Downtown Business Owners Question Rossini Festival's Move to Henley Street

After months of rumors, it was during the rainiest-ever Rossini Festival that word about the fate of its popular Italian Street Fair leaked out to some TV and online media. After 12 mostly successful years on Gay Street and Market Square, the city will be moving the unusual street festival in 2014 to one site that hadn't been the subject of those rumors: Henley Street, between Main and Clinch. It's just three blocks, but a much-broader three blocks than Gay Street provides.

Downtown's response is a resounding, "Huh." Rossini's one of downtown's biggest events of the year, its attendance credibly upward of 60,000. It will move from a circuit of streetfronts that includes about 50 businesses open on Saturdays to one that has none at all. Festivals have moved their locations before without controversy, but Rossini's been so successful, and so unusual—an offbeat concoction of operatic arias and a dozen other kinds of music, arts, beer, wine, and unusual food, with an infectious joie de vivre rare at other festivals—that its move is prompting some concern among patrons and downtown businesses.

Knoxville Opera itself has made no statement about moving the festival's future siting. Sources there decline to confirm or deny anything about a prospective move to Henley—though before this year's festival, marketing director Michael Torano did confirm to Metro Pulse that they were moving to a place with a "bigger footprint." A press release is said to be forthcoming.

Knoxville Chief Operating Officer Eddie Mannis confirms the decision to move to Henley. He says the city and the Knoxville Opera have been in discussions for 10-12 months concerning a move. Mannis says the "increasing pressure and demands" on Gay Street made it seem necessary to move Rossini.

"Gay Street has grown tremendously, and it's more difficult to close it for an entire day, from a merchants' standpoint, from a business standpoint," Mannis says.

Mannis recently announced he's leaving his office with the city in June to return to his growing dry-cleaning business, which does have a location on Gay Street. (He says his customers tend to make their way to Prestige Cleaners' "Downtown Grind" location regardless of festivals—and that it's a small part of his 11-store operation anyway.)

"Also, we've had multiple requests to continue to close Gay Street from other organizations," he says. He implies that ending this one big exception is a matter of fairness.

Rossini has a special place in Knoxville's festival history. For years, the city attempted to launch downtown street festivals, without long-term success. Knoxville Opera's Rossini Festival was, unpredictably, the festival that turned the corner. Though only a small fraction of the mammoth crowd attended any opera, Knoxville reveled in the concentrated diversity of it, the Italian food, the sword fights, the sudden arias in the street, the rare mix of booze, surprise, and family-friendliness. It took off. Since then, Knoxville's other festivals, like Dogwood Arts, have gotten much more festive; successful new festivals have seemed inspired by the success of Rossini.


Responding to our question in a separate statement, the Rogero administration suggests reasons to move the festival. "As downtown and Gay Street in particular have been revitalized in recent years, it is increasingly challenging to hold major events on our main thoroughfare. We worked with the Knoxville Opera Company to find a new space that will serve the needs of the Festival without affecting traffic and commerce on Gay Street."

But Gay is not nearly as busy as many big-city avenues that regularly close for parades and festivals. In fact, Gay's not nearly as busy as it was, itself, a century ago—when, in spite of the fact that it was the address of headquarters of multiple major wholesale businesses, several hotels, and about eight theaters, the city still closed it down for Labor Day parades, St. Patrick's Day parades, trade carnivals, and many more special events than Gay has hosted in recent years.

A marble installation at Krutch Park hails "Gay Street: Center of Celebrations," outlining its festive history since 1793. Gay has been closed for parades and other special events for a couple of centuries—but that era may be waning. The Dogwood Festival discontinued its longstanding Gay Street parade last year. The New Year's Eve party First Night, which once closed down part of Gay, has retracted. The Latino festival Hola has been shuffled north to Depot. Knoxville PrideFest, which began as a Gay Street parade and evolved into a Market Square festival, announced last week it's moving to World's Fair Park. Kuumba, the June African-American festival, has for years led a small procession down Gay, with drummers and stilt-walkers; the city has told them to move it. Next month they'll do it on Market.

Mannis' reference to fairness to other organizations implies that high demand is a major factor in turning all festivals away. Perhaps Knoxville's most picturesque street—a status affirmed last year by the American Planning Association, which elevated Gay to the national "Great Streets" designation—it may well be the most becoming place to hold a street festival. But maybe we can't do it every weekend. And maybe the only way to be fair—or the easiest way to say no—is to not let anyone use it.

Mannis adds that Gay Street was coming to seem a "pretty tight fit" for the opera company's growing needs, too. (Again, Knoxville Opera is not commenting on the subject, but spokesman Torano stated earlier that the festival had "outgrown Gay Street.")

