2013 Year In Review: Our Best Bits

We take a look back at the year that was with some of our favorite stories

January 10:

Who's Afraid of the MPC?

There are a growing number of people in the area who see the MPC's role as anything but necessary. The county has cut its portion of the agency's budget in recent years. Property-rights activists have increasingly focused their protests against the MPC. In the last legislative session, then-state Rep. Frank Niceley introduced a bill to disband the MPC entirely.

So why has an agency that's been in existence since 1956—its creation codified by state law—suddenly now become the object of such loathing? The answer can be somewhat traced to the recession and the rise of the Tea Party, but it's also deeply rooted in the history of Tennessee and of planning itself. And while the MPC is unlikely to evaporate anytime soon, despite the wishes of some, big changes for the agency could be on the horizon—some that reshape its structure and some that reshape its powers. (Cari Wade Gervin)

January 31:

More Guns in Schools?

Immediately following the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in December, Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre held a press conference to assure Knoxville parents their children were safe.

"We want to reassure parents we focus on school safety already every day," he said, and added that the school system would take a look at what it could do to make schools safer in the wake of the Sandy Hook investigation.

Knox County Sheriff J.J. Jones and Knoxville Police Department Chief David Rausch were also at that press conference, and KPD posted an officer at every school in the city for a week.

Since then, state Sen. Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains) announced his plan to file legislation requiring either an armed resource officer or an armed staff/faculty member at every school. But just last week, state Sen. Stacey Campfield also filed a bill that would allow teachers with a concealed carry permit to come to school armed if there is no resource officer at their schools, and if those teachers receive the same training a resource officer would. State law requires school resource officers (SRO's) to complete 40 hours of basic training in school policing within a year of being assigned to a school, and at least 16 hours of training every year after that.

But McIntyre is hesitant about arming teachers as a way to make schools safer. (Paige Huntoon)

February 14:

Old-Time Revival

On a cold, dark evening, banjos and fiddles play out an old tune inside the homey Laurel Theater in Fort Sanders. Couples lock elbows and spin around. They go uptown and bring that other couple on down. They promenade and allemande in sandals, boots, tennis shoes, and bare feet. It's a small crowd, and there's a powerful sense of belonging that we don't find every day, which makes this feel something like church (which the Laurel once was).

Temporary confusion is a part of every dance, and in sorting themselves out, figuring out where to step and when, the dancers speak the language of the body. Because this kind of square dancing—traditional Appalachian—is open to the whole community, regardless of skill or experience, a bit of stumbling is part of the fun. Humor and patience go a long way here.

In Knoxville, for the first time in a long time, there's a quiet revival of this traditional folk dance and old-time music. One might not think these things need any reviving, but for several decades now the traditional Southern squares have come to be marginalized both by the more commercially popular Western square dances and the more metropolitan contra dances. (Holly Haworth)

Feruary 21:

Reform School

Three weeks ago, on a mild January evening in Nashville, Gov. Bill Haslam gave his third State of the State address at the Capitol. The speech was his longest to date—over 40 minutes—and several pundits also called it his best. But amid the talk of the economy and jobs, technology and health care, one topic overshadowed all the rest: education.

Haslam spent a good third of his speech talking about education—14 minutes, in one reporter's estimate. "Some have said that this administration and General Assembly aren't committed to public education, but that could not be further from the truth," Haslam said, before announcing $51 million in new funding for technology in public schools, and a $22 million new high school for the Tennessee School for the Deaf in Island Home, along with a few other projects.

Then came the news everyone had been expecting.

"Along with strategic investments, we're pursuing real reform in education that is producing results," Haslam said. "This year we're proposing to offer another option for school choice through a program to allow low-income students in our lowest performing schools a chance to receive a better education."

Haslam did not announce any other details of the so-called "Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act" (including its name)—those came in a press release the next day. But with those few vaguely worded sentences, the governor opened the floodgates in Tennessee to one of the most controversial aspects of the education reform movement: school vouchers. (C.W.G.)

March 7:

Image Problem

Nashville, Chattanooga, Charlotte, and Huntsville open their websites with big, appealing, sometimes stunning photographic extravaganzas showing the respective city, its skyline, its natural attractions, its historic sites, its citizens having fun. Montgomery, Little Rock, Clarksville: Their main pages offer good-sized, flattering, sometimes sentimental, sometimes artistic shots of the city, often a diversity of them, that can give you a sense of what the place is proudest of. Some are surprising, like the one for Lexington, Ky., which shows a rolling series of serene nature scenes, some of them involving horses, for which that city is famous.

