1997 in Review: Business

ECONOMIC WOBBLES

The three-legged stool that has long supported the local economy kept on getting weaker this past year. The Department of Energy complex at Oak Ridge, the University of Tennessee, and the Tennessee Valley Authority all downsized their work forces. Through layoffs and attrition, more than 1,500 jobs were lost in Oak Ridge, 130 faculty and administrative positions at UT, and 190 at TVA's headquarters.

Yet all of this erosion is overshadowed by the prospect of 2,300 layoffs when Levi Strauss shuts down its Cherry Street plant in May. This comes on top of the loss of just about as many more apparel manufacturing jobs in the metropolitan area over the past three years.

In the midst of an unprecedented national economic boom, one might suppose that growth in other sectors would take up the slack and then some. But such is not the case. The number of Knox County job holders has declined to 194,010 this October from 197,150 a year before. Our consistently low unemployment rate is explained by the fact that the size of the work force has dropped as well.

"People must not feel that job prospects are good here. So they're leaving the labor force either by moving away or sitting at home on the couch," says Matt Murray, director of UT's Center for Business and Economic Research.

The exodus has severely impacted the local housing market as new home construction has nose-dived in response to a glut of existing homes for sales, but a full-fledged recession doesn't appear imminent. Retail sales in Knox County, as measured by sales tax receipts, are up 3.8 percent during the first four months of the government fiscal year that began July 1. However, this rate of growth lags well behind the state average of 6.4 percent.

IF WE BUILD IT...

They will shop. At least, that's the conviction of developers, who continued their feverish quest this year to leave no acre of West Knoxdom unpaved. Two of the biggest swaths of green left anywhere near Kingston Pike went under the 'dozer, as Bearden Hill was graded to make way for retail and commercial development, and the traps and tees of Deane Hill Country Club gave noisy birth to Borders Books, Old Navy, and a host of other stores. Meanwhile, West Town Mall expanded, and on the western horizon looms the Turkey Creek "power center," the mother of all strip malls. It's a lot of shopping for one little county to do, but we have faith. Get out those credit cards and do your part!

BOOKSTORE WARS

Cappuccino and the latest bestseller, anyone? This year the giants of the bookselling biz, Barnes & Noble and

Borders, came to Knoxville. Although folks were excited about Barnes and Noble's in-store Starbucks, the bookstore, which opened in June, took much of its stock from the now-closed Bookstar, a sister store of B&N. Borders opened in October—just in time for the holidays—about a half-mile down the road from B&N and three miles from Davis-Kidd. Davis-Kidd, which was purchased this year by fellow independent Joseph-Beth Booksellers, is holding its own in the bookstore wars, as is the less lofty Books-A-Million, 8-year-old outpost of a Birmingham-based chain. Are there are enough book lovers in town to support all four superstores? We hope so...

As the Spit Turns:

RESTAURANT NEWS

Much of what remained of distinctively Knoxvillian dining, as we came to know it in the postwar years, died in the space of a few weeks. The decades-old Tic Toc barbecue drive-in on Magnolia, the famous Southern Grill on Broadway (officially known as Lorrie's in its latter years)—and, most astonishing of all, Sam & Andy's, the deli/beer joint opened by the Greek Kapetanopoulos brothers 51 years ago—all folded within a few weeks of each other. All three had just been recommended for their local flavor in a nationally published tour guide.

Sam & Andy's, Knoxville's oldest operating bar—which also claimed to have introduced the Pizza Pie to Knoxville, circa 1949—was still seeing good business just before they went out of business; they were unable to come to terms with a landlord's new demands. As a result, the original Sam & Andy's has sat empty on its corner of Cumberland and 18th for the last eight months, as one former deliman opened a smaller, more expensive, and less colorful version of the deli he's calling "Sam & Andy's"—to the distress of some other family members—across the street. (Another Sam & Andy's in Farragut independently adheres to the spirit of the original restaurant.) Meanwhile, another former S&A deliman—and later Vic & Bill's namesake—moved up Broadway and reopened the Southern Grill as Bill's.

