citybeat (2006-26)

Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corp. is thinking big, but are its little guys falling through the cracks?

Second Creek greenway under construction

Wednesday, June 21

Fireworks and Casualties

If you were in the vicinity of downtown last Wednesday night, it may have seemed—momentarily—that this fair city was under siege. There were the telltale booms, rattling your pint glasses, frightening your kitty cats, ricocheting ominously from building to building as might a wartime explosion of medium build. And the spectral bombs kept falling, and falling, until at last you rose to the window and beheld the culprit: a Fourth of July fireworks spectacular, two weeks early.

What you couldn’t see, though, were the 18,000 or so Honda Hoot attendees for whom the display was intended. Indeed, out-of-town motorcyclists are big business for Knoxville—accountable for an approximate economic impact of $25 million per Hoot. And last week, Knoxville signed a contract to continue hosting the annual event through 2009. The extension cashes out to an additional $77 million waiting to be pumped into the local economy.

That’s music to the ears of the Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corp. (KT&SC), which receives 45 percent of hotel/motel tax collections in Knox County. It recently approved a $3.2 million budget for the 2007 fiscal year, an 11 percent increase from last year’s $2.9 million budget.

“We’re moving forward, making progress,” says KT&SC Vice President of Marketing and Sales Robin Hamilton. “We’re glad to see Knoxville grow.” 

Tourism-wise, it certainly is. In recent months, the UT/downtown area has given rise to two new hotels; the Southeast Tourism Society recognized Boomsday, which will be expanded to a three-day festival this year, as one of its top 20 events of September; Hotwire.com named Knoxville one of its top four cities to visit; and CNNMoney.com listed it among seven most affordable vacation destinations in the United States and abroad. On a more tangible level, KT&SC’s pristine Visitors Center on the corner of Summit and Gay enjoys a steady stream of direction-seeking tourists in addition to an enthusiastic mix of downtown dwellers.

But now, some Knoxvillians are arguing that, while the big events keep getting bigger and the money continues pouring in, the smaller events and people seem to be falling through the cracks.

Changes to KT&SC’s staff, namely the replacement of two fulltime front-desk employees (familiar faces to anyone who visits semi-regularly) with part-time positions, intuitively seem at odds with the organization’s growing needs. But Hamilton is confident in the rearrangement, insisting that it will provide “more efficient coverage.”

Others, like Director of Visitor Services Fiona McAnally, who announced her resignation after the staff changes, are concerned that part-time employees may not be able to provide the services visitors need—kind of like a museum docent who’s unfamiliar with art. “To be frank, I’m afraid they’re going to get a lot of college kids working in there who don’t even know we had a World’s Fair,” she says.

Another shift in KT&SC’s agenda is its newfound imposition of facility rental fees upon groups who are not in a position to do a trade-out via advertising (an option taken by WDVX, which provides on-air and online promotions in exchange for using KT&SC’s café/stage for its Blue Plate Special daily broadcast)—once again raising the question of to what extent a city is entitled to provide free spaces for its arts community.

Karen Reynolds’ monthly Writer’s Block show, which she hosts for WDVX, says her seven-year-running program will be relocating as a result; she says it can’t afford the approximately $250 facility fee KT&SC is requesting per use. Any money the show makes goes toward the performers, and even so, it has struggled in the past to make ends meet. The situation seems ironic, considering Reynolds’ relationship with WDVX predates the Visitors Center by several years.

“We’re a grassroots series,” Reynolds says. “It was a kick in the teeth for this multi-million dollar organization to step up and say, you’re not making anything, but we want to make money off of you.”

Up until this point, KT&SC’s expenditures on the Writer’s Block series have included electricity during the show, employee compensation (about $21, Reynolds estimates), and a monthly ad in the Metro Pulse (which will continue to provide the ad without charge). Hamilton admits that facility fees will provide only a small revenue stream, but that it will still be helpful “to take that revenue stream and use those fees to offset advertising.”

On the bright side, Reynolds says she feels like Writer’s Block is ready for a new location that will allow it to grow, meanwhile providing amenities that the Visitors Center has not been able to, such as food and beverages (an impracticality with the one-person staff provided). Though she’s not at liberty to discuss details, Reynolds says that she has found a new venue and is finalizing the logistics of what she hopes will be a “graceful and well implemented transition to a new location,” to take place within the next few months.

