual attractions in Asheville proper, it makes the city sound lively, interesting, and fun. If the city of Asheville were ever to host a pavilion at a world's fair, it would look a lot like that interstate rest stop.

Asheville's influence stretches across state lines. If you peruse the rack at the Knoxville Visitor Center in downtown Knoxville, you can read more about downtown Asheville than about downtown Knoxville.

Maybe our humility is admirable, but you can't help but wonder. Couldn't downtown Knoxville, say, or even Market Square alone, rate an interesting promotional brochure? Or Ijams Nature Center, which in some regards is unique in the world? In Knoxville, it turns out, there's even a university that has some museums, gardens, and other public attractions. You wouldn't guess that, passing through.

Though lots of progressive cities still do a big business in printed materials, some would argue that they're old-school technology. Well, have a look at the websites of promotional organizations, and see if they make Knoxville seem like a place you'd like to visit, or invest in, or move to.

To be fair, a recent booklet called "Authentic Knoxville" is, despite some problems, the best-looking print guide I've seen here in a decade or two. I don't know whether it ever gets stocked on the highways. But it's more utilitarian than inspiring, mainly just a list of options; they did all the tedious work, but skipped the fun part. We do make the place sound tolerable enough if you need to be here anyway. In Knoxville "you'll never have to worry about going hungry," it avers, accurately. Our promoters rarely emphasize the city's own distinct heritage, the peculiar, the astonishing, the things you can't find in other cities. That's what attracts me as a traveler, a strong sense that this destination is different from all others.

The message you get from Knoxville's official presentations of itself seems to emphasize mediumness. Not too hot, not too cold, a medium-size mid-South city with most of what you'd expect in most cities, plus the Vols.

The most loyal fan can acknowledge that even the finest collegiate sports program has limits when it comes to marketing its host city. The fact that Neyland is one of America's four biggest football stadiums can get folks' attention, even if it didn't make Travel & Leisure's recent list of Best College Football Stadiums. But as a tourist draw, Neyland Stadium comes with a catch. Tourists can purchase tours of the empty stadium—on certain days, if they make arrangements in advance. But you can't get an impression of what 102,000 seats look like without seeing them filled for a game. That describes Neyland Stadium only about 24 hours a year.

Yes, in Knoxville we do "play a little football." About 0.3 percent of the year we have a home game underway. If we count associated excitement like tailgating and bar riots, that brings it up closer to 1 or 2 percent of the year. Still, marketing Knoxville based on something that's publicly accessible here so rarely is like marketing Seattle for its glorious sunshine. Or Alabama for its fun-loving liberals.

There's a lot of other stuff here, and I'm not sure it's all obvious to skeptical strangers.

I don't want to pick on any one promotional organization. There are several, and each tends its own garden. Each has data suggesting they're tending them successfully, "heads in beds," and so forth. They're each connecting with a certain audience they describe as important. But conversations with Knoxville's promoters are sometimes surprising. Some seem to have little idea of what's going on in Knoxville's other gardens.

I don't know whether that apparent lack of communication is why this reporter gets so many calls and e-mails from travelers, scholars, and reporters—questions that aren't germane to my only paying job, which is reporting for a weekly newspaper. I don't mind fielding Knoxville queries, showing folks around my hometown, and often it's fun. But sometimes I look back, wondering what happened to the week, and realize I've spent a full working day more or less flacking for Knoxville. And I think, Aren't there people who get paid for this? Probably a whole lot more than reporters do?

They say they come to me because they've heard I know more about Knoxville than anybody else. But what I know isn't necessarily more than any salaried municipal promoter should know. And frankly I'm a little bit of a liability, because I sometimes tell people things a Knoxville promoter shouldn't.

Some coordination might help. It seems to me our next mayor, whoever she is, needs to consider the rather large and complex issue of how the city presents itself.