Because You’re in East Tennessee

An annual lament for our perpetually dysfunctional signage

At Kroger a few months ago, I’d found the beans, the soup, the olive oil, most of what I needed; all I lacked was milk. It was a Kroger I’d been to before, but not one I’d ever known my way around without looking. I peered up at the signs that hang over the aisles.

Spotting the word “MILK” hanging over the far aisle, I went over and looked. Cheese, butter, but no milk. A refrigerator case full of milk is usually hard to miss, but, standing under the MILK sign, I saw no milk anywhere.

There happened to be a Kroger staffer on a stepladder, working on something on a top shelf, almost within reach of the sign.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Where’s the milk?”

He sighed, exactly as an exasperated junior-high assistant coach might, and with an “I’ve told you and told you” sort of singsong. “Over there,” he said, “Just like it’s been ever since we moved it back in ’02.”

“I don’t remember that,” I said. I wasn’t shopping at this Kroger in those days. I couldn’t help adding, “It’s ’08 now, and your sign still says it’s here.” He didn’t say anything else, but shook his head. It’s a shake I recognize from junior high. It means, “You kids never learn.”

I did find the milk, around the corner at the opposite end of another aisle, maybe 25 yards away. More curious than anything, I mentioned the misleading sign to the checkout clerk.

“Yeah, that’s where it was until we moved it in ’02,” he acknowledged. Everyone in the store seemed to know their history.

“But why don’t they change the sign?”

He shrugged and smiled with something like pride. “It’s because you’re in East Tennessee,” he said.

I wondered whether maybe that might have something to do with a similar phenomenon I remarked about in this space, almost exactly one year ago.

Last May, I noted that some recent events held at the Knoxville Convention Center, like UT graduation, didn’t seem to carry over into downtown proper much. But a walk around the joint didn’t disclose any reason why downtown would seem tempting. I wrote a column about the lack of signage or any clues in the convention-center vicinity that there was even a downtown over here.

The convention-center area, including World’s Fair Park, is an Oz of cute signposts, almost like a kids’ board game, continually offering fun-sounding options, like “Candy Factory” or “Festival Lawn” or “Fort Sanders,” showing directions to some places that you maybe didn’t even know were places. To the “Clinch Concourse,” whatever that is, and the “Rotunda Room,” whatever that is. Several signs say “Parking,” sometimes pointing to parking in multiple directions on the same pole. (Think about this a minute. You’re a pedestrian, in a pedestrians-only area. Are you likely to be looking for a place to park?)

I did finally find a couple signs, in obscure locations legible from unlikely angles—a sidewalk where hardly anyone ever walks, and the B-side of another directional sign to the Rotunda Room—that point to “Skybridge/Downtown” (“Skybridge”: Would that be the second-story-level pedestrian bridge over Henley?). None of them point directly toward downtown, or offer clues about the existence of a Market Square. Improving downtown business was a primary justification for building the convention center, and Market Square was once described as the driver of the convention center, the one urban amenity that might make it attractive, even though it was four blocks away, and the one place that might be most likely to bring in retail sales taxes from convention traffic, which is what was supposed to pay for the most expensive public amenity ever built in Knoxville.

When a team of urban-design experts from all over the country came to town in 1999 to talk about the viability of an extravagant new convention center, they emphasized the importance of improving the entrance to downtown, and connecting the convention center to Market Square. To my knowledge, nothing of that nature was ever done.

After I wrote that column, right away I heard from multiple well-connected people, who said, more or less, Thanks, Jack, but we’re on a committee that’s already doing something about it. I gathered more than one committee was converging on the signage problem. I was almost embarrassed to have written about a problem so close to its solution.

Today, though, it’s exactly the same as it was a year ago. The signs down there seem mainly designed to keep people busy on World’s Fair Park, and physically fit. And from there all you can see of downtown is the University of Tennessee Conference Center, the plain side of the YMCA, and some random concrete buildings. It would take groundless faith to believe there’s as much as a wig outlet over here.

