Knoxville Looks to Set Guidelines for Market Square

An open and public process is now underway to determine community values and develop policies for use of the Square based on public support

During the visioning sessions held prior to its renovation, Market Square was anticipated to serve as not only as a retail and dining destination, but also as a venue for a variety of events. And over the past few years, it has fulfilled that role. It's played host to happenings ranging from the popular Sundown in the City concert series to its original designated purpose as a farmers' market, along with nearly everything in between. And some of that everything-in-between has raised questions.

Last year, when the Market Square Farmers' Market got nudged off the Square to make room for a corporate employee party, concerns surfaced about what, if any, policies and priorities existed for use of the space. Those concerns were largely ignored by the city's Office of Special Events, which is in charge of managing events on the Square.

Complaints resurfaced last month when the Square was booked for an "all makes and models car show." An eatery on the Square sponsored the event, which consisted of, not surprisingly, a bunch of cars of no discernible distinction parked up and down what is supposed to be a pedestrian plaza.

In addition to the sponsor basically turning the Square into a parking lot (and charging "participants" a buck each for the privilege), a DJ booked for the event blasted music over a sound system, much to the dismay of diners out to enjoy a peaceful Sunday brunch. One business owner cringed to hear the thundering lyrics "shut up bitch" greeting families coming from church to enjoy an afternoon downtown.

In response to ongoing complaints, the city finally responded last week by holding a public input meeting on the programming and use of the Square. A further process has been promised to determine the future use of the city's premier public space.

When it comes to programming events on the Square, currently few guidelines exist. Based on material presented at the meeting and the accompanying discussion, events seem to be managed on a fly-by-the seat-of-its-pants methodology by the Office of Special Events. There are few published guidelines offered to provide planners even such basic information as what hours events are permitted on the Square. Functions are evaluated on a subjective case-by-case basis with little formal policy for guidance.

A few new guidelines were announced at the onset of the meeting. Bill Lyons, the city's senior director of policy and communications, said that the Square would no longer host "exclusive, private events." That's a change from allowing tents to be erected in the center of the Square for $100-a-plate fund-raising dinners as has occurred in the past. He further said that the "primacy" of the Farmers' Market in the context of other events shall be recognized.

But a number of questions and concerns remain. Chief among them is just what the atmosphere of the Square should be. What kind of events should the Square host, and how many? Should there be limitations on amplified music? Isn't Market Square, with its variety of shops and outdoor patios, an attraction in and of itself?

It's true that sometime back it was hard to draw a crowd to downtown. But that's largely changed over the past few years. Market Square is a lively place much of the time now simply because it offers visitors a place to relax and enjoy the city for being a city.

In some ways, it's become a victim of its own success. Many groups want to use the Square simply because it's a popular place. And as venues go, it's relatively inexpensive to book an event there. Non-profits can host events for $100, and others for $200. Contrast that to the World's Fair Park, for which the Public Building Authority charges $750 to $1,500 for bookings there.

For some at the meeting, the bigger question was not the cost for use of the Square, but the value of the activities it hosts to downtown. Knoxville has a number of parks and other venues available to groups for events. Should use of the Square follow some overall rationale and set of principles to enhance the center city? Or is it just another space for rent without regard for quality of life in downtown?

But perhaps even an even trickier set of questions looms: Just how much control can the city legally exercise over the use of public space? And how can such control be exercised to effect discrimination without the perception of prejudice?

Those answers lie in the open and public process now underway to determine community values and develop policies for use of the Square based on public support. Such policymaking creates a far more defensible and proactive climate than relying on appointed bureaucrats acting and reacting based on their own intuition to whatever falls in their lap.

The City of Knoxville has released a draft policy statement and set of guidelines for events on Market Square; another public meeting will be set to discuss it.