Why the Candy Factory is on everyone’s lips
Everyone seems to have his or herown two cents to addabout what should become of the Candy Factory. It’s a complicated issue, and one of the main questions is to what extent the city, and in turn the taxpaying public, is responsible for providing space for artists and community groups. On the one hand, those groups undoubtedly enrich the city’s culture. On the other, supporting them does cost money.
Next to the Knoxville Museum of Art in World’s Fair Park, the city-owned building was originally built in 1916 as an actual candy factory. After the factory closed in the mid-‘30s, it was used mainly as storage space until 1979, when the city acquired it for use in the 1982 World’s Fair. Since the building’s last renovation in 1985, many arts and community groups have been allowed to use the 70,000 square-foot Candy Factory for studio space, meetings and other functions. Recently, though, the city has decided to sell it, sending out an RFP (Request For Proposals) in 2004 asking developers to submit possible plans for purchase and renovation. On Aug. 16, City Council voted 6-3 for the sale of the Candy Factory. Since then, a grassroots organization called Save the Candy Factory has formed to protest the sale, which actually won’t be final until the legalities are worked out and the City Council votes again.
“The Candy Factory is such a unique thing and such a good thing in our community, and it makes me mad that the city’s trying to act like it’s underutilized because it’s not,” says Brandon Slocum, producing director of the Tennessee Stage Company, which still resides there. “The message that the city has sent us is that we are not important, and that angers me because artists are the reason downtown revitalization has happened. We went down and did Shakespeare on the Square when the Square was just a hole in the ground.”
Many of the artists who formerly had studio space at the Candy Factory have since moved to the Emporium, the newly renovated art space on North Gay Street, but some community groups feel they’ve been left high and dry. The Save the Candy Factory group includes members from the Knoxville Green Party, East Tenn. Vegetarian Society, Tenn. Stage Co., Food Not Bombs, Rationalists of East Tenn., and UT student organizations S.P.E.A.K. and Progressive Student Alliance.
“I think these groups play a really important role in our city. I attended a few Tennessee Stage productions on the Square this summer,” says Mayor Bill Haslam. “But we have to be wise stewards of the citizens’ money. We have to find a cost-efficient way to help support them.”
Among the development proposals submitted, the city selected that of Chattanooga-based firm Kinsey Probasco HaysDevelopment and Cardinal Development (whose owner Brian Conley is the publisher of Metro Pulse ). That partnership also oversaw redevelopment of Market Square. The proposal offered $1.6 million to purchase the property and expects to invest $10 million, including purchase price, in overall renovations and maintenance.
“The city decided to put the buildings up for sale because they are in need of renovation,” saysJon Kinsey,half of Kinsey Probasco Hays and former mayor of Chattanooga. “That was not a decision we were involved in. The city made a call for bidders and we were the highest bid.” In addition, Kinsey Probasco Hays/Cardinal agreed to contribute $200,000 to help cover the costs to place artists at the Emporium. “I think the city has gone to great lengths to provide for the people there,” says Kinsey.
The Kinsey/Cardinal plan calls for about 51 private condominiums in the Candy Factory, plus major renovations on the Victorian houses, giving current businesses the option to return afterward. A main crux of the protesters’ argumentis the city’s designation of the building as being eligible for TIF, or Tax Increment Financing, which is a provision that allows developers tax breaks to renovate derelict buildings. “You’re seeing a lot of older buildings in downtown Knoxville get renovated because of TIF,” says Kinsey. “It’s a great tool to motivate developers to rehab buildings that would otherwise deteriorate.”
However, members of Save the Candy Factory oppose the TIF designation. “The term ‘blighted’ is being tossed around to describe this building, but we think they’re using the term very liberally,” says Norris Dryer, a member of Knoxville Green Party, which meets in the Candy Factory. “By liberalizing and expanding the term ‘blight,’ the city is selling off public property.”
The issue of privatization is a touchy one. “My primary reason for opposing the sale is that I hate to see a public asset privatized,” says Donna Doyle, a poet and member of Save the Candy Factory. “The TIF is a good deal for the developer but I don’t know if it is for the city and the citizens…. Sometimes lately when I think of Knoxville, I see it as more of a corporation than a community, with the decisions that are being made. And I think keeping what’s happening at the Candy Factory and improving upon that is truly building community, and that’s in the city’s best interest.”
According to Mayor Haslam, the city never intended to retain ownership after the World’s Fair in ’82. “The original intent of the World’s Fair buildings is that they would return to private hands,” he says. “Really, since the World’s Fair, it’s been debated what to do with the site, how to go about redeveloping it and get our money back from the fair…. One thing that’s been ignored through all of this is that we are saving the Candy Factory; we’re saving the building. Without this plan, I’m not sure that would be possible.”
Haslam also points out that it’s important to downtown’s renovation to have as many residents near the city center as possible. Essentially, the city’s stance is that the building is being underutilized and is draining public funds. “ I think a big part of historic preservation is finding ways to utilize the space,” says Haslam.
For the community groups that still meet at the Candy Factory, the city’s proposing that they find alternatives. “I don’t think it’s our job as a city to provide a place for every group to meet. There are public places for that—libraries, rec centers, etc.,” says Haslam. As far as the option of retaining the Candy Factory, he says, “Would that be nice? Yes, but can we cover the renovation costs?” What it boils down to, he says, “is whether it’s worth costing 10 million dollars to the citizens of Knoxville.”
For now, the two camps appear to be in a stalemate. While Dryer and others are proposing that one or more floors be reserved for community use, Haslam says the deal with Kinsey Probasco Hays/Cardinal has already been signed, contingent on the TIF designation and forthcoming City Council vote, so negotiation is essentially out of the city’s hands.
“I think that the impression the city wanted to give is that it is a done deal,” says Dryer. “Speaking for myself, the members of our group are still torn on whether to try and go for the jugular and try and stop the sale completely or whether we want to try and retain one floor.”
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