If they do make it downtown, a first-time visitor will run into other perplexities, like the electric countdown walk signs that don’t make any sense—some of them count down, reasonably, to a point where you really do need to think about clearing the intersection, while others count down to an indefinite waiting period, a Because-I-Said-So limbo. Which is no better than the pre-countdown days. Considering they’re the slowest known walk lights in urban America, it takes just a day or two to learn to ignore them all.

Of course, Knoxville gets its revenge on World’s Fair Park’s closed circuit. A motorist just off of I-40 on Henley Street, trying to get to World’s Fair Park following the signs, will always end up in South Knoxville. The best advice to visitors might be Ignore the Signs. Maybe that should be our municipal motto.

© 2008 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 2

wonderosa writes:

Okay, at the risk of ruffling some feathers, I'm gonna go ahead and give the straight skinny, the way I see it, about our new convention center.

Neely pretty much nailed it to the wall, but I can give a bit of a different angle... I'll explain.

I work for a very high profile technology company who exhibits at, on average, five or six different conventioncenters each month. I personally spend two to three weeks out of every month at various convention centers as a part of the events team. I have been doing so for the past ten years, and visited nearly every convention center in the United States, and many more overseas.

Okay, with that out of the way...

First problem: It doesn't even look that nice. Well, unless you're approaching from inside the World's Fair park, which does nothing for curb appeal. Most see it from Henley or Cumberland, angles from which it looks cheap and small.... Is it a barn or a church? Please see Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, or even the dated and horribly misplaced Javits Center in NYC for reference. Those buildings have imaginative architechure, tons of character, and they LOOK like places you'd want to go and visit, or at least walk around and take pictures of. I have trouble believing that for the amount of money we spent on ours, no one did the research to figure out what a modern CC looks and feels like.

Which brings me to my second problem: Interior aesthetics and layout. The carpet looks like that found in hotels and convention centers built in 1986. It's a bit complicated to navigate, and signage is rarely adequate to alleviate related questions. But at least we're keeping consistent, huh?

Next issues: It's really tough to separate these two, so I'll try to tackle them in correlated succession- location and lodging. As stated in the above article- how are out of town visitors supposed to know where the entertainment is? Where are the good restaurants when you're eating on the company dime? What if you want to have a drink and catch some live music? Where are all the taxis? Are you sure it's "just a couple blocks" over the hill? I'd bet many visitors to our CC never venture to Market Square, Gay St, or the Old City simply because 1) they can't SEE it from the CC, and 2) they don't like the looks of what they'd have to walk through to get there.

wonderosa writes:

.... was cut off....

Walk out the front doors of San Diego's CC- you're looking straight down the main drag of their Gaslamp District, and it's quite inviting to go spend some money in their downtown. Just to your right is the Padres'/Chargers' stadium. Hell, even if you walk out the back door there, you're on the water, with a beautiful view of the Coronado Bridge.

Our UT conference center across the street is a crumbling eyesore. The least we could do is fix it up a bit and paint it- at least try to make it presentable. It's as if we're saying, "Hi, come visit our city and our new convention center. We don't have the money, inclination, or time to fix up anything around it, or to make our city look enticing to you in the slighest, but please, trust us, it's pretty cool. No, really..."

As far as lodging- A Holiday Inn? REALLY? And someone, somewhere, honestly thought that we'd draw many larger events with THAT as the closest/onsite lodging? Most tradeshow travelers with any budget at all are accustomed to having a Hilton, Westin, or comparable as the closest and most convenient hotels to a CC. My company's travel department books all of my travel and lodging, and I can assure you that they would NEVER, for any reason, even consider putting their employees up at a Holiday Inn of any sort. That's why you'll never see us at the Knoxville CC, and in turn, why you will never see any of our peers and competitors there, either.

Next: It's a bit too far from the airport given the size of the city. I'll accept a 30 minute taxi to the CC in Chicago, or LA, but Knoxville? Does it even take 30 minutes to drive THROUGH Knoxville?

Oh, wait.... now it does.

Smart fix 40 doesn't help the situation for visitors who drive to town, either.

I could keep going, but should probably stop here for now. Don't get me wrong- I certainly do love our fair city, and have chosen to live here even though I could live nearly anywhere, since all of my work is done "on the road." I'm just in awe that people are having trouble understanding how our CC isn't going over as well as we had hoped...

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