2012: Knoxville's Year In Review

We take a look back at the year that was with some of our favorite stories

Jan. 12:

University Commons vs. Cumberland Corridor

The announcement that a major development involving the Florida-based Publix grocery chain and international retail Godzilla, Walmart, would be lumbering toward central Knoxville was startling news in itself. But this 211,000-square-foot development is proposed for the foot of Cumberland Avenue, just as the city’s beginning practical work on a long-discussed plan to give “the Strip” a pedestrian-friendly college-town feel with broad sidewalks and shops fronting the street—not exactly the familiar Walmart way.

Cynics were ready to assume the city would roll over for the claimed economic impact of $226 million and creation of more than 1,700 jobs, and Walmart would snap up the Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project like an hors d’oeuvre.

It may not be quite that bad. What they plan at University Commons is an unusual urban-style development with parking on the ground floor, behind frontage of small shops, which will make up about a fifth of the project. The Walmart, located on the second floor, will be limited to “general merchandise,” sans groceries, and will occupy about 100,000 square feet—smallish for a Walmart. Harrison says it will be one of only three such “general merchandise stores” in the nation. “Walmart’s trying to get at urban markets,” he says. (Jack Neely)

Jan 19:

Gloria in Excelsis

Folks have been asking me what I think of Gloria Ray, and especially whether she earns her annual compensation, which is slightly larger than that of the president of the United States.

I’ve been getting questions semi-regularly for the last several years: What’s Gloria Ray really like, what’s her perspective on the city, what is it she actually does.

Of course, people figure we’re close chums. Naturally they would, because Gloria Ray and I have a lot in common. We both have offices on Gay Street, a five-minute walk from each other. I’m in her building, which is known as the Gloria Ray Building, maybe 50-100 times a year. And for the last decade or so, Gloria Ray and I have both been pretty thickly involved in promoting Knoxville.

For me, Knoxville tourism has become a sort of accidental second career, an unexpected side effect of journalism. Without ever intending to, I’ve become the go-to guy to show Knoxville to newcomers, among them an English lord, a bestselling mystery novelist, a Pulitzer laureate reporter, a Swiss film crew, some newly appointed TVA directors.

Often these first-time visitors are unfamiliar with my day job, and think I work for the tourist bureau. And I have worked with the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corp. staff some, on this project or that, sometimes for pay, sometimes just to help out.

So what do I think of Gloria Ray?

In fact I don’t know Gloria Ray. I’ve never met her in person. (J.N.)

Jan. 26:

Our Gang

It’s difficult to write about the Tennessee Legislature a lot of the time, mostly because it’s so hard to take it seriously. For every relatively sane person on either side of the political fence, there are half-a-dozen folks who come across as nut jobs—or, at least, who submit insane pieces of legislation.

Take the now-notorious bathroom bill, proposed by Rep. Richard Floyd of Chattanooga. In case you missed the national furor that ended with Floyd being accused of hate speech by the Transgender Law Center, the bill would have required “where a restroom or dressing room in a public building is designated for use by members of one particular sex, only members of that particular sex shall be permitted to use that restroom or dressing room,” where “‘Sex’ means and refers only to the designation of an individual person as male or female as indicated on the individual’s birth certificate.”

Floyd told the Chattanooga Times Free Press he was inspired to introduce the legislation after reading about a Macy’s employee who was fired when she wouldn’t let a transgender biological male use the women’s dressing room.

“It could happen here,” Floyd told the newspaper. “I believe if I was standing at a dressing room and my wife or one of my daughters was in the dressing room and a man tried to go in there—I don’t care if he thinks he’s a woman and tries on clothes with them in there—I’d just try to stomp a mudhole in him and then stomp him dry.”

So, yeah, you’d be forgiven for thinking the state Legislature is specifically targeting the civil rights of the LGBT community. (Cari Wade Gervin)

Feb. 9:

Impact Analysis

There are a lot of pages in the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corporation documents released late last Wednesday night. There are contracts and board meeting minutes and financials and stacks and stacks of spreadsheets. We know KTSC CEO Gloria Ray gets bonus payments for reaching certain goals, in terms of press coverage and economic impact for events booked by KTSC. But what does that mean, the “economic impact” of the events? And what events?

