Out of nowhere, a new proposal for a space center on State Street may be the most promising idea yet for a downtown 'destination attraction.' Can the politics and the money add up?

Plans for a planetarium extraordinaire and a complex of museums on State Street's aborted jail site would represent the single boldest stride to date toward downtown revitalization—and then some.

If Knox County Commission approves the $128 million plan at its April 23 meeting, as is widely forecast, the county will have leapfrogged to the forefront of revitalization efforts that have been lagging on the city's part. While the plan still has contingencies attached, it appears to have more concreteness than any of the major elements of the city's Renaissance Knoxville plan (which include a Scripps Cable Network center, a cineplex, a hotel and an office tower).

The centerpiece of the county's plan, dubbed Universe Knoxville, is a planetarium enhanced by virtual reality to include such features as narrated close encounters with the moon, the planets, distant galaxies and black holes. It is patterned after the new Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, from which developer Earl Worsham got the idea for what he terms a "totally exhilarating family entertainment and educational attraction."

"There's no other planetarium in the country that's in the same league with what we're proposing," Worsham boasts. Other elements of the complex would include a museum affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, a much-needed new children's museum and exhibits from a TVA museum that's now tucked away in the basement of the TVA Towers.

Most of the 173,000-square-foot complex would sit atop a six-story, 1750-space garage, capped by a pyramid whose peak would rise 22 stories high and a tower extending eight stories higher. The Smithsonian element would extend westward to Gay Street through what's often referred to as the "missing tooth" in its 400 block and be connected by a walkway over State Street.

"It will be monumental on the skyline," asserts Tom Ingram, president of the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership.

The idea for Universe Knoxville hatched while Worsham was watching a PBS show on the Rose Center shortly before its opening in February 2000. He got a private tour of the center and came back to Knoxville convinced he had the makings of a "destination attraction" here. At that point, he envisioned it going on 11th Street, at the north end of the World's Fair Park. But WW decided to hold it in abeyance for a time, lest it seem to be competing for attention and funding with their Renaissance Knoxville plan. The Discovery Center's planning committee and architects Barber & McMurry have also been involved.

It was Ingram, who has worked closely with WW on Renaissance Knoxville, who pointed in the direction of the State Street site. County Commission had nixed building a jail on the property last May, and in early January, Commissioner Larry Stephens approached Ingram about alternative uses. In the meantime, WW had retained the Rose Center's manager, Management Resources, Inc., to do a feasibility study, which came out favorably. WW has also talked with the firm about managing the Knoxville project, should it come to pass.

Stephens' enthusiasm for the concept led to soundings with other commissioners, and by the end of January, work on fleshing out the proposal was under way in earnest.

Four commissioners, including Chairman Leo Cooper, toured the Rose Center on Tuesday along with Ingram and Worsham. Two of them, center city representatives Frank Bowden and Diane Jordan, are expected to be in the forefront when the proposal is unveiled at a news conference today (April 5).

"I like the idea and believe it can be a tremendous asset to Knoxville, particularly in relation to the new convention center," says Bowden. "It will also be a tremendous educational resource for the community."

Two commissioners, Stephens and Mike Arms, have already publicly backed the undertaking. And subject to being satisfied by the results of a feasibility study that are due imminently, Commissioner Pat Medley says, "I hope it will be unanimous. This is something remarkable that we've been looking for in Knoxville—something that nobody else has."

If County Commission backs it, WW is due to develop the complex on behalf of a yet-to-be-formed not-for-profit (NFP) entity. The NFP would lease the State Street site from the county for a nominal sum. In addition to the $12 million already spent on the site (including jail architect's and Public Building Authority fees), the county would also commit up to $2 million a year on an as-needed basis toward covering debt service on the project, plus incremental property tax and hotel/motel tax revenues in the central business district.

The NFP would be the sole obligor on a $116 million revenue bond issue to finance the complex. If revenues exceed operating costs and debt service, they would revert to the county—after being held in escrow for a time to further secure the bonds. At the end of the 30-year life of the bonds, all proceeds would go to the county. And all along the way, the county would be collecting sales tax revenues generated by the development.

Perhaps just as remarkable as the proposal itself is County Commission's apparent preparedness to back it. While the county has dedicated $1.2 million a year in hotel/motel tax revenue toward financing the city's $162 million new convention center, that's only a small part of the total funding, and most commissioners haven't shown any inclination up to now to get involved in downtown revitalization efforts. Cynics will say that they are just trying to dig out of a $12 million hole created by ill-fated, if not ill-conceived, plans for a jail on the site. But it's got to be borne in mind that the county has primary responsibility for promoting tourism. The Knox County Tourist Commission is a creature of county government, which was the primary backer of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and a prospective addition to the East Tennessee Historical Center.

