A Look at the Possibility of a New Amphitheater at World's Fair Park

Could an amphitheater be built on the South Lawn of World's Fair Park?

That was the question discussed last week in the latest meeting of the World's Fair Park working group. Ashley Capps of AC Entertainment made a presentation to the group about what such a facility might look like and how it might work, using Charlottesville's downtown amphitheater as a model.

Okay, but the World's Fair Park already has an amphitheater, right? Well, as Capps explained, the Tennessee Amphitheater, built for the World's Fair in 1982 and since restored, is an impossible place for a promoter to book. Capps says the size of the space—a little over 1,000 seats—is too small for most summer outdoor tours, not to mention that the backstage area is virtually non-existent.

The old amphitheater isn't going anywhere, but a new amphitheater of the type Capps envisions would instead seat 4,000 to 5,000 people, with the flexibility to extend to the lawn for events that could host as many as 8,000 people. Capps says any amphitheater would need to be covered, to prevent cancellations from weather, and that he thinks flexible seating would be the best option, so one could have concerts that were entirely seated, or smaller shows with tables and catering, or no seating entirely for events like political rallies or charity galas.

Given the Tennessee seasons, Capps estimates that shows and events could be held from April to October in an amphitheater. And, when the venue wasn't in use, it would be open to the public like any other park.

"I'm not generally an ‘if you build it, they will come' kind of person, but I think this fills a gap in Knoxville in a lot of different ways," Capps says.

With a facility of this size, Capps expects being able to bring in larger touring acts to Knoxville, as well as resuming a free concert series like the canceled Sundown in the City. But while the working group seemed excited by the prospect of more shows in town, not everyone is sold on the idea that the park is the best place for it.

David Butler, the executive director of the Knoxville Museum of Art, says that an amphitheater taking up most of the South Lawn would make the park feel crowded. (Butler, it should be noted, has previously expressed his probable support for a new Clarence Brown Theatre facility on the site.) Other group members suggested an amphitheater on the fringes of downtown near the former Valarium/current Blackstock Auditorium and Exchange would be a better idea. Capps pointed out that Charlottesville has such great success with its venue because it's smack dab in the middle of downtown, and people can walk to and from restaurants and bars before and after the show.

The price tag for all this fun would probably run between $7 to $8 million taxpayer dollars, depending on whether public restroom facilities would be built. Although AC Entertainment would be an obvious choice for managing a city-owned amphitheater, the city would likely still bid out the management.

"We haven't reached that level of detail," city spokesperson Jesse Fox Mayshark says in an e-mail. "We'd have to look into financing and management options."

The group will continue to examine the feasibility of the amphitheater and Clarence Brown Theater plans next month. But Bill Lyons says no decision on recommending one project or another will happen until there's a full public meeting on a master plan for the site.