It turns out, when you look at the documents carefully, not all the events listed were booked by KTSC.

There is no question that KTSC has brought events to town, and there is no question that those events have had an economic impact. However, there are questions over whether all the events that KTSC claims as examples of its success at driving economic impact are ones that it actually had anything to do with. Despite just picking a sampling of events at random from KTSC’s list, we found a number of organizers who say they had no assistance at all from KTSC.

Take the Big Ears Festival of avant-garde music, held in February 2009 and March 2010. The event was created by Ashley Capps of AC Entertainment, and according to him, KTSC did nothing to help with the festival, nor did it make any special effort to promote the festival. Yet KTSC documents used to calculate Ray’s job performance bonus from 2009 and 2010 list both Big Ears festivals as events that had $866,640 and $324,990 in economic impact, respectively—numbers which Capps laughed at on first hearing them, as if in shock.

“I really don’t know what to say,” Capps says, sounding nothing less than flabbergasted. “We created Big Ears completely ourselves. … It’s pretty upsetting. I really don’t understand how someone could take credit for something we did.” (C.W.G.)

March 22:

The Sun Sets on Sundown

After a decade and a half, one of downtown Knoxville’s biggest events is officially over. AC Entertainment announced last week that the Sundown in the City series of free concerts “simply no longer fits its Market Square home.”

What that means for the immediate future is clear, even though the statement from AC Entertainment head Ashley Capps released on March 16 doesn’t explicitly say so: no Sundown in the City this year, and no good reason to expect its return.

The Thursday night concert series, which grew from a single V-Roys show in 1998 to include headliners like Steve Winwood, Sleater-Kinney, George Thorogood, and Jamey Johnson, had become increasingly contentious in the last few years, as some Market Square merchants and downtown residents complained about the large crowds, which were estimated at 10,000 or more. AC Entertainment scaled the series back in 2010 and 2011, from 12 shows to five. There have been rumors that Sundown would move from Market Square to a bigger location, like World’s Fair Park, but for now AC seems content to simply discontinue the concerts. (Matthew Everett)

April 19:

Equal Opportunity Employer

City police officer Brian Moran was off duty Tuesday night, but he came to City Council ready to do battle. Past president of the local and state Fraternal Order of Police, Moran is a seasoned veteran of the public arena, an imposing figure known for his ability to think on his feet. On this night, however, he came toting notes that would have served him well in Baptist Sunday School sword drill.

“I’m here for human rights,” he said. “I’ve been doing my research. And if somebody’d brought up Leviticus, I was going to hit them with these.”

He flashed a list of Bible verses enumerating human acts that are sanctioned—burning a bull on an outdoor altar as a sacrifice, selling a daughter into slavery, owning slaves as long as they’re not from neighboring states.

“But I didn’t need to do it,” he said.

That’s because City Council voted unanimously, and without discussion, to approve an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin, disability, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity in hiring. (Betty Bean)

April 26:

Mulchpocalypse 2012

The mulch fire was pretty much all anyone talked about last week, other than Pat Summitt’s retirement. It was understandable, given the thick wood smoke that spread across town for days, making living rooms smell like fire pits and lungs feel like they’d smoked a pack of cigarettes.

Finally, by Tuesday morning, the fire was officially “out.”

“To be honest with you, the fire’s probably been out since at least [last] Thursday,” says Randy Greaves, the owner of Shamrock Organic Products, the site of the fire. “Since then they’ve basically just been looking for hot spots, you know. It’s a precautionary measure.”

The city spent over $33,000 fighting the blaze last week, which started on the morning of Sunday, April 15. Greaves says he inspected the facility off Middlebrook Pike early that day, at around 8:45 a.m., and saw nothing amiss. By 11:32 a.m., however, the flames had jumped from mulch piles across a 15-foot driveway to piles of brush.

