Is Sundown Too Big for Downtown?

Weighing the future of Market Square's signature concert series

Maybe in some other cities, a large crowd of people enjoying an outdoor concert and quaffing beer on a clear October night in the middle of downtown would be just another weekend. But in Knoxville last Friday, it seemed like something wonderful. On the surface, it was just a rock 'n' roll show—a CD release concert by local favorites the V-Roys, a night of mutual appreciation between them and their fans before the band hits the road. But just as John Fogerty's July concert at the World's Fair Park helped show our out-of-town consultants the potentials of the park's South Lawn, the V-Roys' show demonstrated what downtown boosters have been saying for years: Civic events in the middle of the city can bring the whole town to life.

— "Miracle on Market Square," Metro Pulse, Oct. 15, 1998

That V-Roys show, the first iteration of what became known as the Sundown in the City concert series, brought an estimated 2,000 people to what was then one of the most underutilized public spaces in Knoxville: Market Square. It wasn't enough people to fill the Square, or even half-fill it. And with most of the buildings still un- or under-inhabited, it wasn't enough to completely dispel the ghost-town vibe of the center city. But it felt like a promise of what downtown could be.

Fast-forward a dozen years, and consider the scene last Thursday evening: people streaming toward Market Square from all directions—from the Old City, from the Civic Coliseum parking garages, from Fort Sanders, from parking lots down toward the river; traffic into downtown backed up on Gay Street, State Street, Henley Street, Summit Hill Drive; the blocks leading up to the Square clogged with baby strollers, buskers, senior citizens toting lawn chairs, high school kids hanging around in Krutch Park. There was a time when any Knox County adolescent even knowing where Market Square was would have seemed like a big victory to downtown boosters. Now it's become a place that kids beg their parents to take them so they can congregate with their friends.

By any conceivable standard, the concerts have achieved their goals: showing civic leaders and others that public events in Knoxville could be more than football, Boomsday, and Dogwood Arts (and that, yes, you could allow beer-drinking without causing a riot); reintroducing Knoxvillians to the Square itself, and to a revitalizing downtown more generally; and, not least, bringing diverse crowds together to enjoy music and each other's company.

But last Thursday's installment, which had local favorites the Dirty Guv'nahs opening for festival mainstays Blues Traveler, also seemed to push at the limits of what Market Square could accommodate. The Square filled up quickly, and then kept filling. Eventually, and for the first time in Sundown's history, the guards at the gates stopped the flow altogether and let new people enter only as others departed.

"What's clear is that the success of the event has outgrown the space where it's held," says Ashley Capps, president of AC Entertainment and the creator and promoter of the Sundown series.

This concern has been growing for years. A show by George Thorogood in 2007 brought a similarly large crowd. (There is no official estimate of last week's turnout, but the consensus is that it was well in excess of 10,000.) But as Sundown has achieved regional brand-name recognition, especially among teenagers, it has reached a point where even lesser-known acts draw a sizable turnout.

Bill Lyons, the city's senior director of policy and communications, says simply, "It seems to be a victim of success."

Over the years, complaints from some downtown businesses and residents have risen, particularly as the crowds have skewed younger—raising fears about underage drinking—and spread farther afield through alleys and parking lots across downtown. "The crowding issue is legitimate," Capps says, "but to me the biggest issue is what's going on on the periphery of it, over which we have no control." Already this year, a 17-year-old boy was stabbed during a fight shortly after the May 6 Sundown, less than a block from the Square.

Next week's Sundown show, featuring the Drive-By Truckers, will be the final one of this summer. Lyons says that sometime after that, city officials will get together with Capps and Market Square business owners and residents to talk about the future of the series. (The city subsidized Sundown at the start, but it has been self-supporting for the past few years—AC Entertainment books the bands and relies on beer sales to cover costs.)

Capps, who also oversees the Big Ears and Bonnaroo festivals and concerts at the Bijou and Tennessee theaters, says he was ready to pull the plug on Sundown this year. But he heard entreaties from Market Square representatives to keep it going, and so he agreed to a reduced slate of five biweekly shows (down from a dozen in 2009).

"It's not my decision," Capps says. "It's not an AC Entertainment decision. It's really a decision by everybody that's impacted by the event, both positively and negatively."

John Craig, president of the Market Square District Association, says opinions about Sundown vary among the Square's retailers, residents, and restaurateurs. "It's really hard, because there's not a consensus about it," he says. In general, food and drink establishments do big business on Sundown nights. Other shops don't fare so well, but Craig says it's hard to measure the long-term benefit of the exposure they get from heavy foot traffic.

"If you have a business, anything that brings 10,000 people to your front door, it's hard to say that's a bad thing," he says.

Matt Morelock is not so sure about that. Morelock, the owner of the newly relocated Morelock Music on Gay Street, says he has come to dread Sundown nights. Although he is quick to praise its accomplishments—"It's introduced downtown Knoxville to thousands and thousands of people who otherwise never would have come downtown"—he is not happy with its current form.

"What I see on Sundown nights is a drunken teenage orgy of fighting and a meat market and an absolute lack of spending money in my store," he says. He says his regular customers won't even come downtown on those nights, and he's taken to guarding his back door, which faces onto the alley between Gay Street and the Square, to discourage anyone from urinating or vomiting on it.

So what are the options for Sundown in the future? Capps and Lyons say they are both open to possibly moving it elsewhere—the South Lawn of the World's Fair Park is one possibility, or Lyons says there might be other parts of the city that could benefit from the brand name. Craig, on the other hand, sounds ambivalent about the prospect of losing Sundown altogether. Although the revamped Market Square is well-trafficked on most nights, Craig says, "You talk to any restaurant or retailer, especially in a challenging economy, the chance to have a little more than they have is a good thing, and may make the difference in whether they're there or not."

Of course, Sundown is far from the only downtown draw these days. There is the farmer's market on Market Square twice a week, First Fridays every month, and an ever-growing list of festivals. Capps, Lyons, and Morelock all mention last weekend's inaugural International Biscuit Festival—which quickly sold out all of its tickets—as the kind of reasonably scaled endeavor that makes sense in the heart of the city.

But Craig, who was one of the chief organizers of the Biscuit Festival, also notes that some of the attendees may have first learned of the event from seeing signs and banners for it while attending a Sundown show. "Even though they're targeting different markets, there's crossover," he says.

Capps, for his part, is philosophical about the arc of Sundown's evolution. He has seen similar series like Nashville's Dancin' in the District concerts grow and then eventually die after they'd served their initial purpose.

"The lifespan, the way these things kind of ebb and flow, is interesting," he says.