Tony Lawson, WDVX program director, confirms that the station itself has no plans to relocate and that it continues to enjoy “a good relationship with KT&SC.”

Other organizations impacted by KT&SC have had more time to develop infrastructures that work symbiotically with the larger corporation’s objectives. While KT&SC focuses on marketing Knoxville to the organizers of conferences, conventions and other events, the Knoxville Tourism Alliance (KTA) is a not-for-profit membership organization that represents hotels, restaurants, attractions and vendors and is dedicated to assisting smaller events.

“A lot of the little events don’t get as much attention,” KTA Executive Director Jill Thompson explains, citing Honda Hoot as an example. “But we want to treat them the same as Honda Hoot gets treated. Just because they don’t get the media blast the larger conventions get doesn’t make them any less important.”    

It’s a balance we could all stand to remember.

A Missing Link

The construction work recently commenced between downtown and UT, just south of Cumberland Avenue, has alarmed some observers, who’ve noticed big equipment tearing down trees. Some assumed it was a rather sudden start to the Gameday condo project recently announced for nearby Poplar Street.

However, the construction currently underway is all for the long-awaited greenway that will link World’s Fair Park to Volunteer Landing along the banks of Second Creek.

The greenway will be not quite half a mile long, but may have a bigger effect on pedestrian traffic patterns than many longer greenway projects do.

Though largely neglected for a couple of decades as a semi-public combination of UT surface parking lots and dysfunctional vestiges of the 1982 World’s Fair, the area looks on a map as if it should be an urban fulcrum. Pedestrians and bicyclists could technically get through the area, but often had the impression they weren’t supposed to be there.

“It’s a major connection between the waterfront and World’s Fair Park,” says David Brace, deputy director of the city’s public services department, which is overseeing the project, “and between downtown and UT.” He adds that the project will provide a proper stairway to lofty Maplehurst, whose residents have been wearing steep pathways down toward UT for years. The greenway will offer connections both via the pedestrian trestle over Cumberland, and to Cumberland itself, at 11th Street, so it’s likely that Fort Sanders residents will also benefit by the link.

The bill of $2.5 million for the project came from federal funds obtained several months ago by Rep. Jimmy Duncan. Unusually costly for such a short segment of greenway construction, much of the cost involved is rearranging UT’s surface parking lots adjacent to the site to allow for the greenway.

Involved in the construction will be a new switchback from the bridge grade down to the creek—the existing switchback, one of the few unaltered remnants of the World’s Fair, was a hairpin affair which was crumbling and not ADA compliant to begin with. Also, Brace says, “We’ve gotten a lot of complaints from people who’ve wrecked their bikes there.”

The creekside trail will link to the pedestrian underpass and the signal crossing at the UT boathouse. It will render Volunteer Landing and the Third Creek Bike Trail much more easily and safely accessible from downtown and Fort Sanders- and will add World’s Fair Park and the Knoxville Convention Center to the list of destinations reachable by bicycle or foot with minimal interaction with auto traffic.

Brace adds that the project will also “reconnect people with Second Creek itself.” The stream, once known as Scuffletown Creek, was one of the reasons given for siting the growing university on its present campus in 1826, and was once part of the life of the university—but much of it’s been underground for a quarter century, and many are hardly aware there’s still a substantial exposed natural creek at the eastern foot of the Hill. Brace says the project will offer environmental benefits, too, by providing a better buffer between the parking lots and the creek.

The old fair-era sitting area, beloved to some but unknown to most, will be re-established, but from the sound of it not quite as secluded as it has been. The landscaping, planned by Ross Fowler, will weed out the invasive plants in the area, favoring indigenous trees and shrubs.

The rearrangement of parking lots is apparently getting first priority; Brace says that the lots will be ready in time for football season, but the completion of the greenway itself will have to wait until December, when much of the new planting will take place.

Donna Young, the city’s greenways coordinator who’s always looking beyond the current reality, is quick to add that further plans to extend the bike/pedestrian greenway link north of World’s Fair Park along Second Creek and east to the Old City, probably via some fairly narrow passages, are pending funding and decisions related to the McClung Warehouses.

SEVEN DAYS

Wednesday, June 21

Thursday, June 22

Friday, June 23

Saturday, June 24

Sunday, June 25

Monday, June 26

Tuesday, June 27