“It’s hard to start something that big with an ember. Spontaneous combustion doesn’t go this far,” Greaves says. “I am very suspicious of the source of this fire.” (C.W.G.)

May 3:

Class Work

It’s clear that Knox County schools are underfunded. Per pupil expenditures of $8,508 this past school year fall well below the state average of $9,084 and further yet below Hamilton County’s $9,398 and Davidson County’s $11,080, let alone Oak Ridge’s $12,112.

It’s also clear that Knox County has the capacity to do better. Median household income of $46,759 ranks seventh in the state, surpassing Hamilton and Davidson. Knox County’s property tax base and sales tax base are also among the highest in the state, while its property tax rate is by far the lowest of the state’s four major metropolitan counties.

Now, with the economy improving and Knox County unemployment down to a lowest-in-the-state 6 percent, Superintendent Jim McIntyre and his school board have elected to propose a bold $35 million increase in school funding atop the $398 million that’s projected to be derived from existing state and local revenue streams in the fiscal year ahead. An increase of this magnitude would raise Knox County school outlays by about $625 for each of its 56,000 students and thus lift them slightly above the state average. (Joe Sullivan)

May 24:

Bad Sports

The sudden retirement of Lady Vols Sports Information Director Debby Jennings was announced last week in a terse, three-paragraph press release that shocked fans of the women’s program, many of whom were already suspicious that the consolidation of men’s and women’s departments would mean second-class treatment for the Lady Vols. They feared that Jennings’ retirement was not voluntary.

A May 18 letter to University of Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek from Jennings’ attorney, David Burkhalter, will likely confirm the worst fears of Lady Vols fans. Burkhalter’s letter says that on May 15, UT Athletics Director Dave Hart called Jennings into his office, accused her of insubordination, and gave her three and a half hours to decide whether to retire or be fired.

The letter says Hart wanted her decision before he took off on a public relations jaunt at the end of the day with the Big Orange Caravan. When she returned to her office, it says, Jennings found that her computer had been removed and her e-mail files deleted.

Burkhalter’s letter to Cheek gave UT officials 10 days to avoid litigation: “I have advised Debby that she has the basis to pursue a discrimination/retaliation case against U.T. …” (B.B.)

May 31:

Teeth

Madeline Rogero’s budget includes $100,000 for enforcement of the Demolition by Neglect ordinance, passed by the city a decade ago but largely ignorable by property owners because it lacked actual teeth. The ordinance was intended as a remedy to architectural blight, to discourage property owners from letting buildings deteriorate to a point that they’re likely to collapse. However, without funding, the ordinance forbidding demolition by neglect was never very persuasive.

“For years, the city has had a ‘demolition by neglect’ ordinance in the books to protect historic properties, but has not allocated resources to implement it,” said Rogero in her budget speech. “I am creating a fund that will allow the city to act to stabilize these historic properties and ensure that they are not condemned to destruction through the inaction of their owners.” (J.N.)

June 7:

500 Apples + 10 Lemons = $7 Million

“It’s like an episode of Parks and Rec,” a friend e-mailed halfway through the epic Knox County Commission meeting on Monday.

And indeed, the meeting could not had been more like the television show if it had tried. Support Our Schools sent Commission 500 apples before the meeting started. A member of the Tea Party gave Commission 10 lemons and told the 11 members to make lemonade. A man played a harmonica. Recently arrested Commissioner Jeff Ownby chewed gum for two hours straight. Commissioner Mike Brown encouraged spanking in the schools. (And we haven’t even gotten to the communist-plot accusations.)

But at the end of the four-hour-plus meeting, everyone got a little bit of what they wanted: Knox County Schools got more money, and Mayor Tim Burchett had his budget adopted without a tax increase.

Both sides seemed somewhat pleased with the outcome of the compromise amendment put forth by Commissioner Mike Hammond that allows the schools to get a $7 million budget increase for next year. Commission voted for the increase 7 to 4, with Commissioners Ownby, Tony Norman, Dave Wright and R. Larry Smith opposed.

