Unexpected Closures on Gay Street Have Both Business Owners and City Officials Ticked Off

Saturday, Feb. 22, was a beautiful day in Knoxville. Highs in the mid-60s, windows thrown open all over downtown. Market Square was so packed with people you might have thought some festival was happening.

But just around the corner, the 400 block of Gay Street was empty. Instead of a packed patio, Suttree's High Gravity Tavern was closed—the sidewalks were all shut down. The street was blocked off, too, a giant crane in the middle of it, immobile. And the neighbors were not happy.

"I'm just really pissed about this," David Ewan said that afternoon, standing on the sidewalk near the businesses he owns—Suttree's, Downtown Wine and Spirits, and his accounting firm. "Nobody was given any notice."

The crane had a permit from the City of Knoxville's engineering department to lift beams to the roof of 422 Gay St., the Cable Piano Building. But news of that permit seems not to have left the department.

According to Ewan and other business owners on the block, this is the third time in the past year the street has been shut down with no advance notice. This time, though, Ewan had to cancel appointments at the height of tax season, and the sports bar SkyBox had already prepaid for a pay-per-view game it didn't get to show. After employees threatened to protest, Mast General Store was allowed to keep its doors open, and the Downtown Grill and Brewery remained open via its back entrance. But everything else on the entire block was closed.

The Parlor owner Josh Sidman posted on Facebook: "[E]ach time it costs my business money both in terms of wasted labor costs and lost business. Today … is normally our biggest sales day of the week. Unfortunately, all I can do right now is watch person after person being turned away by the police, as they try to walk toward my shop."

What's possibly even more confounding is that city officials had no idea this was happening.

"No, I did not [know]," said Bill Lyons, the city's chief policy officer, at around 4:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon. Lyons had just found out about the street closure and strolled over from his downtown home. "We've got to get to the bottom of this and make sure it doesn't happen again."

Jesse Mayshark, the city's director of communications, had been on the site a little while longer, on the phone with the city's downtown coordinator Rick Emmett. Neither had any idea what was going on.

"The only thing I ever heard was that the northbound lane would be closed from 6 to 6 for a crane. ... That is the only information we had and therefore is the only information that went out to the public," Mayshark said. "But what that basically said is that there wouldn't be a parking lane on that side of the street."

So how did a supposed parking-lane closure become the closure of a full block, with an off-duty police officer preventing residents from walking in and out of their buildings? On Tuesday, city spokesman Eric Vreeland said he still wasn't sure.

"What happened was not acceptable, and we're taking steps to make sure it doesn't happen again," Vreeland says. "This was not an intentional act on anyone's part."

Vreeland says city officials from various departments have been meeting all week to figure out how to "more creatively manage these needs" as all the impending development plans for downtown come to fruition in the next few years.

"It would have to be something very unusual for a Saturday closure," Vreeland says. "We want them to look at times when it's not as busy. … The best way for this not to happen again is for people in [engineering] to think a little more broadly about people who are affected by these kinds of things."

Given the temperament of Mayshark and Lyons on Saturday, who were each visibly angry (and unquotably so), the city does seem to be taking the issue seriously. Even Mayor Madeline Rogero herself commented on Sidman's post:

"Josh, there is no excuse for what happened and I will make sure this never happens again. We will review the policies and procedures in place to determine what happened (policy wasn't followed or policy is insufficent[sic]) and make any changes necessary to ensure this doesn't happen again," Rogero wrote.

"I understand that my apology doesn't bring back the business you and others lost today, but I do intend our response and future actions to demonstrate our commitment to your success as a downtown business."

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, we misspelled David Ewan's name. Also, Morelock Music is no more--the correct name of the shop at its old location is The Parlor.