Following a fix-it-or-bulldoze-it argument in January, Knoxville City Council opted for a compromise to stabilize the deteriorating structural elements of the Tennessee Amphitheater. The stabilization work is now underway and cranes could be seen at the amphitheater last week, hoisting workers atop the unique tensile structure in preparation for its tentative fall opening.
But City Councilman Joe Bailey says the approved plan to spend $850,000 for limited renovations on the amphitheater in World's Fair Park was far from the Council's first choice. â“It was really everyone's second or third choice,â” Bailey says. â“But it seemed like the best compromise.â”
That compromise came after proposed plans to perform either a total demolition or a complete renovation of the amphitheater were both turned down. It would've cost the city an estimated $3.4 million to completely renovate the structure back to a viable concert venue, as it was at the World's Fair 25 years ago, or $650,000 to demolish it for increased park space.
Instead, the $850,000 that was approved has gone toward replacing four steel trusses, a tear in the roof, cleaning, repainting and landscaping the grounds around the amphitheater.
Jeff Galyon, Knoxville's director of property development, was quoted last week as saying that citizens will be able to reserve the venue for informal gatherings and that renting the facility would be â“economical.â”
According to Bill Lyons, Knoxville's senior director of policy development, the amphitheater will act as an â“amenity to the park.â” â“It's not going to have the full sound system and will only be available for informal functions,â” Lyons says. â“People can reserve it as a World's Fair icon and go and meet there or hold rehearsals for performances. That's the plan initially.â”
The city's sale of the Candy Factory and seven Victorian houses on 11th Street for $1.82 million to Chattanooga-based developers Kinsey, Probasco, Hays & Associates will pay for the $850,000 restoration.
Councilman Bob Becker, who voted no to the plan, wonders if spending $850,000 to merely preserve an icon was money well spent.
â“What we've got is a concrete structure with a roof over it,â” Becker says. â“We don't have an amphitheater. We can't have concerts there and we can't have events there. It's just an informal gathering place.â”
Built for the 1982 World's Fair, the amphitheater served as a 1,400-seat concert venue until it closed in 1999 when construction began on the convention center. The city attempted to reopen it in 2002 but was prevented because of structural damage, prompting city officials to consider demolition.
Knoxville architect Doug McCarty, who helped design the structure for the 1982 international energy exposition, was one of many who voiced concern and were instrumental in saving the World's Fair landmark five years ago. He once again came to the aid of his structure in January.
â“I think a city of our size needs an amphitheater in a downtown setting,â” says McCarty, who, along with his father Bruce, performed the renovations on the Tennessee Theatre. â“There wasn't the political will at this time to do a full renovation, but I agreed with the compromise to allow enough renovations for the structure to be substantial for the next 30 years.â”
McCarty says he foresees the amphitheater accomplishing for World's Fair Park what the stage on Market Square has done for the revitalization of downtown.
â“People will either say we don't need one, or five or six years down the road they'll want one and we'll have to spend $8-10 million for one like we have now,â” he says. â“This is a very smart, phased approach.
â“Basically, two-thirds to three-fourths of your events you can have outside. The stage on Market Square is very urban, very city-like, whereas World's Fair Park is an entirely different atmosphere. I think it will make the park more successful, and in turn downtown more successful.â”
McCarty is speaking under the assumption the city and its citizens will one day want to invest the money needed to allow formal concerts to return to the amphitheater. Lyons, however, says the Council had several workshops on the matter in January and realized that the area wasn't a â“very viable space for a concert venue anyway.â”
â“There's more space on the south lawn to have that type of venue, and we talked to several concert promoters like Ashley Capps [head of AC Entertainment] who told us it wouldn't be a good place for full-fledged concerts,â” Lyons says.
If the city wants a â“trueâ” amphitheater, Becker would like to see the city go ahead and shell out $2 million more rather than ultimately leaving the concrete seats laying in wait for more superior sound equipment to aid the amphitheater's poor acoustics. According to him, the Council could have removed the tent, which was what kept the amphitheater from meeting city safety measures, for nearly half the $850,000. He would've voted for a full restoration rather than spending â“a half million more dollars to save a tent.â”
â“I think we made an unfortunate decision by just landing in the middle, and I don't think we've satisfied anybody,â” he says. â“We take the tent down and leave the concrete structure, then we have the same thing we have now.â”
Councilman Bailey admits that the compromise plan was done somewhat to appease the community, which wanted to retain the last remaining remnant of the World's Fair besides the Sunsphere.
Becker contends that money could've been used to better serve the city.
â“That extra half million could go toward repairing flood damage or sidewalks,â” he says. â“I think we're backing into a situation where we're using a half-finished structure.â” â"LaRue Cook
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