citybeat (2007-01)

Knox yuppification makes its way to Fountain City 

Downtown became a shopping mecca in 2006

Bearden Envy

North Broadway lost its good looks and charm some years ago. During the past couple decades, at least, it’s resembled an architectural crapshoot, littered with fast-food restaurants and 10-minute oil-change garages, all jumbled together beneath a web of electrical lines and faded signs. It’s not surprising, given that it gradually evolved from a resort town, connected to downtown Knoxville via a dummy line and later electric trolley cars, into a blue-collar Baptist community over the course of the past 100 years. But Fountain City life may be changing, again.

“You’ve got these guys coming in wearing overalls and flannel shirts and you expect them to ask for fried chicken, but they want French Onion soup and a Caprese sandwich,” says Amie Smith, manager of Fountain City’s new Panera Bread. The franchised coffee shop/café already had three Knoxville locations—on Cumberland Avenue, Kingston Pike and North Peters Road—when it opened its fourth location in April 2006. Smith says the store has since enjoyed a warm welcome from the community.

“They’re so happy to have something like this here, an alternative to the fast food chains,” she says. The proof is in the parking lot, which tends to be packed throughout the day—although consumers parked there may also be visiting any of the Bearden-esque, old towne (that’s with an “e”) style strip mall’s occupants: Oreck, Abby’s Attic, U.S. Cellular, Snappy Tomato Pizza, Wells Fargo and Marble Slab Creamery. For the most part, they’re also the names of businesses that are new to the area, perhaps attracted here in part by the prospect of a not-yet-saturated consumer market.

On the other end of the strip mall, Andrea Santrock stands behind the counter of recycled clothing store Hey Annie, which she co-owns with J. David Walker. Customers flip through the racks of name-brand women’s and men’s clothing, much of which appears to be hip and stylish—the kind of fashions that might appeal to teenagers and young adults. Local artwork adorns the walls, and the store hopes to have live music at some point as well.

Santrock explains that she’s always wanted to own a clothing store, and after seeing the success of West Knoxville’s secondhand buy/sell/trade store Planet X-Change, decided to open her own version of the shop in a different part of town. Hey Annie opened its doors in late November.

“We’ve had a really good reception,” Santrock says. “The area needed something like this. There really aren’t many places to buy clothes around here unless you go out west or to the mall.”

Community self-sufficiency was the big selling point for Fountain City resident Christina Gregory when she accepted the chance to manage Broadway’s new Firehouse Subs when it opened in mid-November. “It’s time for the north end to get what the west end already has,” Gregory says, noting that Fountain City is well on its way to at least having the necessities. “I don’t have to drive west anymore. As a resident, I can’t say thank you enough to everyone.”

Firehouse, a franchised sub shop that specializes in hot sandwiches, is tucked into another, somewhat larger, upscale-looking strip mall, replete with elegant awnings and pretty landscaping. It’s further up Broadway in the old White Store location, which was most recently occupied by a Food City and an auto parts store. Fountain View Plaza, as it’s called, is on property owned by the Haslam family and was redeveloped last year under the auspices of Creative Structures.

A number of businesses have already signed contracts to move into the retail spaces, including a Baskin Robbins, Salsarita’s, Sprint, and ORNL Credit Union. Gregory says she’s heard rumors that there might be an office supply store and a women’s fashion boutique as well. A sign on the road says spaces are still available for lease. Gregory adds that it’s a great location, being near Central High School (“I have a great staff of students,” she says) and at the heart of Fountain City’s financial district, if you will, with at least six banks within the span of two blocks.

Other such Broadway developments are apparent as well, if not so recent or obvious. There’s the Harvest Towne North development, which houses a Chop House (perhaps Fountain City’s best reckoning of a fine dining establishment); and the strip mall containing Blockbuster, Party City and the Dollar Store also recently acquired a new old towne-style façade. A big question mark remains, however, above the abandoned Target store, built in the ’80s despite preservationist attempts to secure the historic house and tree-shaded yard that once stood there. We’ve heard that after negotiations with Kroger’s fell through, the building is seeking to house a Ross Dress for Less or Marshall’s-type larger store plus a few smaller shops. It, too, is expected to receive the Beardenese treatment, further challenging residents to find the strip mall in the strip mall’s disguise.

Candy For All

Despite the 60-degree weather that prevailed throughout much of December, downtown had a distinctly festive holiday feel this year. There were the Christmas trees, the Market Square ice skating rink, choirs singing holiday tunes on several weekend mornings, Christmas decorations at every corner and, most surprising of all, people everywhere. Downtown stores such as Bliss, Earth to Old City, and Mast General Store were packed with shoppers on the days leading up to the holidays, and those shoppers overflowed into the downtown restaurants as well.

Tommy Bateman, one of the managers at Tomato Head, says, “We did very well, to put it bluntly. We gained a lot of new customers. There were a lot more families downtown this year. We’ve been pleased and busy. We consistently had big nights on what are traditionally not big nights. Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday have felt at times like a Friday or Saturday night.” 

Downtown’s holiday bustle was not startling to newcomers, but those who remember a downtown of several years ago were surprised, as well as pleased. Though there has been a steady gain in momentum over the last few years, this year was the busiest by far. “It’s day and night from four years ago,” says Bateman, “The holidays used to be extremely slow, because it’s cold and you can’t come to Tomato Head without getting out of your car and walking. There weren’t nearly as many choices then, either. Now there are options for everyone in the family.”

This year, one of the most popular spots for shoppers was the recently opened Mast General Store, located at 402 S. Gay Street. “Overall, we’ve had a really great Christmas season. We were wall-to-wall throughout the season, starting shortly after Thanksgiving,” says Knoxville general manager Michael Johnson. Mast cites its unusual and vast selection of toys, trinkets, outdoor goods, clothing, Life is Good merchandise, birdhouses, and candy for their success, despite having been in Knoxville for a mere four months. “We don’t have one fake bear rug left,” says Johnson, “We sold much more merchandise than we imagined… it far exceeded our expectations.”  

Scott Schimmel, part-owner of Bliss and Bliss Home, both located in Market Square, echoes those sentiments. Now operating the gift store for the fourth year, and the furniture store for the second, Schimmel says, “There was a considerable increase in sales and traffic for both stores. Now that we have the skating rink downtown, and people realize there is ample parking and a safe environment, downtown really became a holiday shopping destination.”

There was also a noticeable difference this year, not only in the number of people downtown, but also in the diversity of people. “The ice rink changes things quite a bit—usually we get the urbanites and people without children, but this year there was a very eclectic mix,” says one of the Earth to Old City owners, Paula West. Almost everyone gives credit to the skating rink for altering the downtown demographic profile. “I think we had a really good mix of families and not-families. During the week we got a lot of foot traffic from people working downtown, but on the weekends there were kids with their parents, brothers and sisters, and then single people as well,”Johnson says.

Many shoppers feel that downtown offers an alternative to West Town Mall or overcrowded shopping centers, and it’s one that they are pleased to accept. Says Johnson, “We try to have an old-timey feeling, and we wanted people to come in and have a good time. You kind of get hooked on that sort of atmosphere.”

Bateman says, “It was nice mostly when I was leaving work, to go out onto the Square and there are hundreds of people doing lots of different things. It feels festive and vibrant, and it didn’t used to feel that way. It’s heartwarming.”


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