How Did the Idea For a Cultural Center at World's Fair Park Become So Focused on Just the Clarence Brown Theatre?

When, with some fanfare, the city of Knoxville announced the creation of a World's Fair Park Working Group in May, the stated purpose was to work with the University of Tennessee and "World's Fair Park stakeholders" to "explore possibilities to enhance World's Fair Park as a center for cultural resources" and then "determine feasibility and support of the concept."

But as the two meetings of the group over the summer have made clear, this description is slightly misleading—what the group is actually trying to determine is the feasibility of moving the Clarence Brown Theatre (and, with it, UT's theater department) to the park. And if that doesn't work out, well, they might look into building an outdoor stage.

It should be stated here that it remains very unclear at this point whether it is actually feasible to build something of the scale of a new facility for the CBT on the site, the south "Performance Lawn" of the park. A massive sewer line runs under half of the grounds, and the Knoxville Utilities Board says nothing can be built above it, in case the line breaks and they need to dig and access it. That leaves the northwest corner of the site, and it's debatable how big a building could be built there—estimates at Monday's Working Group meeting ranged from 20,000 square feet to 55,000, and only the latter size would be big enough for CBT's purposes.

Still, the question remains as to why the city even felt the need in the first place to engage discussions with the university about relocating one of its most storied facilities onto a parcel of public greenspace downtown—although the city doesn't see it that way.

"To have a nationally renowned institution be more accessible to the public has some intrinsic merit worth exploring," says Bill Lyons, the city's chief policy officer. "I'm not going to be apologetic about having a public meeting about a good idea."

But former mayor Victor Ashe, an active supporter of the Legacy Parks Foundation and parks in general, says the city shouldn't have even begun to consider eliminating some of its greenspace without first having a discussion as to whether that's in the best interest of the public.

"It certainly is creating a lot of angst for an uncertain outcome," Ashe says. "There's a cloud over the entire process."

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When all the talk about doing something with World's Fair Park first started, there really was an idea for a broader cultural center.

In February of 2012, the Christian non-profit Cornerstone Foundation released a "Greater Knoxville Community Research Report," based on a few meetings, information collected by the Envision Knoxville campaign, and interviews with 132 community leaders, including several city and UT officials (and, it should be noted, our own Jack Neely, as well as the News Sentinel's publisher, Patrick Birmingham). The purpose of the input was "to determine the most effective strategic actions to take to reach the full potential of Greater Knoxville," and one of the recommendations was to continue to grow downtown out from all sides.

As part of this effort, the report suggests, "It is time for an updated World's Fair Park Master Plan to link together all these excellent cultural facility development opportunities [the Knoxville Museum of Art, the potential future children's museum, and the STEM high school at L&N Station] into one unified attraction – one model might be the various museums of the Smithsonian on the National Mall in Washington. Investment in World's Fair Park as a cultural center also reinforces Civic Vitality Strategic Priority 2 – The Creative Community."

Laurens Tullock, the president of Cornerstone, says he approached Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero later in the year to suggest the city consider working with the university to further this goal. Although Tullock wouldn't elaborate on which people interviewed for the report had the concept for a mini-National Mall, he did say that it wasn't just city or UT officials.

"[The idea] clearly emerged from multiple interviews," Tullock says. "There's a lot of people with vision in Knoxville."

It's unclear when Tullock first met with Rogero—no one involved remembers the date—but by the end of October, the planning was in its initial stages. In an e-mail from Oct. 30, Rogero wrote to Tullock, "I meant to tell you today during our conversation that I spoke with Chancellor Cheek last week about coordinating the CBT and McClung capital funding campaigns with others in the hopper and the possibility of a cultural district along the WFP. Cheek said that the CBT was not even on his radar now and McClung was looking for operating (not capital). However, he said that he would be glad to meet about this."

Tullock responded, "Scott [Rabenold, UT's vice-chancellor for development and alumni affairs] called me to say that he was asked by Cheek to get Cheek's top advisors together to get them all on the same page to make a recommendation to Cheek about this. He also told me about reaching out to Bill [Lyons]. Jan Simek is also a big champion for this idea. I believe that UT has a lot of different folks they need to get aligned, but positive movement is occurring." Simek is a professor of archeology at UT; he's also been on Clarence Brown Theatre's Advisory Board since 2010 and has donated at least $1,000 to the theater in each of the past two years.

Lyons quickly became the point person for the project, and by late January UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek had given his okay for Rabenold and Simek to serve on the committee. On Feb. 13, Lyons, Simek, Rabenold, and Tullock met for lunch to discuss the plans. The next day, Tullock sent an e-mail with a proposed list of task force members. In addition to most of the people currently on the committee, other names included developer Mark Heinz, Susan Brown, Pete Claussen, Kris Beall, KMA board members Ann Bailey and Caesar Stair, Jeff Chapman and Sherri Lee from the McClung Museum, John Lansing and Pete Crawley of Scripps Networks, and Raja Jubran, Kevin Clayton, and Kay Clayton, who are all involved with MUSE, the potential children's museum.