“It’s an unprecedented step,” says Knox County Board of Education Vice-Chair Indya Kincannon. “I’m pleased that we got the $7 million ... although I’m disappointed it’s not as much as we asked for.” (C.W.G.)

June 21:

How Gay Are We?

In order to understand where Knoxville is now as a livable city for gay residents, it’s instructive to look at where it’s been. And according to Gene Nutter, an old-school scenester with assertively rosy cheeks and autumnally graying hair, the city has earned a few points on The Advocate’s Gayest Cities in America list (number eight) just for improvement.

In the mid-’80s, Nutter was president of Knoxville’s Ten Percent, the first organization to sponsor Pride Week in June. At an early celebration, he says, “we had more protesters against us than marchers. If you had rated Knoxville then, and you could have given a negative number, we would have gotten one.”

His memory is long and bitter. Nutter himself was beaten in the middle of 17th Street by five high school football players for walking home with a drunk friend; the Carousel, the city’s longest running gay bar, was tear-gassed by an unknown assailant, never caught; police routinely harassed drag queens who strayed outside the safety of the gay bars, arresting them for criminal impersonation.

By contrast, he says, “walking into a gay bar now is like walking into Walmart. It’s that easy. No more guns. No more knives. And no more tear gas. And our drag queens don’t have to wear a piece of male clothing for fear they’ll be arrested.” (M.G.)

June 28:

Food Truck Explosion!

The long summer day is drawing to a close at the Bearden Beer Market one Friday, and the tipplers are getting restless. It’s time for a nosh.

And just beyond the roses, lit up with violet lights, the Savory and Sweet Truck awaits.

It’s true that the Savory and Sweet Truck technically isn’t Knoxville’s first food truck—not by a long shot. There have been taco trucks roaming the streets for a number of years, and last year local fast-food chain Petro’s started selling their chili-and-chips bowls from a truck, moving around all over town. A couple of barbecue joints soon followed suit, and for many, lunches or late night snacks became a lot more convenient.

But the Savory and Sweet Truck is different from Petro’s, and barbecue, and tacos, even though owners Byron and Nikisha “Kiki” Sambat are no strangers to pulled pork and tortillas. Instead, the Savory and Sweet Truck is the first in Knoxville of what author and food historian John T. Edge calls the “New Guard” of food trucks. He describes this in his new cookbook, The Truck Food Cookbook, as “the insurgent band of young cooks who now stand at the helm of stepside vans, retrofitted Airstreams, and reimagined fiberglass carts. … Their work is informed, in equal measure, by the farm-to-fork movement, classic culinary matriculation, hard knocks education, punk rock gestalt, and a universal impatience, characteristic of cooks in their twenties and thirties.” (C.W.G.)

July 5:

Safe, Legal, and Hours Away

A new law and the death of a local doctor have made the availability of abortion in Knoxville uncertain. In April, the Tennessee Legislature passed the Life Defense Act, requiring doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges. While the bill’s sponsors never demonstrated a real need for the regulation, which was originally suggested by Tennessee Right to Life, the consequences are turning out to be profound.

Knoxville’s two licensed clinics that offer surgical abortion, Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health (KCRH) and Volunteer Women’s Medical Clinic (VWMC), serve not just local women, who make up about a third of their patients, but virtually every county in East Tennessee and into Kentucky and Georgia. Chattanooga has no clinic, and more Hamilton County women visit Knoxville clinics than women from Blount or Sevier. Nearly one in 10 patients arrive from neighboring states.

At VWMC, Dr. Richard Manning is the primary physician, and he has opted not to restore his admitting privileges, which he relinquished years ago when he transitioned from full-time OB/GYN practice to the ambulatory surgery clinic. Dr. Manning is 69. As of Sunday, July 1 he can no longer perform abortions in Tennessee.

