What About the Visitors?

Universe Knoxville boosters say they have the answer

After the city committed to build a $162 million new convention center, the thought occurred that Knoxville needed more than just a place for meetings in order to attract conventioneers. The Renaissance Knoxville plan could be characterized as a manifestation of this afterthought with its emphasis on visitor attractions.

But plans for a Scripps Cable Network center and even a new convention headquarters hotel have gone awry—or at least on hold. Earlier this year, however, developers Earl Worsham and Ron Watkins unveiled separate plans for a $130 million museum complex that, according to their projections, would draw over a million visitors a year.

Its centerpiece would be a virtual reality planetarium patterned after the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Other elements would include exhibits drawn from an affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution and from TVA along with a new children's museum.

The proposed complex, dubbed Universe Knoxville, has gotten a lot of hype, especially from the man who has become its chief booster, the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership's president, Tom Ingram.

"Built out on an island by itself, the concept of Universe Knoxville would be an exciting idea. Viewed in the context of Downtown Knoxville and the dynamics it potentially creates with all of this area's other assets, and the catalyst it offers for more positive, progressive development, it is an absolutely rare and phenomenal opportunity that presents a decision that may very well define this community's future for a long time," Ingram extolled in a recent advertising supplement to the News-Sentinel.

Instead of seeking city support, Universe Knoxville boosters beat a path to County Commission's doorstep instead. Commissioners were requested to donate the two-block site on State Street that Knox County had acquired and cleared for a new jail that then got scratched. In addition, a limited guarantee of a $116 million bond issue by the not-for-profit entity to be formed to operate the facility was also sought.

The feasibility study by Harrison Price Associates that projected a million visitors a year also forecast sufficient revenues to cover debt service on the bond issue. But commissioners were skeptical of these numbers and mandated an independent feasibility study that's presently being conducted by Economic Consulting Services based in Newport Beach, California. Results of that study are expected in early November, and County Commission is due to make a go/no-go decision on Universe Knoxville at its November meeting. Prior to September 11, the project's backers voiced confidence in their ability to get financing for the facility itself without any county backing. The county would be asked instead to foot the bill for a 1,700-space garage to support it, with the city contributing as well.

Just how much the tragic events of the 11th and their economic and psychological aftershock have affected these financing plans isn't clear. Ingram reports that, "According to those advising us there's been little or no effect." And he insists that, "The risks of not going ahead are far greater than the risks of doing so."

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