If you are caught up in all the excitement and hopefulness about downtown Knoxville, it is easy to forget that there are a lot of your fellow citizens out there who are still very skeptical and not very willing to listen to what is a very encouraging story.
People have been hearing about downtown redevelopment for 30 years. We'll put canopies on Gay Street's sidewalks. We'll take the canopies off Gay Street. We'll have a World's Fair. How about Tivoli Gardens? An aquarium would be nice. What about a planetarium? A convention center will do it. But now we need a convention center hotel.
OK, a modicum of skepticism is in order. But every time I do a radio show on downtown (as I did last Sunday) there are a recurring set of questions. These are the questions downtown promoters will have to answer if the greater populace is to be convinced that anything has changed downtown.
Question: I live in (your community here), why should I care if downtown recovers?
Answer: If you hate waste, think about all the square footage that has been tied up in empty buildings in downtown Knoxville for decades. If you build a shopping center in a green field in the suburbs you have to build buildings, but you also have to run water, sewer, electricity and phone lines. You also may have to improve the road. Think about the electricity, water and fiber optic phone cable that already exists in downtown Knoxville. Think about the streets and sidewalks that are there. If these buildings can be refurbished, put back on the tax rolls, and also generate sales tax, it helps all taxpayers. If buildings on Gay Street are put to productive use, it saves expending new resources, and you also get tax revenue.
The city of Knoxville has grown primarily by annexation. Shopping centers on feeder roads into Knoxville have been annexed to shift sales taxes to the city and to add city property taxes. If you don't like annexation, having property already inside the city converted to productive use lessens the need for annexation. If the empty buildings on Gay Street are occupied by a Mast General Store or a movie theater or a grocery store or a restaurant or a dry cleaner or a coffee shop, it helps fund the city budget.
Question: What does it matter if a movie theater is at West Town Mall or downtown? Sales tax is sales tax.
Answer: Well, not exactly. By legislative act, any additional sales tax generated in downtown Knoxville these days that would normally go to state coffers, can be kept in Knoxville and applied to the convention center debt. The pubs, restaurants and shops that have opened in the past three years are helping. A movie theater or a grocery store or a Mast General Store does volume business—the kind of volume that generates a great deal of sales tax. City taxpayers who saw a 32-cent property tax increase last year should hope that Gay Street is wildly successful and that thousands of dollars in sales tax gets generated.
Question: But the city is spending millions downtown. Considering the payback aren't we throwing good money after bad?
Answer: It appears that the days of massive outlays for public projects downtown are over. Mayor Bill Haslam's approach is to spend money only if it leverages private investment. The city is contributing $3 million saved from the Market Square parking garage, but the movie theater is being primarily financed by private investors. There will be some city spending on redeveloping the Candy Factory and other structures at World's Fair Park, but in conjunction with much more private investment.
It is very possible that downtown development has reached critical mass and the marketplace will drive further construction of loft apartments, condos and additional businesses.
Question: How can you expect any of us to go down there when there is no place to park?
Answer: There are hundreds of parking spaces downtown. The spaces are free at night and on weekends. If people have a reason to go someplace, they find a place to park. The problem with downtown has been that people haven't had a reason to look.
People involved with the resurgence of downtown have a good story to tell. The success of various projects has created a class of downtown entrepreneurs. Perhaps they need to consider a marketing effort to get the word out to the rest of the populace.
It is in the best interest of taxpayers and everyone involved for the momentum of downtown development to continue. It will be hard to overcome years of cynicism created by one scheme after another. But doing it is vital.