Downtown, the Low-Income Community
Is the tax credit that may have saved the cinema project based on outdated assumptions?
Downtown, the Low-Income Community
The cinema project got the go-ahead this week in the form of a final tax credit that fills a $1.75 million funding gap. Many supporters of the promising project heaved a sigh of relief. The idea of building a cinema downtown as part of a public-private partnership has been in the works for years, with significant public participation to get it past the unusual challenges of building a cineplex in a downtown, but the uncertainty about this final piece of the puzzle was cause for some anxiety this fall.
The last gap is filled by about $1.75 million in New Market Tax Credits, allocated by the U.S. Treasury Department to Community Development Entities (CDE’s) to be in turn distributed to low-income communities . The Tennessee Theatre renovation, finished a year ago, received a much-bigger credit from that same source.
The cynical might wonder how downtown Knoxville might get tax credits for low-income neighborhoods. Downtown is, square foot for square foot, maybe the most expensive neighborhood in town. Apartments downtown are going for more per square foot than houses in Sequoyah Hills with nice big yards. Some condominiums on Gay Street are selling for much higher prices than some West Knoxville McMansions. Some of Knoxville’s swankiest restaurants, with prix fixe menus and lengthy wine lists, are downtown.
Downtown used to be an obviously low-income neighborhood. Was obtaining this tax credit just a cynical exploitation of the census bureau’s snapshot of downtown as it was in 2000, the last time the census made an estimate of income based on direct data? Is this bureaucratic sleight of hand?
Maybe, but we may be able to enjoy it without too much guilt. Downtown is a complex place. Hundreds of those who live downtown are indeed young urban professionals or affluent retirees.
But there are still a couple of low-income apartment buildings in the central business district. Furthermore, some of those who live in the downtown census tract are homeless in the shelters which are still clustered in the downtown area, some on the same block with upscale residences. Some are fixed-income retirees and others are disabled people who live in Summit Towers, on the northwestern side of the central business district. (Some of the low-income residents of this complex census tract are prisoners, of course; they may be unlikely to care much about movies on Gay Street.)
Perhaps more importantly, downtown is within walking distance of bona-fide low-income areas, including some large public-housing projects. And being near the hub of the KAT bus system, downtown is the single most-accessible business district in town for most who don’t have access to automobiles.
For the bulk of Knoxville’s poor, the new cinema will be the closest and most accessible such attraction. Seeing the latest Harry Potter movie at the theater may never be a priority, or a possibility, for some low-income families—but the addition of a cineplex will add at least one more employer to their range of work options. Related development of the S&W space, as well as numerous other retail businesses that expect to gain from the enhanced customer base a cinema can provide, has the potential to add a more significant number of employment opportunities for Knoxville’s working poor.
Everything that happens downtown
Children who grow up in the suburbs may be puzzled about descriptions of Sunday-school coloring-book stories about supplicants. Suburban churches may never experience beggars in Biblical frequencies. Downtown churches do. Church employees answer their knock daily, almost hourly. Several downtown churches accept that particularly urban role of ministry to the poor, via outreach programs and providing meals at the shelters.
Some businesses deal with downtown’s poor as well. Almost all downtown restaurants are acquainted with the regular phenomenon of strangers coming in for nothing but a cup of water; some, like the bighearted Harold Shersky, would make one a sandwich now and then. Some entrepreneurs consider it merely part of the cost of doing business downtown.
The poor are sometimes described as a burden to downtown, especially when there’s a rash of break-ins or especially aggressive panhandling. But we have to admit that we owe something to the poor. This week, the presence of low-income residents may have saved the cinema project. Just by being there, they helped save the city about $1.75 million. As they previously helped, in an even bigger way, with the Tennessee Theatre project.
So, is downtown really a “low-income community”? Yes, and it always will be. It’s also, just recently, a high-income community. It’s both, as is every healthy downtown in the world.