His colleague at KCRH, whose family requested we not use his name, applied for and received admitting privileges at University of Tennessee Medical Center. Days later he suffered a stroke, and two weeks ago he died. Another local doctor who worked at the clinic earlier in her career has stepped in temporarily, but she is unwilling to assume duties at either clinic permanently. As of July 1, there is no dedicated abortion physician in Knoxville. (Rikki Hall)

July 19:

Fighting For Votes

In Tennessee, the two major political parties are the custodians of the voting process, and whichever party happens to be in power gets to dictate where, when, and how that process is organized. Theoretically, Republicans and Democrats create checks and balances resulting in free and fair elections. Many, particularly independents (the fastest-growing segment of the voting population) and minority parties (like the Green Party, which had to sue to get on the ballot this year) would disagree.

It’s an increasingly messy business. And this year has been one of the messiest yet, with local Democrats toting up a long list of grievances, going back to the 2011 ouster of Democrat Greg Mackay as election administrator.

The administrator of elections job, with its six-figure salary, is one of the juiciest political plums in the county. But Cliff Rodgers, who has held the position for a year, is catching an increasing amount of heat with the approach of the critical 2012 contests, which are complicated by the requirements of the new voter ID law (which Democrats consider voter suppression), sudden precinct changes (which Democrats consider voter suppression), and a residency controversy that ended with the courts tossing a Democratic candidate out of the county. Although the Knox County Election Commission has always generated controversy, this appears to be a year of intensified fear and loathing.

There is unhappiness among North Knoxvillians who vote at Belle Morris Elementary School over Rodgers’ decision to close down their polling place. Located in the heart of a densely packed cluster of older neighborhoods, the big brick school at the corner of Washington Pike and Whittle Springs Road becomes 16-South on Election Day and has been a bellwether ward for Democrats for more than 60 years. It is the largest Democratic ward in the city—and the belief that if Democrats don’t win there, they’re not going to get elected is a foundational principle of Election Night in Knoxville. (B.B.)

Aug. 16:

Leaving the Projects Behind

Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation, which is in charge of Knoxville’s public housing developments, accepted the lowest bidder on June 28 to begin its first phase of demolition at Walter P. Taylor Homes. As the latest development in a revitalization project that started three years ago, KCDC intends to raze all 500 public housing units in this neighborhood. Within 10 years, according to KCDC’s plan, Knoxville will have a new low-income housing community with mostly single-family houses, like one might find in Mechanicsville, a similar project completed just a few years ago.

It’s part of a new model in public housing. Across the United States, cities have committed to projects very similar to Mechanicsville and Five Points, replacing high-rises with houses in order to lessen the density of the neighborhoods.

Knoxville has bought into this model even as federal funding for redevelopment diminishes, but not without inheriting the controversy that comes with it: Are the current residents of Walter P. Taylor engaged in the revitalization of their community, and do they stand to benefit directly from it?

The questions don’t have easy answers, especially since KCDC has so far secured only a fraction of the funding needed to complete the project. (Amien Essif and Daniel Snider)

Aug. 23:

Biofuels Boondoggle?

In 2007, when state government was flush with revenue, then-Gov. Phil Bredesen channeled $70 million to the University of Tennessee for what was called the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative. The goal was to demonstrate the feasibility of converting what was envisioned to become hundreds of thousands of acres of home-grown switchgrass into cellulosic ethanol for motor fuel processing plants throughout the state that would both boost Tennessee’s economy and help reduce the nation’s dependence on imported oil.

That same year, Congress enacted a Renewable Fuels Standard that called for the production of 500 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol nationally by 2012 as a stepping stone toward 16 billion gallons by 2022. Together with the 14 billion gallons of ethanol that’s already being derived from corn, that would displace more than 20 percent of the 138 billion gallons of gasoline that were then being consumed in the U.S.

But now five years have passed, the $70 million has all been spent, and there’s no sign of a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Tennessee anywhere in sight. (J.S.)

Aug. 30:

Urban Controversy

A week ago Tuesday night, during the Knoxville City Council meeting, a tweet from Mayor Madeline Rogero’s account made it official: “Major retailer Urban Outfitters looking to open store in Knoxville in 2013 in former Arnstein Building.”

