Our Blank Face of Welcome

Why the Convention Center fails even when it's busy

Secret History

by Jack Neely

On a week like last week, we can fantasize about what the Knoxville Convention Center would be like if it worked as advertised. The KCC was central to the Global Finals of Destination Imagination, touted as â“the largest creativity competition of its kind held anywhere.â” More than 18,000 students and family members were in town, and I didn't mind them a bit. Seeing thousands of happy young geniuses playing in the fountains or singing songs or riding around in cars with Wisconsin tags and â“Knoxville or Bustâ” soaped on the rear windows can almost make you think there's hope for this old joint.

But it also points out some stubborn old problems we've brought up before.

Last month, UT held graduation exercises, in large shifts, at the Knoxville Convention Center. So for several days the KCC was abuzz with begowned scholars and their proud and sometimes sizeable families. A commencement is another form of upbeat convention, too, I guess. But a college-professor friend observed that in spite of several days of graduation exercises at the Convention Center last month, each involving thousands of people, not many of them actually made it downtown.

Granted, a few did. You could see them posing for photographs in Krutch Park. But he's right, there weren't many. I get the impression that of the thousands of graduates, friends and family who came almost downtown for UT's graduation ceremonies, only a small minority came downtown proper on the same trip.

And though quite a few DI folks were visible downtown, especially those who happened to be staying in the big hotels. Some retailers report they had an appreciable effect. But there weren't any 18,000 of them. I'd be surprised if those who bought lunch or anything else downtown accounted for as much as 10 percent of the total.

Last week, on my way into work, I found myself on the Convention-Center plaza, standing bemused among the busy families from Michigan and Connecticut and California. They were coming and going from buses; there were thousands of them, some in uniforms or caped costumes, all wearing laminated IDs. Didn't they know we wanted them to spend their money downtown?

I wanted to grab them by their lanyards and explain a few things. The Convention Center was built, in large part, to draw you paying customers downtown. We need the sales-tax revenue from your purchases in the CBID, which is earmarked for rebuilding the budget. You are, after all, the ones who were supposed to help us pay for the damn thing.

The model sold to City Council was that each conventioneer was going to spend about $250 a day downtown. Market Square, in particular, was prioritized as a city project mainly to appeal to Convention-Center traffic. Before we even built the Convention Center, analysts with the Urban Land Institute emphasized the importance of building up the corridor between the Convention Center and Market Square with street-level businesses and signage.

But stand on the plaza in front of the Convention Center, and you'll see no clue that a place called Market Square exists. Never mind the Old City, Volunteer Landing, Gay Street, etc. From the perspective of the Convention Center, downtown is basically a YMCA, a UT Conference Center, and a few other bland and unidentified buildings in slightly variant shades of beige. Something called â“TVAâ” in the distance. Will that lure them across?

There's no signage in the convention-center area to suggest there's even a downtown over here. There's an unmarked footbridge, its destination obscure. Even if, for no particular reason except pointless curiosity, you do venture up the footbridge over Henleyâ"basically a stair climb and a two-block walkâ"you'll emerge on a sidewalk in back of the UT Conference Center with a view of a parking garage and, across the street, another parking garage. The Y's a pretty building, but unless you have a membership and an hour to kill, you probably won't have much use for it.

On the sidewalk, at the far end of the walkway, is a metal sign with a map listing â“Historic Buildings in Downtown.â” It's a list of 30, but just a list, with no context, no reason why any of them are worth seeing. Most of them aren't open to the public, anyway. The sign reads like earnest preliminary notes toward a first draft of that historical walking-tour brochure that various promotional agencies in the city have been talking about for 20 years, but never quite get around to producing. There's no mention of any particular history center or any other openly tourist-oriented attractions downtown.

On the other side of the sign are opportunities for lodging, assuming I guess you're not already staying somewhere. It's a little weathered and out of date, as you'd expect it to be. Any city where such a sign listing specific businesses doesn't go out of date pretty quickly is probably not a very interesting place to live.

From there you could walk two more blocks up Clinch to Market before glimpsing anything of interest to the casual visitor. No park or plaque or statuary, no store of any sort. No place to eat lunch or get a candy bar or a cup of coffee. To believe there's anything interesting about downtown Knoxville, the adventurer from the Convention Center will have to rely on faith and dead reckoning.

It's not a new complaint. We brought it up before in this paper, almost exactly five years ago. From the Convention Center, newcomers have a hard time finding the city's attractions, and finding a reason to try. There was earnest talk, five years ago, of improving the Clinch corridor to make it more inviting to the bewildered conventioneer by building up the business presence, but today the only business open to the casual public is a barber shop. It's hardly abandoned; there's some new office and residential development on that patch. But since we last wrote about its bleakness in terms of pedestrian-friendly attractions, the biggest changes in the corridor are that the old camera and printing shops have been torn down, and its one restaurant has closed.

We've clustered businesses in some of the most architecturally interesting parts of downtown. But it would be strangely easy to attend a convention in downtown Knoxville without ever noticing that Market Square or the Old City or even Gay Street exists. And without ever seeing anything to buy. The Convention Center is widely regarded as a failure. But even if it were buzzing with big conventions every week, I suspect that without connections, its effect on downtown would be much less that originally calculated.

From several common entry points, downtown Knoxville's face is blank. The peculiar phenomenon goes for most of downtown's big hotels. The Hilton, the Holiday Inn, the Marriott, the new Hampton Inn: Most of our big downtown hotels seem to be planted in areas that are scrubbed clean of commercial activity.

So to find a destination, last week, visitors had to use some imagination. Maybe it was one of the more challenging student projects judged over the weekend, letters marked in sparkly day-glo on big posterboard: â“Finding something to spend money on in Knoxville, Tenn.â”


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