Still Time to Get Popcorn Whither the Ethics Committee?

Gay Street's long-awaited Riviera 8, and perhaps the last delay Committee members grapple with the question of nepotism

City Beat

The long-awaited eight-screen, 2,000-seat, $14 million downtown cinema, discussed under various redevelopment plans since the 1990s, is finally taking shape, with a great concentric arch on the 500 block of Gay Street and retro-moderne lines, like all modern movie theaters. The Riviera 8 Cinema is bigger than most people realize, occupying most of its city block, with large but unprepossessing walls along State Street, leaving only a few notches for existing buildings facing Gay.

Blaine Construction is in charge, and crews have been working on the building on weekends. Designers are TK Architects of Kansas City, an international firm with a kind of razzle-dazzle reputation for commercial and entertainment-related projects. They've used that grand arch to front cinemas before.

The Public Building Authority, which has been overseeing construction, will turn the project over to Regal Cinemas around June 10. But chances are, we haven't yet even heard of the first movies that will inaugurate it. City officials had recently been hopeful that it will be open in early July, but it will take some weeks for Regal to get it fully fitted with interior furnishings and projection equipment. Public Building Authority director Dale Smith says he doesn't expect Regal to finish with the furnishing until late July. â“They could open by mid-July if they really pushed it,â” Smith says. â“But I don't think they want to.â” He means that in a good way; he says Regal, the Knoxville-based international theater giant, tends to be extra careful about the finishing touches. Regal Vice President Dick Westerling will say only that sometime in the next 30 days, they will make an announcement concerning an opening date.   Smith acknowledges that the theater may not be fully open until August.

Meanwhile, associated developments flanking the theater are proceeding almost independently. Commercial broker Joe Petre, founder of newly formed Conversion Properties, in Las Vegas this week for a shopping-center convention, has been talking to restaurant tenants for the new PBA-built building adjacent to the cinema entrance on the north. The word is it's likely to be a chain restaurant, yet unnamed. â“It's a really, really good space,â” Smith says, with 2,800 square feet that will front on both the cinema escalator in the interior lobby and Gay Street.

Meanwhile, construction recently commenced on major renovations to the historic buildings to the south of the cinema. 500 Block LLC, a group composed of preservationist developers John Craig and Faris Eid is in the long process of purchasing the beloved 1935 S&W Cafeteria and two older buildings adjacent to it which have been vacant since before they were condemned for the county's Justice Center project in the '90s. The partnership is now a trio, with the recent addition of Dane Baker, the young investor best known as the publisher of the alternative biweekly Knoxville Voice , sharing in the enterprise.

Craig says the group didn't get the green light to proceed until about six weeks ago but is currently working on preliminary schematic designs to present to the city next week.

As part of the obligation of the contract, the city has removed the original roofs from all three historic buildings, and is in the process of re-roofing them. The older buildings have been little improved in the last 25 years. Lately, Conversion Property leasing notices have appeared on the windows of all three historic buildings. Craig acknowledges that Petre is now handling the leasing of the S&W cluster, too.

Craig won't discuss his prospects, but he does say he personally wants the S&W space to be a restaurant again. â“That's what my preference would be,â” he says. â“That's what it wants to be. But there are other possibilities.â” They're organizing the buildings as separate commercial condos, partly to take advantage of historic and new-market tax credits, but Craig says it's possible that commercial tenants will want to combine two or more. One prospective lessor wanted to use all four floors of the S&W; another, just the ground level and the mezzanine.

Craig says 500 Block LLC expects to take possession of the building sometime in the summer, whereupon construction may take 12-18 months.

The assumption is that in a year or two the new theater will be flanked by two new restaurants.

A cinema project was originally conceived under a different administrationâ"and with a different theater companyâ"to open in time for the completion of a refurbished Market Square, barely a block away, around 2003. Once regarded as the sine qua non of Market Square development, a cinema on the 500 block of Gay was touted as the engine that would make the new restaurants and retail envisioned for Market Square work. The prospect of a cinema fronting at the site of the S&W, with or without the original façade, guided much of the redesign of Krutch Park, done specifically to clear the line of sight between the prospective cinema and the square. By the cinema's current siting, however, one is invisible from the other.

As long as four years ago, some Market Square developers were grumbling about the pace of the cinema project, speaking of the loss of major retailers who were impatient with the pace of the Ashe-administration project. Even by the later Haslam-Regal plan, the cinema was scheduled to be completed in late 2006, then in spring of '07. Subject to financing and construction delays, it finally does look like it will open this summer, even if it will miss most of the summer movie season, which traditionally opens on Memorial Day weekend.

Its name, which is sure to confuse future historians, is the same as that of a large theater that stood there from 1920 to 1976. It will seat about 2,000, almost twice the capacity of the original single-screen Riviera. It'll be the first new-movie theater to exist downtown since the 1970s, and the first to be built downtown since the early 1930s. Perhaps more importantly from a business standpoint, in the era when the only economically efficient cinema is the multi-screen model, the Riviera 8 will be the first multi-screen cinema ever built in central Knoxvilleâ"and the first ever built within five miles of the largest university in the region. It should be ready, at least, by the time the kids start back to school.

â" Jack Neely

Even if recent accusations of nepotism in Knox County government are true, County Law Director John Owings says nepotism and the like are not the business of the new County Ethics Committee.

â“The Ethics Committee chair [Rev. Ron Stewart of Grace Baptist Church] wants to look at a nepotism policy,â” says Owings, â“but that's not what the committee is authorized to do.â”

The freshly appointed committee addressed its first complaint on May 2, which came in the form of a letter from Knoxville resident S. David Frazier. Frazier's complaint was a broadly worded statement decrying â“nepotism and cronyismâ” on the Knox County Commission. It was spurred by a well-publicized incident earlier this spring, when Commission was called on to appoint new people to fill the positions of term-limited officeholders. Many observers felt the positions were disproportionately awarded to people with close relationships to both current and departing officeholders.

Frazier's complaint was set aside by the committee, in part due to its lack of specifics. â“It's more of a concern than a complaint,â” notes committee member and County Commissioner Mike Hammond.

â“Our charge is to address specific complaints,â” he explains. â“The committee would then take the complaint, ask if it's legitimate, then ask the parties involved to appear before the committee and answer the charges. In this instance, there's no one for us to bring in.â”

Beyond that, however, Owings in his role as law director has advised the committee that it's not an issue they're empowered to consider in the first place. Owings says the existing county ethics policy, adopted Feb. 1, â“addresses financial interests of county officials and employees in voting and non-voting matters.â”

But he contends the policy was not intended to address potential instances of nepotism, but rather was expressly conceived to govern gift-giving and the potential for influence-peddling in voting matters.

Why that would not extend to commissioners installing family members in paid positions for county governmentâ"as appeared to be the case in the recent county term limits controversyâ"isn't clear. When a MP reporter asked him that question, Owings grew prickly and argumentative. â“You're stretching now,â” he said. â“You're just fishing for a story.â”

Members of the ethics committee itself, however, may be of a different mind. Committee member Frank Shanklin says, â“I think any reasonable person would certainly believe it looks like there's been some nepotism going on. You don't have to look far to see you've got sons and daughters and in-laws working in county government.â”

And Hammond adds that, â“It would be totally appropriate for someone to bring a specific nepotism policy before County Commission or as a ballot initiative. It (nepotism) certainly doesn't appear to be a good thing to do, but right now there's nothing on the books to prohibit it.â”

â" Mike Gibson


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