Henley, Mannis says, offers a broader, fairground-style space where everything can be visibly accessible, "not up and down side streets," as was the case with Gay and Market Square.

To some, the Italian-narrow streets, and surprises around the corners, are part of Rossini's charm. Gay Street itself may be a major ingredient in the festival's success. The festival's adjacent to two operatic venues, the Bijou and the Tennessee; singers step out as if from dress rehearsals to perform for the crowd. Gay Street's architecture hails from the era of grand opera. The sight of thousands of people in a narrow canyon of tall old buildings makes a fascinating vista.

"I have to admit, it makes a great picture," says one businessman who says he loses business on Rossini Saturdays. The long, narrow streets concentrate the activity. Gay Street has park areas, and it's handy to Market Square, which becomes a seamless part of the festivity. There's historical resonance, too; Staub's Opera House on Gay hosted opera festivals back in the 1880s.

Henley's big enough. It has lawn options, a median, potentially a boulevard feel. But flanking the prospective festival site itself are two empty or underused postwar office buildings, the modernist closed-on-weekends UT Conference Center, and the hulking Knoxville Convention Center. Mannis says it hasn't been decided whether the convention center itself will be a factor in the festival.

Several we polled remarked on the peculiar timing. For the last three Rossini Festivals, Gay Street's been getting unusual automobile traffic, due to the Henley Bridge project. But TDOT's much-delayed completion date promises that by next Rossini, Gay will be relieved of that traffic--while Henley Street will be welcoming back its old river of cars from South Knoxville to the interstates.

Anticipating disgruntlement from people just reconnecting with the Henley Bridge, Mannis says they'll accommodate affected South Knoxville businesses with booths in the festival itself.

Is Rossini bad for Gay Street businesses? We spoke with more than a dozen Gay Street and Market Square retailers; all were surprised by the announcement. The Rossini Festival does hurt some businesses, many of them screened by vendors' tents. The Parlor, formerly known as Morelock's Music, suffers. The visibility problem aside, their regular music students cancel, preferring not to deal with festival traffic and parking.

A few Gay Street restaurants, like Nama, say Rossini tends to be a disappointing Saturday. This year's festival was particularly slow, but the steady, drenching rain may have been the bigger factor.

Several businesses say Rossini's moderately to extremely good for business. Central Knoxville's highest-volume retailer is Mast General Store. "We actually like it here," says Mast manager Jim Richards of Rossini. "It's always really busy on those days, busy enough that it stands up above and beyond a typical Saturday." He also thinks the "quaintness" of Gay Street's setting adds much to the festival itself.

Lisa Sorensen, co-founder/proprietor of Bliss and Bliss Home, the two shops on Market Square—they just celebrated their 10th anniversary—says, "We would be very sad to see Rossini move away from the Square. It is generally one of the best days of the year for Bliss—with exception to this year due to the rain—and we love the excitement that it brings to the downtown community."

Sorensen adds, "I think an Italian celebration nestled among the downtown buildings is very much in keeping with the Italian tradition. ... I know it is probably a logistical nightmare but it is one of the best events we have downtown."

The West family, who have run retail, restaurant, and bar businesses on Market Square for about as long as Rossini has been running, say it's good for all their businesses, calling it a "record" day. The Henley move "doesn't make sense to us," says Bernadette West.

More than one retailer got audibly angry at the mention of the subject. "Tell me, when they do it on Henley Street, what good will it do for downtown?"

Mannis responds that the new site's "not very far" from its old one. The new festival site is four blocks from Market Square. Among those four blocks are some of downtown's blankest. It's partly uphill, of course, but for most people who aren't towing kids or elderly folks, a pretty easy five-minute walk.

Even some businesses that dip on Rossini days acknowledge that even when they lose business on that Saturday, they gain long-term, because the festival familiarizes newcomers with their businesses. "The exposure alone is worth it," says Downtown Grill & Brewery general manager Mark Harrison. "That's TV!" agrees co-owner John McCord. One of Gay Street's largest businesses, the brewpub has witnessed all 12 Rossini festivals and prefers to keep it. Though business lags on a typical Rossini day, bad weather boosts it, because people flow into their capacious space seeking refuge, and beer. Harrison brings up another issue with Henley: "If it rains, where do the people go?"

No business stands to gain, or lose, more from the Rossini investment than the opera company itself, which takes an unusual risk with the festival. One poorly attended, due to rain or other factors, can result in major losses. And for now, the maestro and his assistants are mum.