The annual Boomsday event will take over Volunteer Landing for its 26th year on Sunday, and it will once again feature the nation's largest Labor Day fireworks show.
But aside from the sheer spectacle of the 22-minute fireworks show choreographed to music, why does Boomsday matter to Knoxville?
"It's very easy for people to sit back and go, ‘I don't know why they're doing Boomsday,'" says Kim Bumpas, Visit Knoxville's president. "Boomsday is a very unique event for a convention and visitors bureau—which is what we are—to own. Over time, I want to see Boomsday be a revenue stream for the organization so that we can then have more money to put back into marketing Knoxville."
As a marketing tool, Bumpas says, Boomsday provides some bang for the bucks spent on it.
By Sunday, Visit Knoxville will have raised about $200,000 in sponsorships. Bumpus says the total expenses her company will pay will be in the neighborhood of $150,000, and they should make about $50,000 in profit. The key to the event's success, Bumpas says, is in the various partners that contribute cash in exchange for exposure.
"But most of these folks say, ‘Here's $20,000, and for my $20,000, I get set up on the site, I get on the website, I'm on all the banners, the T-shirts, as a partner.' And then all of their deals correspond with their level of involvement," Bumpas explains.
For example, Nature Raised Farms' partnership deal included getting the company's name on the entertainment and performance stage, in addition to banners and promotional items. (It'll be called the Nature Raised Farms Performance Stage).
Visit Knoxville is also directly contracting with food vendors. Bumpas says the total number of vendors isn't set in stone yet, but that each vendor pays $1,000 to set up on site. Visit Knoxville also manages the number of vendors selling the same item, a move Bumpas says is meant to help small-scale vendors.
"Some of those mom-and-pop [businesses], all they have to give is $1,000 to get on the [site]. So what I want to do is make sure they can make their $1,000 back, and they can make well above that so they're a successful business," she says.
However, Boomsday isn't completely privately funded. Visit Knoxville is funded by the city and Knox County, so taxpayer dollars do go toward the event. Visit Knoxville's most recent budget request called for $2.2 million from the county, and $1 million from the city, and those requests are almost identical to what both governments actually contributed last year.
From 1 to 10 p.m. on Sunday, Boomsday attendees will find those food vendors, partners who paid to set up on Volunteer Landing, performances from Amanda Kramer and Soulfinger, a trackless train, a Metro Pulse art box display, and the family fun zone full of inflatables. And, if the weather holds up, as Bumpas is optimistically predicting, the crowd could comprise about 400,000 people, she says. (That's about how many people live in the Knoxville metropolitan area.)
Bumpas is hoping that the buzz around University of Tennessee football entices several fans who came for the Saturday game to stay for Boomsday.
But Boomsday wouldn't happen without some cooperation on the part of the city of Knoxville, Knox County, and, this year, the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
This year, Boomsday's fireworks display will return to the Henley Street Bridge, which is currently still under construction.
"If [TDOT], in conjunction with the city of Knoxville, hadn't come together and really helped us, we would've had a really hard time putting Boomsday together," Bumpas says. "We couldn't do it off the railroad bridge again. It was a great partnership with Norfolk Southern for two years, but it just wasn't going to work for a third year."
And, since Pyro Shows, the LaFollette-based company that runs the fireworks show, will no longer need to use a train to hold the fireworks, six flatbed tractor-trailers and two other trucks will be loaded up with approximately 20,000 shells of fireworks, says Pyro vice president of operations Mike Walden.
After the televised fireworks show, Walden says there will be about 18 to 20 people involved in the Boomsday cleanup. First, with help from the city fire department, a crew will inspect the bridge 30 minutes after the last firework has gone off to "make sure all the explosive ordinances has either fired or is secure," Walden says, which takes about an hour.
"Then you move everything off the bridge, and then you're left with a debris field, which is mostly paper. You have to clean all that up—blow it and clean it up, get it all up and bagged," he explains.
Both Bumpas and Walden are quick to point out that Boomsday's environmental impact is minuscule. Bumpas says Pyro Shows is "very sensitive to the environment." The fireworks shells are also made out of a biodegradable cardboard, Walden says, which don't really harm the water system.
Renée Hoyos, executive director at the Tennessee Clean Water Network, agrees. "It's not a big impact on the river," she says.
Walden says the impact on the air isn't a big deal, either.
"The parts per million is so negligible. For Boomsday, we have so little environmental impact. It'll probably never affect the air quality to where you could measure it," Walden says.
There have been studies that show fireworks do actually have a significant impact on air quality, and others that didn't come to that conclusion. The Environmental Protection Agency's policy on fireworks is to encourage states to warn people if they should expect significant changes in air quality after a fireworks display, but to exclude air-quality data following a culturally significant fireworks display (such as Fourth of July fireworks shows) from statistics. The state of Tennessee has an air-quality page that gives real-time data on areas around the state, but no warning has been issued ahead of the Boomsday display.
While it draws hundreds of thousands of people to Knoxville's waterfront, might Boomsday consequently be taking business away from downtown and Old City restaurants and shops? Bumpas says she's never heard from anyone about that issue, nor did she have economic impact estimates for Boomsday.
Martha Boggs, who owns and runs the Bistro at the Bijou, one of the restaurants closest to the festivities, says she doesn't see an increase in business during Boomsday. "The only impact I have seen is an increase in people coming in to use the restroom," she says.
"Going forward, would I love opportunities for local businesses in the community that have a platform to say, ‘Hey, if we did this, it would help me during Boomsday,'" Bumpas says. "Do I want to build Boomsday out so that it pulls the crowd all around Knoxville? Yes. For a lot of reasons. But we're not there yet."