Location is everything, they say. Adjacent to Sequoyah Hills and near several other residential areas, Western Plaza is the Kingston Pike strip mall nearest to the UT campus. It might seem as if running a restaurant or pub there would be as easy as falling off a barstool. But in 1997, The Mill, the chain restaurant and brewpub that had a very strong opening two years ago, died—soon followed by its Western Plaza neighbor, the tiny but tasty new take-out place called Ultimate Pizza.

Rumors also abound about the demise of Rhapsody's, the short-lived restaurant/nightclub in Homberg Place. It's one of those famously and perplexingly bad locations, where restaurants that should thrive instead whither on the vine. Remember Merlot's, Miz Sissy's, Keng's Garden—to name only three in recent memory? Rhapsody's may have closed the book on the building, though, having been damaged by a mysterious fire that reportedly had not one but five points of origin. We're smelling something more than just smoke...

But, whenever a door shuts, a window opens. It's a cliché, yes, but that's exactly what we were thinking when we learned that one of our favorite chefs, Dean Hoyos-Holsberry, resurfaced at the newly opened Mango. Holsberry had been the maestro de cuisine at Mattioda's, the late Farragut bistro that charmed its diners with the likes of giant shrimp in cashew-chipotle sauce, lamb in rosemary reduction glaze, and hands-down the best steak sandwich this town has ever seen. We're still lamenting that it closed its doors this year—casting many a talented jazz musician out on the street. We'll miss the fabulous fare, the superb service (Alan, we hardly knew ye), and even the faux grapevines that adorned the walls. But having Holsberry back in the saddle at Mango makes our culinary cross easier to bear. There, he's helped to craft a sophisticated fusion-cuisine menu that includes such Bonnie-approved morsels as portobella mushroom wontons, pork tenderloin in ancho chile-espresso barbecue sauce, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, and caramelized vegetable enchiladas with goat cheese. Helmed by Stir Fry Cafe owner Kenny Siao, Mango—situated in, of all things, a former veterinary hospital in Bearden—has it all: bright, urbane atmosphere, attentive service, a brilliant bar, and even a regular clientele of shiny, happy people.

Apparently, Knoxville is also set to swing. We're seeing a definite trend toward upscale dinner clubs like the Baker-Peter's Jazz Club, Donn's, and Harry's, a soon-to-open Regas offshoot on Kingston Pike at Papermill. We'll be tracking this trend carefully, observing the scene through the bottoms of our martini glasses.

A testament to the resiliency of the human spirit, the Best Italian set up shop again on Cumberland Avenue, thankfully putting the Neyland Sports Grille (you know, the place with that obnoxious giant orange) out of our misery. Since we like the place, we're hoping it takes this time. In further campus developments, we're happy to welcome the Thai Kitchen, with its truly authentic Thai cuisine. And we're even happier to see that despite a few rough spots over the summer, Sunspot is still dishing up some of the best vegetarian fare in town.

MALL WARS

West Town Mall seemed to have it all—the best stores, the nicest ambiance, the to-die-for location, and even the most attractive shoppers. Poor old East Towne—with its sad 1982 World's Fair throw-back decor and dwindling tenant roster—seemed down for the count. But it came up swinging this year—redecorated and rechristened "Knoxville Center," conspicuously dropping the word "East" from its name and professing to have an East Tennessee theme. Mostly, the changes are superficial: installing some faux-Victorian facades, introducing some giant fish sculpture, and hanging a mammoth orange T (that's for Tennessee, you know) from the ceiling over some escalators. But Knoxville Center has managed to attract some new retailers, including Garden Botanika, Eddie Bauer, the Gap/Gap Kids, and a Limited Too. The question is: Will the yuppies be willing to leave their comfy West Knox environs? Heck, they can get all that stuff at West Town, and even more. And we're thinking that once the new mega-Regal Cinemas opens its doors, West Town will emerge victorious—a winner by decision, though, rather than a knock out.

© 1997 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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