No Destination Attractions? Knoxville?

The winter has been a pretty long one for Knoxville's tourism industry. I don't know whether my questions in this space last October about how Knoxville markets itself reflected dysfunction at the top of the Knoxville Tourism and Sport Corp., or just philosophical differences about the true meaning of Knoxville. But as a result of some comments relayed to me, I gather that some influential people are convinced that Knoxville lacks appeal as a destination. One point of view, sometimes prevailing though expressed in whispered tones, is that we should just be grateful for every soccer tournament or motorcycle rally we get.

If you survey the list of KTSC events and the occasions the regional or national press has noticed us, you could easily get the impression that Knoxville's an agreeable accumulation of grassy fields and parking lots, with interstate adjacency. Amateur sports are good for certain hotels and restaurants. I'm just saying maybe there's more. Regardless of leadership agonies, it seems like a good time to reassess.

Everyone's list of what makes our hometown interesting is different. But when I heard that some folks' lists of Knoxville's assets have nothing much on them, I wondered if maybe they'd be interested in borrowing mine.

So herewith, free, are a few of the things I've found most interesting to tourists, mostly from 20 years of showing folks around:

The one attraction improving most rapidly is Knoxville's unique, and often peculiar, access to nature. The new Knoxville Botanical Gardens, the much improved University of Tennessee gardens, the zoo, the Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge, the incipient but already amazing one-of-a-kind Legacy Parks project linking Union earthworks and picturesque quarries—and especially Ijams Nature Center. And if you haven't toured Ijams in the last couple of years, you may not have any idea. I've asked some knowledgeable and well-traveled naturalists, and they confirm it: There's really no place just like it in America, this 275-acre preserve right in the city, with such a concentrated variety of geographical features and habitats. All of Knoxville's natural attractions celebrate the area's unusual biological diversity in distinctively different ways.

Music, broadly: Maybe Knoxville is indeed the Cradle of Country Music, with dozens of interesting stories of that evolution, dating from 1883. It also hosts the South's oldest symphony orchestra and America's only festival in honor of Gioachino Rossini. And it's the home of the people who plan America's biggest annual rock festival, Bonnaroo. What's like nothing else in the world is WDVX, whose live-audience studio is located in downtown Knoxville, home of the daily show known as the "Blue Plate Special." Tennessee doesn't need two Music Cities, maybe, but Tennessee, as a whole, has a musical reputation, as our quarter points out, as does the state tourism board's new motto: "We're playing your song." And judging by travel guides and travelogues, music's a big part of what people look for in any city.

The kicker is that we've got one juxtaposition most cities lack: Two carefully renovated historic theaters, two blocks from each other: The Bijou-Tennessee duo awed big-city professional critics who visited the Big Ears Festivals of 2009 and 2010. I only wish there were some casual way to access them, outside of performances that may or may not be expensive, sold out, or unappealing to a tourist who might otherwise be fascinated with each place itself—or both of them, in conjunction with each other, which is a festival-only rarity.

Literary heritage may be of interest to a minority of Americans, but it's a big minority. When C-SPAN came here last fall, they were mainly interested in our literary sites associated with James Agee, Cormac McCarthy, Nikki Giovanni. In recent years, documentarians from London and travel writers from Boston to Berlin have based stories entirely on Knoxville's literary associations. Back in the 1990s, a promotional organization made plans to publish a literary-heritage tour in brochure form; as a result of some personal-career shifting, it got dropped and forgotten. Still, when pilgrims with accents show up looking for Agee or McCarthy or Ochs or Giovanni, any tourism pro should be ready to talk about all that.

Our Civil War heritage has more to it than most assume. The 20-minute Battle of Knoxville is not always considered a major one, but Knoxville has something unusual, a history of blue and gray, black and white, on the same city streets. Knoxville's Civil War lasted half a century, and left marks deeper than any Minie-ball hole. During this sesquicentennial, we could be doing a lot more with that. The whole city was a political and personal battlefield, and its stories can fascinate.

Perhaps this one's the easiest to access: There's hardly any place in America just like Market Square. Its architecture ranges from the Victorian-cheap to the modestly distinguished, plenty good-looking enough to charm. But what makes Market Square unusual is its scale, more intimate than most town squares, and its off-the-path pseudo-seclusion. Something about that may be what prompted a remark I overheard recently: a rich-looking middle-aged guy walking through the Square, on one of the ever-more-common nights when, for no particular reason, about 200 people are lounging on the Square, drinking, eating, talking, reading, playing fiddle. He pulled out his iPhone and said, "I want you to Google ‘Market Square, Knoxville,' right now. You wouldn't believe this place."

We can only hope he and his unseen associate then learned about the true treasure of the Square, what makes it genuinely unique in America, which is the stories. So many things have happened there since 1854: It became a stage for the birth of country music, a scene of heated political dramas, the site of the birth of some major careers, a setting for several significant novels. It's well used, finally. In promotional material, I have rarely seen it well described.

The Old City has potential to rival it, if it ever becomes a city priority, but it's already gotten attention from travel writers, as is.

There's a start.