I’m not exactly sure what to make of the flap over the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corporation, except that change is inevitable. I’m sure the issues over its leadership will all come out in the wash. (Oh, such dirty laundry.) But I think it’s safe to say things are going to change. What I do know a bit about is the visitor center they operate at the corner of Gay Street and Summit Hill. They’ve been my neighbors for quite a while. You can gather a lot about your neighbors just from observation. And I can easily make some suggestions about the changes that need to happen just up Gay Street.
First, the new leadership needs to consider the parking situation at the facility. The center managed to get about half of the adjacent surface lot that was formerly the exclusive domain of TVA. The problems start at the entrance, which bears numerous conflicting messages. More than one TVA sign warns that the lot is permit only with towing enforced, while adjacent signs installed by the center offer free visitor parking. If you don’t want to get towed in a strange city, which one do you pay attention to? But it gets worse. Beyond that confusion, once you get in the lot you’ll find that there are more signs reserving spaces for employees of the center than for visitors. Ten signs reserve spaces for employees, while seven designate spaces for visitors. Not the most hospitable to the people it’s supposed to serve, if you ask me. And I can think of relatively few downtown employees who are afforded the luxury of adjacent parking to the workplace. A parking lot for visitors should be just that.
Shortly before the center opened, Gay Street was in the early days of its revival. And one of the first businesses to take a chance on it was Prestige Cleaners who, in conjunction with opening an outlet in the Phoenix Building, opened the Downtown Grind coffee shop. This was at a time when many downtowners were opining that such a business was exactly one of the things we needed. Within weeks, the visitor center opened with a coffee shop on its premises, which directly competed with a nascent business just up the street. I’m not sure that an organization that relies so heavily on tax dollars needs to be in the running against businesses in the private sector. Restaurants downtown already have enough competition without the visitor center providing more. One might think that directing guests toward businesses and restaurants downtown might be more in line with the center’s ostensible mission than trying to satisfy their needs in-house.
This next one’s a little tricky. The city has ordinances against signs that have “scrolling, intermittent, flashing, running or blinking lights or animated illumination.” There’s room for exceptions upon approval. But there are some good reasons not to distract drivers, particularly at an intersection so heavily trafficked by vehicles and pedestrians as Summit Hill at Gay Street. I’m not the only one that thinks that the glaring, wrap-around ticker that races around the building is flat-out ugly. Its pace has been slowed down a bit since it first went up, but it’s still more flash than function. “Now - Mar 20: Continents Collide - The Appalachians and the Himalayas.” That’s currently one of the messages whizzing by at 30 mph, whatever the hell that means. Maybe running that a few thousand times a day counts as promoting whatever that’s supposed to be about and creating “economic impact,” I don’t know. But I live here, and the thing frequently makes no sense to me.
Last but not least, the bells from a historic church tolling out the hour can add a nice ambiance to a downtown. And for some, the sound of Christmas songs ringing from speakers atop the visitor center may create a pleasant air to complement the seasonal lights of the city. But enduring recorded carillon versions of “Born Free” or “Climb Every Mountain” for apparently no reason, blasting hourly on random days, is just irritating. And it can get mind-numbing for nearby residents who have to endure it over and over. Let’s let our downtown play its own song, and get rid of those air raid-scale loudspeakers on top of the center. Or at the very least, use them more sparingly and selectively.
If I arrive in a city by car and drop into a visitor center, I’m pretty much looking for easy parking, a smile, a map, and a clean restroom. I’ll take some advice on where to stay, eat, and what’s going on. I’m interested in what the city has to offer, not what the center has to offer. And getting back to those basics ought to be the focus under the organization’s new leadership.