Despite a bit of crinkling around the edges, Tommy Hensley's face still has a pleasantly boyish cast as he eases back into a comfortable leather chair in the front lounge of Old City Cigar on Central and takes a practiced puff on a $12 Anejo from the Dominican Republic.
"It's a higher-end cigar," says Hensley, dressed in a loose-fitting button-down, a powder-blue ball cap, and a smile straight out of a '50s family sitcom. "It's Friday, and I'm celebrating."
Earlier, a downtown attorney made his regular stop at OCC, along with a local cab company owner and Keith Foster, a local Realtor who, laptop in tow, likes to work from the shop.
"This is kind of our headquarters down here," says Hensley, a prominent downtown property owner. "It's kind of a businessman's group. We sit down here, smoke cigars, try to figure out the world's problems, and tell lies. It's slow today because it's the July 4 holiday weekend, but most Fridays we get six or eight at a time. We've had Tim Burchett stop in, and other politicos, too."
The choice of locale for their regular parleys may be a cultural indicator of sorts. But one needn't look to stogie-puffing power players to recognize that the Old City may be Knoxville's once and future hotspot for downtown development. Because for the first time in years—maybe decades—the district seems to be on the grow, as measured by numbers of new businesses and patrons, and by the newfound sense of optimism among proprietors.
"It began with the Crown and Goose opening up, then later with Bliss [later renamed Old City Entertainment Venue]; it slowly started to get a lot heavier on weekends," says OCC employee Jim Geer, a tall sort in his late 50s with a soft face and a consuming salt-and-pepper beard. "We've seen it in more sales, and in being able to stay open after 9 p.m. at night. And I feel like it's about to get even heavier."
The list of new businesses opened over the last year or two includes a pair of groceries—Aisle Nine and Jackson Avenue Market—clubs such as Carleo's, Old City Entertainment. N.V. (in the former Blue Cat's space), and Southbound (in the former Club 106/Red Iguana space), Old City Cigar, Night Owl Café, Crush, and that's just a partial list. Also forthcoming is Boyd's Jig & Reel, to be located in the Manhattan's space in the district's central intersection.
"We've literally heard patrons on a daily basis say they had stopped coming to the Old City," says Carleo's Lounge manager Rachael Phillips. "Then they say they started coming back again just to see what all is new."
So if there is an Old City renaissance in the making, what, indeed, has spurred it? There are a host of likely contributors. More than one merchant mentioned the Crown and Goose's arrival three and a half years ago as a starting point for renewed growth; the English gastropub has performed almost shockingly well in Knoxville, bringing in, at times, veritable herds of new patrons. And as one observer astutely puts it, with its broad diversity of clientele, it has "brought gray hair back to the Old City."
Another factor is building cost. While most business owners prefer not to discuss specifics, Aisle Nine grocery manager Jennifer Bradley allows that, "Our owner got a sweetheart of a deal on our building."
"Entrepreneurially, the cost of the Old City is far lower than anywhere else," says Crown and Goose owner Jeffrey Nash.
Nash also believes the city's installation of a large, free public parking lot on Jackson was a boost. "It's also a factor that you can park in the Old City," he says. "I mean, you can really, really park in the Old City."
Other speculations include that the departure of the problematic Club 106 and a generally better overall clientele in the Old City have helped; as well as the influx of new residents provided by more than 50 new apartment units in the old JFG building. "It used to be that the only living spaces you had were really expensive, and mostly for sale," say Bradley. "Now we've got 55-60 affordable units right here in the Old City. The dog park [off Central] has helped, too."
But sustaining the new growth is another question entirely. Nash believes that's all a matter of time and attention to detail.
"I'd like to see even greater diversity in the Old City; that will be the next phase," says Nash, a charming, bespectacled English fellow with a foppish part in his fading blonde hair. "This area is going to house enormous volumes of residents, and we need to give them proper retail support. That doesn't mean department stores. It means bits of retail, places like Aisle Nine on every block. And I think that will eventually happen here."
The one issue still looming over the Old City and its growth potential like the proverbial Big Gorilla is that of the homeless population, the specter of which looms large given the area's proximity to both the Greyhound Bus station and to what's known as the mission district, and given that panhandlers seem to have been (mostly) removed from Market Square.
Most Old City business owners agree there is a significant homeless presence, though not all of them see the problem in the same light; some want them gone, while the more liberal-minded know many of the indigent affectionately by name, give them odd jobs, or—at Carleo's—have even helped a couple find full-time work. Proprietors mostly agree that any problems are more perceptual than actual—that the homeless population, even at its most disruptive, generally poses more of a nuisance than a real hazard.
"The trouble is that you get people who are used to the suburbs, or whatever," says Morgan Hardy of Organized Play, the hobby/games/comics shop that moved to the Old City from Gay Street last October. "The first time a panhandler approaches, you can see that they have this massive, negative visceral reaction on their face, in their body carriage. You worry that those people are going to say, ‘I can just go to West Town Mall next time.' I don't know how we change that."
Old City Cigar owner Mike Hicks suggests that it's time for the city to step up to the plate. "There was a time when people didn't feel it was safe to go to the Old City; then the police increased their presence down here, and things got better," he says. "But with that said, more recently I think that it's slacked off again. And the city doesn't need to do that. I've heard people say they don't feel as safe coming down here. I don't agree with that perception, but the perception still needs to be addressed.
"I didn't feel like our last mayor gave a crap about the Old City. I hope our next mayor realizes what historic significance this area has, and looks at what Chattanooga did with its [downtown]. I'm not sure how much more we can do on Market Square and Gay Street. It's time to start focusing on the Old City area."