How Did Downtown Knoxville Happen?

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I joined thousands of other Americans in the traditional pastime of taking it easy and having a few beers. Either that, or thousands of Americans joined me in a pastime I enjoy on a daily basis. In either case, a pair of couples who appeared to be tourists were sharing a table adjacent to mine on the brewpub patio on the sidewalk of Gay Street. At one point one of them commented to another that things had "really changed around here in the past 10 years." That's something that seems like it goes without saying, yet I'll bet there isn't a week that goes by that don't I hear it from someone. As it turns out, the couples were indeed from out of state and were speaking from some experience. It was 10 years ago that Destination ImagiNation began what has become tradition in Knoxville. The event, which showcases the problem-solving abilities of student teams, came to the city in 2001.

The competition was sharing downtown that day with a couple of younger events that show no sign of slowing down any time soon. In addition to the thousands in town for the University of Tennessee-sponsored event, hundreds of regular shoppers were milling on the Square on their weekly pilgrimage to the Market Square Farmers' Market. And adjacent to that cornucopia, thousands more were lined up for the second annual International Biscuit Festival to celebrate all things biscuit. Without qualification, it was a busy Saturday downtown. Nearly every restaurant, store, and shop was rocking, and the sidewalks were as busy as ever. It got me to thinking about 10 years ago and the changes those folks were talking about. In many ways, Knoxville was turning a corner in 2001 that was pretty significant to that change.

A decade ago, downtown was having its own destination imaginings. While kick-starting downtown's resurgence was on a lot of people's minds, many of those minds were imagining things much differently. There was a big hole in the ground at the former World's Fair site that we were throwing money into that would someday become a convention center. And to get the horse squarely behind that cart, many felt what we needed was a "destination attraction." There were plans floating around for a downtown mall over Henley Street, connected by what was being referred to by some as a series of human habitrails that would lead to the ever elusive silver bullet attraction that would finally put Knoxville on the map. City leaders, who had been eyeing the success of the aquarium in Chattanooga and wringing their hands over the one-that-got-away, were falling all over themselves at the latest idea of "a virtual-reality space theater coupled with a Smithsonian-affiliated museum and a new children's museum" to be called Universe Knoxville. (In those days, any proposal for development downtown was required to embed a new children's museum in the initial presentation.) The sky, as they said, was the limit. And biscuits weren't even on the map.

But around that time, the city, with the capable input of several interested citizens (or troublemakers, as they were known then) began to change. It began to move away from a proposal by the top-down thinkers of the day to put "an unobtrusive glass enclosure" over Market Square. The idea of creating "shoppertainment" that would be ensconced in the Square's privately managed "festival atmosphere" began to take a backseat to concepts like "public input"—a phrase that had not only started to come up in civic dialogue, but had actually started to seem like what it meant. Some of those troublemakers were even advocating for Market Square to be revived as a marketplace for local farmers as it was originally intended. And rather than letting a developer buy up the entire thing and manage it into some sort of synthetic shopping experience, they had this wacky idea about giving home-grown entrepreneurs and indie businesses the tools they needed to revitalize downtown. They weren't interested in making it something for someone else. That selfish bunch wanted to make it a place where Knoxvillians would want to come. The attraction would be downtown itself.

I didn't get the impression that anyone who was here that Saturday a couple of weeks ago was thinking, "I guess this is okay, but I wish there was a virtual-reality space theater somewhere." Those DI kids and their parents seemed to all be having a perfectly wonderful time in downtown for simply the kind of place it's become: a place with a real farmers' market, a place that thinks that biscuits deserve a festival, and a place where its own people actually want to be.