The big question of who will occupy most of the space that they propose building—including an 10-screen movie theater, a 33-story office tower, a department store, and tenants for Market Square—remains unanswered.
However, a couple of the key players did officially emerge last week. Here's the lowdown on them, and what Knoxville can expect.
John Elkington and Performa
The man many credit with turning Memphis' Beale Street into a bustling night-life district would be in charge of managing the Henley Street walkway mall, Market Square, and Gay Street.
Although he now has several urban entertainment projects in the works around the country, many thought Elkington (whose company is called Performa) was crazy when he signed a 32-year lease in 1983 to manage the blighted home of the blues. The Memphis Business Journal said the street at the time "resembled Berlin circa 1945 [more] than the historic district where the blues were born."
Since then Beale has become the second most visited street in the South (after New Orleans' Bourbon Street), and sales have boomed from almost nothing to $20 million annually, according to the Journal.
"John Elkington is a lot like the Fred Smiths and Bill Gates of the world," Rickey Peete, executive director of the Beale Street Merchants Association and a Memphis city councilman, told the Journal. "I know I'm putting him in lofty company, but he's an innovator who has been willing to take risks to build something that has been beneficial to a lot of people. He risked everything when all the other developers went out East."
But for all the compliments Elkington has collected, he seems to have just as many critics.
The entity that signed the lease with Performa back in 1983, the Beale Street Development Corp., has filed several lawsuits against Performa trying to ultimately void the agreement. George Miller of the Beale Street Development Corp., says that Performa hasn't paid a cent to the city or the development corporation.
The lease was also publicly criticized by Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who in 1992 ordered an audit of Performa. Although the audit cost the city $300,000, an official report was never filed, according to both the Memphis Business Journal and the Memphis Flyer.
A June 29, 1998 Business Journal article quotes anonymous sources who say that Elkington misled them or outright lied. Others say he's difficult to deal with because he will at times stop communicating with prospective clients, refusing to return phone calls.
Although it does a lot of business, Miller told Metro Pulse that Beale Street businesses aren't stable. "The turnover on the street is terrible. You get the Hard Rock Cafe and other things, but they don't last," he says.
Since his success in Memphis, Elkington has begun branching out to other cities. He now has five downtown entertainment and commercial districts in the works. In Winston Salem, N.C. he's involved in revitalizing an historic area that might include a NASCAR Cafe and a sports bar by former Wake Forest basketball player Tim Duncan, as well as offices and residences. In Shreveport, La., Elkington is working on a $25 million entertainment district along the riverfront, in conjunction with two casinos now under construction.
For Market Square, Elkington says he does not intend to make another Beale Street. He says he would emphasize regional culture, arts, history and businesses—by regional he means Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina.
Some large national franchises are needed for financing and security, but, he says, you don't want something that looks like a mall. "If you can see this in a suburb, it's not going to be unique and successful," he says. Which means no Applebee's, Macaroni Grill, or NASCAR Cafe, he says. And although there would be things to do in Market Square seven days a week, it would not be exclusively a night-time entertainment district, he says.
As manager, Elkington would be given power to develop covenants restricting how the buildings can be used. It is not clear how restrictive these would be.
Opposed to putting a dome over the square, Elkington says he hopes to create a market and festival type atmosphere. Residents and current businesses will be welcome.
"You don't want to start all over again," he says. "You want to build on what's there."
The proposal being considered by E.W. Scripps—to build an entertainment institute for its cable channels, which include the Food Network, Home & Garden TV, and DIY—could be the most promising part of the plan.
If Scripps delivers, this visitor center could attract thousands of tourists to downtown Knoxville. Perhaps more importantly, it would employ hundreds of young professionals inclined to live downtown.
However, Scripps continues to be vague about its ideas, and at least publicly, uncommitted. No Scripps representatives were at the Tennessee Theatre last Wednesday for the Worsham Watkins' big announcement, and Ron Watkins stressed that Scripps has made no final decisions. What Scripps is considering includes a home museum, studio tours, product demonstration, among other things, Watkins told the crowd.
Timothy Strautberg, Scripps vice president of communications and investor relations, could not be reached for comment.
