Pomp and New CircumstancesNo Downtown Package Store?

Thompson-Boling renovations affect UT's graduation schedule Whatever you call it, Downtown Wine + Spirits is open

City Beat

While basketball fans eagerly wait to see what $15 million worth of renovations will do for a tired Thompson-Boling Arena, students worry over how the renovations will affect graduation ceremonies this spring. Some worry they may spell the end of the long-standing university tradition of campus-wide commencement.

Phase I of a two-part renovation process began on Thompson-Boling Arena March 12 and should be finished by mid-October just in time for the start of the 2007-2008 University of Tennessee basketball season.

On the heels of the men's first appearance in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 since 2000 and the women's seventh national title, the department is investing more than $30 million into its basketball programs, a substantial portion of which will go toward revamping the arena. The first wave of construction includes concourse improvements, new seats for the entire arena, a center-hung scoreboard, luxury suites and loge seating.

But for at least the past decade, UT's campus-wide commencement ceremony has also been held at the arena. And because of the renovations, the university administration has cut the campus-wide commencement altogether, opting for separate college ceremonies at various locations, including the Knoxville Convention Center, May 9-12. UT has offered the college ceremonies as an alternate option to the lengthy campus-wide commencement since 2002, but this is the first time the university hasn't had some sort of all-encompassing ceremony.

Instead, UT's Associate Dean of Students Monique Anderson and company are coordinating what they're terming â“Kick-off to Commencement,â” which will be May 9, 5:30 p.m., at the Torchbearer and continue at the Joe Johnson/John Ward Pedestrian Mall with a performance by UT alumna and country artist Deana Carter.

â“Thompson-Boling had such a tight window for completion that we thought this would be the best way around a campus-wide commencement,â” Anderson says. â“There haven't been a lot of people coming to the campus-wide, and most have been choosing the smaller college ceremonies since we started them.â”

Student body sentiment has been mixed, though some did voice their negative concerns by way of columns and letters in UT's student-run newspaper The Daily Beacon. Scott Thurman, editor-in-chief of the Beacon, wrote a derisive editorial in February, lampooning â“Kick-off to Commencementâ” and criticizing the administration's decision-making process. â“If the administration could have made the urgency of this situation felt and convinced students that they had looked at every solution before they just split the ceremony up, I think we'd all be a lot happier about it,â” Thurman says. â“But â‘Kick-off to Commencement' leaves a bitter after-tasteâ"it feels like someone just took the easy way out, stretched out over a couple of days and threw in a country singer to appease us.â”

Anderson says there was no other venue that could comply with city safety measures for such a large ceremony, and she says students have given administrators little to no negative feedback about the changes.

â“There were one or two students who were disappointed they couldn't be with all their friends, and a few were a little upset that we couldn't have them all on Friday and Saturday, instead of having to stretch them out to Wednesday and Thursday,â” she says. â“It was just a matter of logistics and the best space available.â”

Tiffany Carpenter, director of public relations for UT's Athletics Department, says this is the first time Thompson-Boling Arena has received a facelift in its 20-year history. And it's in desperate need of one.

Carpenter estimates more than 13 million patrons have witnessed events ranging from basketball games to concerts to graduation ceremonies held inside the 24,000-seat venue. But the wear and tear suffered since it opened in 1987 has rendered the arena obsolete in many ways.

â“We've been wanting to do the renovation for several years, it was just a matter of the scheduling,â” Carpenter says. â“We've lost out on numerous concerts because we couldn't accommodate certain acts. For instance, we wanted Cirque du Soleil to perform, but our roof wouldn't support its high-wire acts.â”

The arena cannot safely permit several circus-type acts because of its run-down building supports, and some musicians have preferred to steer clear because of the less-than-stellar acoustics, which should be aided by a new sound system coming during Phase II of the renovation plan.

According to Carpenter, funding will come from donors to Campaign for Tennessee Basketball and the revenue generated by the luxury seats and loge seating. About 4,000 general admission seats will be lost to accommodate the 32 suites in the 300 level, which will be adjoined by a large kitchen and seating area. The suites are already sold out for next season.

â“Cutting down the capacity to 20-21,000 seats will definitely help with the number of sellouts and will create a much more intimate setting,â” Carpenter says.