"Were a community of missed opportunities, and we can't afford to miss this one. When you look at the tourism impact alone, Universe Knoxville will pay it back in folds," says Mike Ragsdale, the tourist commission's chairman. Ragsdale is also a former county commissioner, a leading candidate for county executive in 2002 and, in the tangled world of Knoxville politics and business, also administrative partner of Barber & McMurry.

There's room for doubt whether Worsham Watkins can deliver on its grand design, especially considering the elusiveness of the major elements of its Renaissance Knoxville proposal. (When asked about WW's developer fees, an issue that has been raised in regard to Renaissance Knoxville, Worsham responds, "I haven't given any thought to that. We're doing this for the county and the community.")

As for the Smithsonian connection, Knoxvillian Pete Claussen, president of Gulf & Ohio Railways, is a Smithsonian director. "There's a 100 percent chance we will qualify to be an affiliate [of the museum]," he says.

Merrill Lynch is prospective underwriter of the bonds to finance the complex. "We're waiting on the final feasibility study to be specific about debt coverage, but we feel based on the early numbers that it's feasible," says Merrill Lynch's Derek Miser. Knoxville's non-profit Cornerstone Foundation is funding an analysis of the proposal by California-based consultant Harrison Price that is due to be completed shortly.

Under the resolution that County Commission is due to consider at its April 23 meeting, the county's commitment to provide the property and other backing is contingent on the bond financing. Since bond buyers are nobody's fools, their willingness to put up the money represents an acid test of the project's soundness. "The only cost to the county if it doesn't happen will be a low six-figure number, at most, for planning," Ingram says.

Assuming it goes forward, planning and design work is expected to take about nine months, followed by two years of construction leading up to an opening in 2004. Preliminary studies project a million visitors in the first year and rising numbers thereafter.

This could be a bonanza for the city's finances, which are straining at the prospect of having to fund up to $160 million recommended by the PBA for infrastructure to support Renaissance Knoxville on top of $162 million for the convention center. Without putting in a nickel, the city would reap millions in sales tax revenues thanks to state legislation that provides for their retention. And the people who come downtown to spend the money would, of course, contribute to the viability of its commerce—both in a redeveloped Market Square and in the Old City.

Ingram insists that Universe Knoxville will prove to be a boon for Renaissance Knoxville plans, which presently appear to be hung up on Mayor Victor Ashe's desk. "The momentum created by this improve the probabilities of Renaissance moving forward," he asserts. That holds particularly true for the prospects of getting a Scripps Cable Network center as another destination attraction, he says. "One of Scripps' concerns has always been that they might be the lead pony. If they're part of all of this, that concern goes away."

Ashe has said he will be making Renaissance recommendations by the end of April, but he's put his April 12 budget recommendations ahead of them. He ducks questions as to whether any funding for Renaissance will be included in his budget for the fiscal year ahead but adds, "The budget can always be amended."

Naming rights could reduce the amount that has to be raised from other sources for the complex. But as of now, its four components are referred to as the "virtual space center," the Smithsonian affiliate, the Discovery Center (children's museum) and the TVA museum. What's known about each of them at this point?

Virtual Space Center. The virtual space center would have theater seating. Visitors would strap themselves into their seats, don space helmets and 3-D glasses before "lift off" for a virtual reality trip through space. The narrated, 20-minute "trip" would start by circling the moon and several planets, then venture into deep space for a look at other galaxies, an exploding star and a black hole.

An uplink to the new international space station is envisioned, as well as a link to the Hubble telescope. Real-time images from space would be displayed on a giant screen.

Smithsonian Affiliate. The affiliate would draw loan exhibits from among the 100 million artifacts that the Smithsonian has in storage. The emphasis would be on exhibits that relate to space and time, such as a meteorite and a dinosaur.

The Smithsonian has numerous affiliates around the country, but there aren't presently any others in East Tennessee, according to Claussen.

Children's Museum. A $5 million, 32,000-square-foot facility would more than triple the size of the present Discovery Center, which is currently split between two cramped locations: health exhibits in the Candy Factory and a hodgepodge of donated exhibits in Chilhowee Park.

The Discovery Center has struggled for years to come up with plans and funding for a new facility that would match up to exemplary children's museums in Chattanooga and Johnson City. Dissension within its board of directors has often impeded these efforts in the past. But a committee chaired by Jim Begalla, overseer of the World's Fair Park, has renewed them in recent months and been involved in the Universe Knoxville planning.

It's unclear how much funding would be provided for exhibitry at the new museum, which is expected to emphasize technology and interactivity. "We're still at a formative stage on that," says Ingram. Begalla could not be reached for comment.

TVA Museum. TVA's Historic Collection is one of the city's least heralded treasures. Tucked away in the basement of TVA's West Tower, it contains more than 30,000 artifacts. A diverse array of electrical devices span both the TVA era and earlier times. These include old electric motors, switches and transformers. A 24-foot-high spark gap voltmeter circa 1925 is one of the highlights.

TVA spokesman Gil Francis confirms that, "TVA is involved in Universe Knoxville discussions and would make artifacts available if the project goes forward."

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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