To people around downtown, this wasn’t exactly news—an architect working on behalf of the retail chain submitted an application seeking approval of signage and other design aspects to the Downtown Design Review board back in March, and rumors had been flying fast and furious since the sidewalks around the Arnstein were blocked off last month due to work on the building.

What was news, however, is the $250,000 forgivable loan the city is awarding to the developers in charge of the Arnstein in order to lure Urban Outfitters downtown. Technically, the funds were just approved on first reading, but given that it was a unanimous vote in favor, Council seems highly likely to make the gift official next Tuesday.

When the story was posted on the Metro Pulse Facebook page, the critics came out in droves. “Could have given that into local stores opening,” one person wrote. “I wonder if any of the small businesses that built downtown Knoxville over the past years received any grants?” another asked. “What a let down. Support local businesses, not ridiculously overpriced, unimaginative chain stores. I’m very disappointed,” posted a third. (C.W.G.)

Sept. 5:

Mr. Positivity

When Dave Hart accepted the job as the University of Tennessee’s new athletic director a year ago, the program was a mess. The once-proud football team had descended into consistent mediocrity, made worse by having three coaches in three years between 2007 and 2009. The men’s basketball program had just suffered through the ignominious last year of Bruce Pearl’s tenure as head coach. A two-and-a-half-year NCAA investigation had just been completed, which resulted in two years of probation and minor recruiting penalties.

The tumult of the previous five years continued well into the first year of his tenure: Women’s basketball legend Pat Summitt retired after almost 40 years as head coach in April, just months after announcing that she has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease; the merger of the men’s and women’s athletic departments has raised questions about Hart’s commitment to gender equity; and a new study released last month showed that the athletic department lost almost $4 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year.

Most immediately, head football coach Derek Dooley is facing intense pressure to turn around his team’s fortunes after two consecutive losing seasons. If the 2012 football Vols can win seven or eight games, it will be a big step toward getting the program back where fans assume it should be. If they don’t, Hart will have tough decisions to make, and even more turbulence ahead of him. (M.E.)

Sept. 27:

End of Broadcast

The streaming is over, but not the screaming—at least figuratively speaking—as the remnants of local Web programming outfit Knox ivi are hashed over in the wake of accusations of bad business practices alleged by its former clients, creditors, and employees—as well as questions about the ownership of some of the intellectual property left behind.

In March, founder Joe Dickey and his wife, Knox ivi Executive Vice President Susan Ridgell, suddenly moved all of the business’ production and office resources out of the Market Square location into a space on Henley Street, announcing a “restructuring” of the company.

The move surprised Knox ivi employees almost as much as it did outside observers, as most of them learned of the change via a note on the door when they came in for work one morning.

The pieces of Knox ivi have apparently reverted to Danny Harb and an unnamed group of former Knox ivi investors. Harb, manager of HP Video, a producer of video-assist equipment for the motion-picture industry, was reluctant to talk about the disposition of Knox ivi resources.

Harb did say that he and the other new owners, whom he would not name, have a lien on the Knox ivi equipment and that it may be used to do Web streaming of some kind, though it would have nothing to do with Knox ivi. (M.G.)

Oct. 4:

Build, Baby, Build

Knoxville’s future looks a lot like Walmart and Publix.

That is, if you believe the hype coming from proponents of the University Commons project, which is planned for the old Fulton Bellows site just off Kingston Pike near the University of Tennessee. The complex’s developers asked for and received a $1.5 million grant from Knoxville City Council on Tuesday night.

“It makes an incredible statement,” said the city’s chief policy officer, Bill Lyons, at the meeting. “It is a message that the core of the city is alive and well.”

It remains to be seen if what is in effect a giant fancy strip mall with a slightly more attractive design than your average big box center can actually spur development (especially when one of its tenants is notorious for driving smaller stores out of business), as the projected opening date for Publix and Walmart is not until the summer of 2014. But the ripple effects of Council’s vote—the measure passed 7 to 2—could be felt much, much sooner.