Some fans, though, are upset with one change they don't see as an improvement. The orange-backed seats in Thompson-Boling have been long-time staples, but when it reopens in October, all the seats will be black.

â“If you look at other stadiums, the majority of arenas have black seats,â” Carpenter says. â“Black doesn't show wear and tear as bad, plus orange distracts television viewers. Black concentrates the eyes on the court, not the number of empty seats in the arena.â”

Carpenter says Phase II will begin next March and run through October 2008, but she is uncertain if it will affect graduation similarly next spring. Anderson gave no definitive answer when asked if UT would ever hold another campus-wide commencement.

Thurman, who is a senior in English and graduates next week, figures it's on the way out. â“I suspect we are transitioning to no university-wide commencement,â” he says. â“I don't know if such a â‘balkanization' of ceremonies is good or not. But I think that splitting ceremonies up reduces their emotional significance.

â“UT does not do a great job of creating a feeling of community or camaraderie. A university-wide commencement, while tortuously long and a little boring, is the only time when every member of the university in the same class can come together under one roof. I think such an experience creates a little bit of the emotional closure we all want from graduation.â” â"LaRue Cook

The first wine and liquor store downtown in about seven years opened over the weekend, at 407 Gay St., near Wall Avenue. The building's '70s wood façade leaves it looking nondescript on this historic block, but the interior of the shop is long and gorgeous, with polished hardwood floors and original art on the walls.

â“This is not a package store,â” avers manager Shane Pack, decisively, as if alleging otherwise would be clear grounds for libel. â“I would call it a boutique wine and spirits shop. We cater to a more discerning customer, if that's not too vague.â”

Co-owner Trinity McDermott says, â“It doesn't feel like a package store. It's more of a shopping experience â"than a place to pick up your booze.â”

McDermott, a young mother who lives downtown, is also co-owner of the restaurant/bar Sapphire. Her partner in this venture is accountant David Ewan, a New Zealand native who's become a part-time developer. The venture turned out to be more complicated than either realized. The storeâ"just the back of it, not the frontâ"violated the city's guidelines about liquor being sold near a park. City codes concerning package alcohol, passed in the 1960s, have effectively prevented liquor stores from opening downtown for years. However, with McDermott and Ewan's prodding, City Council tweaked the codes to loosen the standards, just in the CBID, and just concerning parks.

Both of the store's young full-time employees, Peck and assistant manager Marshall McCallie, are former waiters at restaurants known for their wine selections. McDermott hired Pack as her general manager after he was her waiter at Le Perigo, the French restaurant in West Knoxville. â“I liked the fact that he seemed to know about wine, by heart,â” she says, â“but didn't make me feel like a goof.â”

The new store doesn't boast of the broadest wine list in town, but wine takes up more shelf space at Downtown Wine + Spirits than do the spirits, which are present in respectable variety, but crowded together more prosaically on the left side. The wine, by contrast, is laid out more expansively, in separate sections like a record store, labeled a little whimsically, Round Reds (â“Earthy + Richâ”), Feather Reds (â“Subtle + Smoothâ”), Great Whites (â“Lavish + Strikingâ”), etc.

The categories are original whimsies, some of them puns, but McDermott thinks they'll help customers find what they need. â“It's a style of organizing wines that a lot of metropolitan centers are going to.â”

A refrigerator in back has chilled wine and â“Super Beerâ”â"beer with an alcohol content of more than 6.1 percent. In the corner is a glassed-in room that in a record store would be the soundproof listening room. Here it's a big walk-in refrigerator. Pack says the French like to store wine at 52 degrees. He admits they have it at 53 degrees, but doesn't say why, and it doesn't seem to bother him much. â“Just say it's 52,â” he says. It's the store's Holy of Holies, protecting the Bordeaux and the Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Most of the wines in the refrigerated room appear to be more than $50 a bottle, some in the hundreds.

Pack and McCallie estimate they have about 200 varieties now, but add, â“We're just developing our stock.â” Pack talks repeatedly about customer service, and says they're taking suggestions. They've already gotten some orders for a Spanish dessert wine called Don PX which customers have tasted at La Costa.

They do carry some basic $7 Chardonnays, and even some box wines, for those who want wine to cook with, or just to drink casually at home.

Judging by the grand opening Saturday night, which drew scores of customers, mostly older, quite a few seem happy about the adjustment. â" Jack Neely

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