I love Market Square. I need to get that out of the way up front. Its unique character reflects not only the rich historic character of downtown, but also the spirit of a city that is rediscovering the value of a vibrant urban core. To call its revitalization a success is an understatement. The dominance of unique, local businesses—as well as the loyal patronage of the community—bestow a sense of place that is becoming far too rare in an increasingly corporate world. Its value as a venue for community events and its importance to downtown’s rejuvenation are without question.
Lately though, I’ve been seeing a certain kind of myopia set in. Whether it’s exhaustive grants from the business community to accommodate a single retail offering adjacent to the Square, or police harassing a busker on Gay Street to herd him back to Market Square’s sanctioned corral, I believe we’re becoming too focused on a very limited area that has, well, limitations. Its scale provides a certain intimacy. But as the record-breaking throngs that attended this year’s Sundown in the City series can attest, it has certain restrictions as well.
When the Central Business Improvement District announced its half-million-dollar-plus grant to encourage retailer Urban Outfitters to locate in the Arnstein Building adjacent to Market Square, it was touted as an anchor development for downtown. Anchors are supposed to be the large-scale projects that cultivate an attractive environment for smaller entrepreneurs. But I’ve never been quite sure where those smaller businesses would be expected to locate. I’ve always held that the inviting atmosphere created by Market Square is actually the “anchor” that drew Urban Outfitters’ attention. And should that deal happen to pan out, there aren’t a lot of spaces in the immediate vicinity for smaller endeavors to flourish. The Square’s storefronts are nearly at capacity and bookended by the TVA towers on one end and by Krutch Park and the Arnstein on the other. It’s no wonder the retailer focused on one of the last viable spaces in the vicinity. Gay Street, meanwhile, has always seemed a better location for larger retail. But it lacks the vibe that makes Market Square so attractive. So why not extend that vibe?
The city invested a substantial amount of money into Market Square’s redevelopment. But it has also dropped a chunk of change on Gay Street through efforts to attract Mast General Store and the Regal Riviera cinema. Mast has done an admirable job of engaging the community and has become a great neighbor. The company has a legacy of opening their stores in downtown areas, and their frequent sidewalk sales lend life to the street. Regal, on the other hand, was a reluctant corporate behemoth with its roots in suburbia that actively discouraged the notion of putting a cinema downtown until outside investment provided a sufficient bribe. And now one of its employees apparently went down the block to dispatch the same type of street performance that has contributed to Market Square’s success.
Some years back, as merchants began repopulating the Square, there was a concerted effort by business owners and citizens to create an environment where not only open commerce such as the Farmers Market could thrive, but where people could linger casually amid street performers creating the symbiotic backdrop that has been part of the Square’s recipe for success. And it worked. But the Square’s potential is not without limits. If downtown is going to capitalize on its newfound appeal, expanding the vitality beyond those confines is essential.
Intentional or not, setting up the Square as the de facto zone where street performers are welcomed, while selectively enforcing questionable ordinances elsewhere to discourage them, is counter-intuitive. Empty or underutilized space on Gay Street would seem much more attractive to retailers if it shared some of the more convivial qualities of the Square. And don’t worry, Regal. You’ll still make bank.
The completion of the final pieces of Market Square—renovations at the addresses of 36 and 37 along Wall Avenue—should strengthen the connection between the Square and Mast General on Gay. And the reopening of the 100 Block in a couple of weeks, with its now expansive sidewalks and ties to Knoxville’s art scene, ought to likewise build a better connection to the Old City. But for it all to come together, the city should be welcoming the elements that have contributed to Market Square’s success, rather than limiting them to that one area.
Like I said, I love Market Square. But we need to broaden our view a little. The Square is only so big. If a busker strays a few blocks away to set up on Gay, it’s because he sees the potential economic benefit. Considering Market Square’s success, you might think the city and Gay Street businesses would, too.