“It is not the role of government to get involved in development to increase the sales tax base,” said Councilmember Marshall Stair before voting no on the funding. “We’re setting a bad precedent. We start handing out grants like this, [developers] are going to come asking.” (C.W.G.)

Butt-Chugging Explained

Despite the alleged medical misadventure and subsequent ignominy of University of Tennessee student and Pi Kappa Alpha brother Alexander P. Broughton—who, according to police reports, suffered severe alcohol poisoning after a night of chugging cheap wine through a rubber tube stuck in his anus on Sept. 21, which he adamantly denies—the practice of rectal intake is actually a time-honored tradition, with venerable cultural antecedents.

Well, no, not really.

The truth is that so-called “butt-chugging,” as this exercise in rectal abuse and accelerated alcoholism is now commonly known, is a half-witted and potentially medically catastrophic stunt that bears more than a faint whiff of sexual assault. (M.G.)

Oct. 11:

Building a Nest

A surprise move by two of our region’s most celebrated independent filmmakers and one of Knoxville’s busiest cable-television producers will place a feature-film studio in Bearden, at least for a couple of years. Former Knoxvillian Paul Harrill and his wife Ashley Maynor, who have been teaching at Virginia Tech in recent years, have moved home, thanks to a deal with RIVR Media, with a contract to produce four feature-length films in Knoxville under the name Nest Features.

Run by Dee Haslam and Rob Lundgren, RIVR is known for national cable-TV reality shows like Great American Heroes with Trace Adkins, Fix This Kitchen, and Blog Cabin, as well as short-form jobs like commercials and interactive websites. For RIVR, funding fiction stories on a feature-length (usually roughly 90-minute) format marks a major new venture. Though not considered a division of RIVR Media, the two will collaborate, as Nest moves into studio space on RIVR’s five-building campus at Troy Circle off Northshore in Bearden. (J.N.)

Nov. 8:

Supersize It

The super-majority wasn’t a surprise.

It had been projected for weeks by Republicans across the state. Even Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester told the Nashville Scene two weeks ago that the Democrats would be in the super-minority “unless lightning strikes.”

There was rain on Tuesday, but there was no lightning. The GOP picked up enough seats in both the state House and Senate to hold a two-thirds majority in both chambers.

“For the first time in history, we’re going to have a walk-out-proof majority, whether or not the Democrats want to participate or not, and I think that’s a good thing for Tennessee,” said Rep. Ryan Haynes on stage at the Knox County GOP’s election night party at the Crowne Plaza ballroom downtown.

A few minutes later, Rep. Bill Dunn took the stage with Rep. Harry Brooks. “We’ve got a super-majority in the House and the Senate,” Dunn said. “We’re gonna git ’er done!” The ballroom cheered.

It’s not like the Legislature didn’t get it done this past session, after Republicans took control of both chambers in 2010. But with the two-thirds super-majority, the GOP has a quorum even if Democrats walk out, and they also have the option to suspend normal rules to quickly pass legislation.

In short, if you thought the past two years of embarrassing national headlines were bad, prepare yourself—things might get worse. (C.W.G.)

Nov. 15:

Down By Law?

When the Valarium announced two weeks ago that it would be closing its doors on Nov. 24, the music community in Knoxville openly mourned. The club brought in a lot of bands that no one else tries to get, and the void will hurt both local musicians and fans.

Club owner Gary Mitchell posted a letter on the Valarium’s website stating that the closure was for legal reasons. He wrote, “Due to new rule changes from the TN Alcoholic Beverage Commission concerning the minimum percentage of food an establishment must sell in relation to its gross sales, our venues will be closing. We also cannot comply with the minimum number of days they require us to be open per week.”

The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that the issue was “legislation passed last May by the Tennessee General Assembly creating a new limited service license, which requires that 15 percent of the gross revenue is derived from the service of food.”

But according to the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission, this isn’t the case at all. TABC’s attorney, Ginna Winfree, says the law changes happened in 2010—and they were actually designed to help bars get by while selling less food, not more. (C.W.G.)