The fastest growing part of the company, the three 24-hour cable networks made Scripps $33 million last year, up from $6 million in 1998. Launched in 1993, the Food Network reaches 44.2 million homes. HGTV—started in 1994—now reaches 59 million homes. Do It Yourself (DIY) was launched last year, and Scripps last month announced plans to start a fourth network—Fine Living—next year.
Scripps plucked its latest president and chief executive, Ken Lowe, from its cable TV division.
Scripps' involvement in the downtown project could conceivably be all that's needed to make the other components a reality and attract other big-name tenants.
However, PBA executive director Dale Smith says without Scripps, the deal doesn't necessarily fall through.
"If Scripps doesn't come to play, I don't think that inherently negates the hotel office piece," Smith says. "But it might affect the size of the office building. Scripps' presence or absence is going to affect [Worsham Watkins'] projections."
A component of the plan made public last week is a 5,500-seat amphitheater to be built on the south lawn of the World's Fair Park.
The Philadelphia-based SMG would build and manage the amphitheater, which Ron Watkins says would host 100 shows a year.
Representatives from SMG could not be reached for comment. The company manages several convention centers and amphitheaters around the country.
Promoter Ashley Capps of AC Entertainment says he's excited about the proposal.
"We do shows at the World's Fair Park and I think it's a great location," Capps says. "We'd love to have some sort of more permanent facility to do shows more easily and cost effectively."
At first blush, 100 shows seems like a lot for Knoxville, a market where top acts fail to sell out.
"So much of this depends on synergy. The way Knoxville is right now, I think [100 shows] is a stretch," Capps says. "But taken as part of a whole, it becomes possible."
Although Capps was mentioned by Watkins in the same breath as SMG and the amphitheater, Capps was not involved in developing the proposal. However, Capps would in all likelihood book and promote some shows at the amphitheater, as he does now on the south lawn.
Worsham Watkins have proposed a $5 million endowment that would fund a non-profit festival and events marketing group. All tenants in the development would make annual contributions to the fund.
It was no surprise when Ron Watkins announced that the convention center hotel would be built by Marriott—the company has long been rumored to be involved in the project.
Based in Washington, D.C., Marriott runs 1,880 hotels and resorts around the world. It also operates time-share and corporate condos and nursing homes. The company grossed $8.7 billion last year.
It would manage the 415-room hotel on Walnut Street for the convention center.
Brian Moulton, senior vice president in Marriott's Atlanta office, would not comment on the chain's plans.
The company is moving some corporate offices into the area. This spring, it started building a payroll and accounting facility in Alcoa for its hotels. The facility is initially expected to employ 250 people, but could mushroom to 500.
Now that the developers have abandoned the idea of putting a dome over Market Square, the most controversial part of the plan is probably the carriage-style condos slated for 11th Street.
In order to build them, several restored Victorian houses—now home to artists' studios and a coffee shop—would have to be relocated, along with the Fort Kid playground. The houses, which are on the historic register, would be moved into Fort Sanders and returned to residential use, Watkins says.
Saddlebrook—which would not be responsible for moving the homes—would design and construct the 88-unit condo development. Owner Bob Mohney says he started Saddlebrook in 1987 and builds about 100 units a year. His condo developments—which include Magnolia Villas in Gettysvue and Chapel Point in Farragut—are all in suburban areas. However, he has built a number of homes in urban neighborhoods, he says.
Mohney says he's excited about the project because Knoxville's future depends on it. "Nationally, there is a trend toward re-urbanization," he says. "Knoxville needs this desperately. If we want to continue to grow, we have got to do something with the downtown."
Although he hasn't designed the units yet, Mohney guesses that they'll cost around $200,000. He sees professors from the University of Tennessee and downtown employees as the market. He isn't worried that the proposed amphitheater will scare people away.
"The type of people that will be attracted are going to be interested in the arts and the things that happen downtown," Mohney says. "Buyers will look at that as an asset."
Another 157 residential units would be built by Trammellcrow of Atlanta on Walnut Street, in what is now a parking lot behind Market Square.
Styled after the St. Oliver Hotel, the six-story building will be built on top of a five-level underground garage. These apartments or condos will be marketed to high-tech professionals (presumably, many of them employees of E.W. Scripps)—with fiber optic wiring, protected electrical circuitry, and multiple data ports. A representative from Trammellcrow could not be reached for comment.