Back in October, I wrote about my concern with the way the retail environment was developing—or rather not developing—downtown, and that the growing number of eateries did not equal success. I mentioned that three previous reports have called for a greater focus on fostering more retail in downtown, including a 2007 report commissioned by the Central Business Improvement District. Two years down the road from that report, the CBID issued a draft of "Downtown Knoxville's Strategic Business Plan" last November. It listed four priorities, number one being "Business Recruitment and Retention." And among its goals was to "add 25 new non-restaurant retailers by 2012."
As I said, we've had no shortage of plans and recommendations over the years—just not much in the way of results. Yes, we've had one major retail success in Mast General Store. But little has sprung up in the wake of what was touted as an anchor for retail development along Gay Street. After all the recruitment that went into that, it seemed like nobody followed up to capitalize on the momentum of Mast's success.
The draft plan's goal for new retail was both ambitious and encouraging, but I had still had reservations. Then reading a bit further, it called for the hiring of an individual "to manage the recruitment of office and retail" and it looked like they were on the right track. I had a bit of optimism that things might have turned a corner until a month or so ago when the CBID board met, and essentially shelved the idea of the new position.
A watered-down draft of the plan was posted on the CBID website a little over a week ago without the call for the new hire. With minor changes, the plan was ratified at Monday's monthly board meeting.
I was talking to a friend of mine recently, an attorney who has kept his office in downtown for decades, when the subject of CBID came up. He asked if I thought the organization had outlived its usefulness. He felt that at one time it had been very beneficial, but questioned whether it had become obsolete. I started thinking about that.
Formed in the midst of the Ashe Administration, when less attention was being given to downtown, the CBID has funded things such as cleaning up storefronts, purchasing bicycles for the Knoxville Police Department, and kicking in funding for the trolley service. All of which were unique needs of downtown, but which the city was reluctant to fund at the time. It provided support to kick-start events like Sundown in the City, the Holidays On Ice skating rink on Market Square, and other events and promotions. It provided grants for building improvements when programs like Tax Increment Financing and Payment in Lieu of Taxes—two tools that have been instrumental in aiding developers in recent years—didn't exist.
But downtown has become a greater priority to the city and its residents since those days. Many of those initiatives and programs that property owners within the CBID were expected to pick up the tab for have now been taken over by the city. And rightly so. Given that more city taxpayers are enjoying the benefits of a greatly improved downtown, that only makes sense. Great events that needed a hand getting going have become successful enough that they don't need subsidizing. And now the city has a development tool box for those wanting to invest in downtown.
After some thought, I told my friend that I felt the greatest need the CBID could fill was in promoting more retail development downtown. Advancing that type of business is critical to the balance needed to sustain downtown's growth. It means more amenities for residents, and the synergy of diverse merchants benefits the business climate as well. The city doesn't have a designated representative or department focused on that area, and I had been encouraged by reading the initial draft of the new plan. It renewed a sense of the CBID's value.
The revised plan retains the goal for non-restaurant retail recruitment. But I've lost a lot of optimism. We don't really need a new plan to call for additional retail downtown. That's nothing more than an echo of the plans that came before. What we need is to commit the resources to make it happen. If the CBID's limited staff hasn't been able to accomplish this long-standing recommendation by now, I don't know what good saying it again is going to do.