Nov. 22:

Highway to Hell

Like a zombie crawling out of a grave or a horror-movie killer who refuses to stay dead, the James White Parkway extension is the roadway project that just won’t go away.

South Knoxvillians may have forgotten about the long-proposed highway extension since it last reared its head years ago, but it turns out the project was just in hibernation, awaiting the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s completion of an environmental assessment.

Now that the 430-page behemoth is available for perusal at the public library and on TDOT’s website, it’s time for a public hearing on the matter. And if public reaction to date is anything to go by, the meeting should be a doozy—much of the support TDOT may have once had for the highway seems to have long disappeared. (C.W.G.)

Look Fast

No big fan of chain-link fences to begin with, I especially hate to see that fence go up around the Aconda Court building on Cumberland Avenue and what’s now Volunteer Boulevard, and some other historic buildings just behind it, just because I know what comes next.

The Aconda’s been doomed in the University of Tennessee’s long-term plans since the ’90s. As an office building, it was cramped and problematic—I did some time in there on barely remembered errands, decades ago—but I kept hoping that some new administration would see that Aconda was not an office building at all, but a pretty little apartment building with clay-tile shingles and some interesting stonework, mythological creatures in bas-relief. The demand for efficiency apartments in this neighborhood is obvious, and few are as good-looking as Aconda.

UT has its eye on the Top 25 Research University status, and maybe they can flatten their way to that goal. In spite of all this expansion and demolition, UT’s student body is a little smaller than it was when I was there, 30-something years ago.

I know dozens of UT folks who’d pay a lot to live in a place like Aconda, or Temple Court, or the Fulton house, right where they are. But UT years ago set its suburban-style pattern. Big parking lots on campus, yes. Faculty or administration living on campus, no. I don’t have the impression that UT will stop tearing good things down in our lifetime, unless they just run out of them, which is possible. (J.N.)

Nov. 29:

Early Starter

Brian Stevens is a young and exuberant would-be politician. And he’ll need every bit of that energy because he’s already begun a two-year campaign against one of the most competitive and controversial politicians in the state (and arguably in the country): state Sen. Stacey Campfield.

The tall and strapping Stevens embarked on this venture earlier in the year and took advantage of the campaign season to get his message out early to likely voters. He’ll need those two years, he says, if he wants to win the state Senate District 7 seat.

Stevens intends to run on the Democratic ticket, but mostly for the purposes of raising his odds against Campfield.

“I know a third-party candidate will only increase Stacey Campfield’s chances. And it’s not so much about party because it is about me as a person,” he says. (Paige Huntoon)

Dec. 6:

The House That Frank Built

When residents would walk into the snug and welcoming dining hall of the E.M. Jellinek Center off North Central Street, cellphones ringing and low-slung jeans hanging almost to their knees, Frank Kolinsky set them straight but quick, at least for the span of a home-cooked meal.

But times are changing, they’d often protest, railing against Frank’s particular points of etiquette and his fusty fashion sense. Well, friend, it might be two-thousand-and-change out there, Frank would always say, but inside this dining room it’s still 1953.

And Frank would also say that God don’t make no trash—his response when anyone had anything bad to say about the assemblage of rogues and junkies and gutter drunks that comprised the residential population of E.M. Jellinek, a Knox-area halfway house for substance abusers founded in 1971 near the Holy Ghost Catholic Church.

Because for all of his fustiness and crustiness and ball-coach demeanor, Frank Kolinsky was a man friends remember as capable of a rare compassion. His presence is still palpable in this collection of neatly kept old houses on Hinton Avenue, and the staff still invoke his name and his words, often, sometimes slipping up and speaking of him in present tense. His death in 2011 takes on a heightened poignancy given that his legacy is now threatened by serious funding issues, the result of cutbacks at the state level.

The state’s last mental-health budget saw all of Jellinek’s $610,000 in funding cut. Though half of it was subsequently restored, there are no guarantees as to what—if any—state funds will be there in the future. (M.G.)

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