[Editor's Note: Last week, Metro Pulse publisher Joe Sullivan wrote an editorial criticizing Mayor Victor Ashe's approach to downtown development. This week, we have given the mayor room to respond.]
Revitalizing downtown Knoxville has made enormous progress in recent years, with many people and organizations working together towards this goal. Last week's "Insights" column described the process as "helter-skelter" and suggests that the city is not committed to the project. Let's look at the record:
* Thirteen years ago, the city started getting its financial house in order, so we would be able to do the things that need to be done. It has taken a long time, but our debt has been dramatically reduced, our rainy-day fund has been restored and our credit rating is at its highest ever.
* We knew long ago that something new had to happen to bring people downtown, and we looked at a variety of projects. Waterfront development and a new convention center were high on the list. A convention center will bring in out-of-town visitors and add to the sales-tax base.
* The city sponsored, participated in and reviewed several professional studies that confirmed the feasibility, timing, cost and benefit of a convention center. We then made a decision to move forward with construction of a new convention center in the CBID [Central Business Improvement District] as a key part of the revitalization of downtown.
* The city immediately began work on a financing plan, which included working with our state legislators on the drafting and enactment of the Convention Center and Tourism Financing Act and engaged the Public Building Authority to site, develop, design and construct the new center. The PBA's responsibilities included the creation of a plan for private development in the downtown area.
* The city hired some of the best experts in the country to advise us on the planning of the convention center and related private development. Over the last few years, that group has included SMG, the largest operator of convention centers in the world, Economic Research Associates, the Urban Land Institute, PKF (a leading hotel consultant), RTKL (an urban planning firm), in addition to the local firms of McCarty Holsaple McCarty and Ross/Fowler.
* The design has been completed, the final budget has been approved, and construction of the convention center is underway, with completion scheduled for July 1, 2002. Two major events—the AAU Junior Olympics and the American Bowling Congress—are already scheduled for the first year of operation, which will bring more than $100 million in new spending to Knoxville.
At the same time, we have moved forward with convention-center-related private development and with overall development efforts in the downtown area, including parking and road improvements. Substantial progress has been made:
* Volunteer Landing has been completed and has leveraged the construction of two new restaurants, a new marina and new residential opportunities.
* Design development is complete on the renovation of the World's Fair Park, and construction will begin shortly.
* We are working with UT on a plan to restore the link from World's Fair Park to the waterfront.
* The major downtown access road projects are nearing completion. City Council recently authorized an additional $7.5 million in improvements to downtown streets, which will be completed before the convention center opens.
* The new 660-car Locust Street Garage will open in three weeks, with street-front retail space on Union Avenue and Clinch Avenue.
Other public, private or public-private projects have been completed or are currently underway. These include:
* The city's renovation of the Miller's Building on Gay Street at a cost of $14 million as the new headquarters for KUB. That building has already attracted a major new employer to downtown Knoxville.
* The renovation and expansion of the East Tennessee Historical Center at the Customs House, with Knox County's support.
* The completion of Digital Crossing, and the opening for business of its first tenants.
* The renovation of the Tennessee Theatre and Bijou Theatre, with substantial private support.
* The façade and interior renovations on the 400 and 700 blocks of Gay Street.
And that's just the beginning. The city intends to continue to support the downtown merchants and restaurateurs who have "hung in there," and will support development and activities that will bring people downtown from all over East Tennessee.
The Worsham Watkins proposal is incredibly exciting. I am confident that substantial portions of it will become reality. We will carefully analyze the proposal, negotiate with the developer and move forward immediately with the projects that make sense for both of us. I appreciate the efforts Earl and Ron have put into this, and I will work with them and others to make things happen downtown.
I can't guarantee that a particular component of the project will or won't happen. I can guarantee that the city will act promptly and will carefully review the cost, risk and benefit of each proposal, and I will recommend to City Council that the city make the necessary commitments and fund its appropriate share of the cost.
The city has already committed over $200 million on downtown projects, and we're ready to do more. But we're going to do it carefully and responsibly. We're going to get the maximum benefit from our investment. If a particular component does not make sense when balanced against our other needs and opportunities, we will not do it.
The city needs the space where the Holiday Inn is located, but we have to balance the cost of acquiring that space and the loss of hotel rooms against other alternatives. I hope that the hotel owner will honor his commitment to an upgrade to a convention-quality Crowne Plaza Hotel. Mr. [Franklin] Haney has made that commitment, and I think it is worth our while to see if he will follow through.
Downtown development will happen, with or without an upgraded Holiday Inn. With the success of the new convention center and downtown development, I am confident additional hotel development will occur.