Since Simek, Rabenold, and Lyons had recently served on an envisioning committee for the McClung Museum, they were aware that Chapman, the museum's director, has no interest in moving the facility, and McClung was quickly taken off the list. Jubran e-mailed Tullock in March and told him it was too early from anyone from MUSE to be considered.

The city also decided it was too early to ask Scripps to get involved, although Senior Vice-President Ron Feinbaum says the company is still "intrigued by the idea" and would sit on a committee if asked. According to an e-mail from Tullock, Scripps is "beginning to revisit a vision that Ken Lowe had when he founded the Networks (when he was located in Knoxville before he moved to Cincinnati and returned) to do some sort of destination center at World's Fair Park using Scripps (one or more of their networks) to draw visitors to Knoxville." Feinbaum declined to comment on this.

At some point not detailed in the e-mails provided by the city, the other names on the list were narrowed down. On April 9, Lyons e-mailed Simek and Tullock the following: "Jan, Laurens, Just one more task force request. Jenny Banner spoke with the mayor and me about being a member. I would like to request that she be put on. She has a real interest in Clarence Brown and in the park's development. I sure don't anticipate adding anyone else or we will be getting into unwieldy territory." Banner is the CEO of Schaad Companies, one of the largest corporate donors to the Clarence Brown Theatre and, since 2011, the force behind the Schaad Companies CBT Main Stage Series.

By May 10, the group looked like this: Lyons and Simek as co-chairs, Banner, Rabenold, CBT's artistic director, Calvin MacLean, KMA's Executive Director David Butler, developer Nick Cazana of the Holiday Inn, Mary Bogert from the convention center, Becky Ashe of the STEM school, and the city's public works director, Christi Branscom (who is also a KMA board member). On May 15, Lyons decided to add Marianne Greene from the Foundry to the group and Ashley Capps of AC Entertainment to the group's resource staff.

In an interview, Lyons says he invited some of the World's Fair Park neighbors out of "politeness." He says the others he didn't invite—representatives from the Sunsphere, the Candy Factory condos, or from the Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association—would be included if the process moves forward to its next stage. He is insistent none of the committee members were "cherry-picked" to come to a certain conclusion.

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At the first meeting of the Working Group on June 18, it was clear that no other options besides relocating Clarence Brown and, possibly, a permanent outdoor stage were on the table. When told of this several days later, Tullock seemed genuinely surprised.

"I don't think [the theater] should be the only question they're looking at," he says.

But at Monday's meeting, even the stage was only mentioned once in passing. The result of that meeting was to get city public works officials to meet with UT's facilities staff to determine if a building big enough to house Clarence Brown can physically be built on the performance lawn. The results of that research will be presented at the group's next meeting, likely in late August.

But there's no doubt, if it is indeed feasible, that the members of the group support the idea. Butler said he feels like the KMA is "a beached whale" as the sole cultural institution in its location, and Banner said putting the theater on the South Lawn was her "greatest dream for what might go there." She added that the theater's current location on campus has a "branding problem" and a "parking issue." (It's unclear how much better parking would be at World's Fair Park.) And Bogert said the theater would be "an additional selling point for the convention center."

The only person to raise any concern was Joe Walsh of the city's Parks and Recreation Department.

"I just don't want to underestimate the importance of greenspace downtown," Walsh said.

It's a concern Ashe shares.

"It would eviscerate the South Lawn, and I think that would be tragic," Ashe says. "If the South Lawn ceases to exist, is a park still left there?"

But Lyons says that part of the park is currently underutilized.

"There's a real paucity of use on that South Lawn. It's kind of out of sight, out of mind," Lyons says.

Ashe says that's a ridiculous point to make.

"Is the abandonment of greenspace premised solely on the number of users?" Ashe asks. "I don't think that's a valid standard. Certainly that's not the standard for other city parks."

Even if CBT is eventually relocated to the park, after what would likely be a long and contentious public process, it would be years and years down the road, and the money for new construction wouldn't come out of the city's funds. Lyons won't say at this point if the city would donate the land to UT, require UT to donate land in return, or charge them for the land, but he's very clear that any building won't be paid for by taxpayers. (Well, not city taxpayers. State taxes, of course, would likely be involved.)

"This is a very narrow look at a very specific challenge to see if it is feasible," Lyons says. "It's not like the city wants this used, we want to put a theater there. ... If we wanted it used more, we'd put in a waterslide."