Our favorite municipal rival's website is an interesting model. Call up chattanooga.gov, and you'll get a large artsy portrait of Chattanooga. Which image you'll see is anyone's guess. There are several, and you'll get a different one every time you call it up. Stunning shots of bridges, the Tennessee Aquarium, a paraglider, a park populated with colorful people, Horseshoe Bend from Lookout Mountain. If Tina Fey calls up Chattanooga's website, she'll say, "I want to go to there."

Knoxville's okay with its postage stamp of the Henley Bridge a few years ago, and much more practical information on the main page than Chattanooga has. It will appeal to hard-headed folks who want to get on with business and don't have time for artsy tomfoolery. Maybe that's who we are, and maybe that's admirable. We've got clutter, and we're bold enough to admit it on the main page. (Jack Neely)

Legal Limits

Unless you're a lawyer or a judge, chances are you don't think much about Tennessee's 31 judicial districts. But whether you think about them or not, whether you know the boundaries of each one or have no idea in which district you even reside, get ready to hear a lot more about them this spring: Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is pushing for a new map, and much of the legal community is not happy about it.

On Feb. 11, Ramsey sent out a memo to certain organizations in the state inviting them to submit maps of proposed new districts that address "population imbalances that have evolved over the past thirty years, as well as certain illogical features drawn (some might say ‘gerrymandered') into the plan at its inception." The deadline for the new maps was March 1, although that has since been extended to this coming Friday.

Ramsey says the need for redistricting is long overdue, and it's best to get it out of the way this year before the August 2014 general election, when the eight-year terms of district attorney generals, public defenders, and state trial court judges will be on the ballot.

But Chancellor Daryl Fansler, the president of the Tennessee Trial Judges Association, says Ramsey's plan is seriously flawed, even though Fansler's district in Knox County wouldn't be affected by redistricting.

"It could create a two-tiered judicial system for Tennessee," Fansler says. (C.W.G.)

March 14:

Marble Alley 2.0

The press conference at the blank corner of State and Commerce last Friday drew an impressive convention of mayors, commissioners, councilmembers, and other conspicuous Knoxville boosters, affirming that architect-turned-developer Buzz Goss' Marble Alley project is huge. With construction to commence as soon as the end of this year, to be completed in 2015, the project for most of the space between State and Central is the first new-construction residential project downtown in several decades, the only exception being the small addition to Market Square's parking garage a few years ago. It's big by downtown standards, 238 units; the only bigger apartment building in downtown's history may be Summit Towers, which is a subsidized facility reserved for the disabled.

The Marble Alley project will remove a particularly blighted wasteland, an underused surface lot left by the demolition for Knox County's abortive Justice Center project. It puts that property back on the private-property tax rolls. It'll help revive moribund State Street, which hardly half a century ago was still a major residential street.

And it will bring in, credibly, more than 300 new residents where city and county government both need them most, dining, shopping, and entertaining themselves downtown. With no requirement of major investment of public money, except for sidewalks—which should have been rebuilt years ago anyway—Marble Alley looks like a win-win-win.

It has to be acknowledged, though, that it's not much like the Marble Alley Goss was touting four years ago. (J.N.)

March 28:

Lost Tribe

After a quarter-century of providing innovative educational, entrepreneurial, and recreational programs for the city's under-served inner-city youth, Knoxville's Tribe One has closed its doors on Magnolia Avenue.

The board of directors and the non-profit profit status remain, however, and the board will continue under the Tribe One moniker for the chief aim of hosting the Freedom School, a reading-intensive summer scholastic program administered by the Children's Defense Fund. Board members believe the annual five-week program, first undertaken in Knoxville by Tribe One in 2010, is not only worthy of continuing, but one of the few Tribe One outreaches that's still feasible at this stage.

"It became evident we needed to concentrate on a few things at this point, and that the Freedom School is number one," says board member Steve Seifried, speaking on behalf of the rest of the board. "After that we don't have the flexibility to do much else. And Freedom School is something our donors are very excited about. That's our priority right now." (Mike Gibson)

Animal Planet

Taking pictures at a petting zoo? Videotaping a trip to a farm? Those actions alone could land you a $50 fine and a Class C misdemeanor, if you accidentally happen to see an animal abused—that is, if a new law passes in the Tennessee Legislature.

The bill, HB 1191/SB 1248, sponsored by Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden) and Sen. Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), would make it a crime to not turn over any unedited videos and photographs that record cruelty to livestock to law enforcement authorities within 24 hours.

"There are three reasons for this bill. Number one is to stop the abuse. Stop it. Number two is to get convictions. And number three is, do not taint the jury pool," Gresham told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday afternoon.

But critics says Gresham and Holt's purported attempt to prevent animal abuse is disingenuous.

"This is not about animal protection. This is about protecting the food industry," says Leighann McCollum, the Tennessee State Director of the Humane Society of the United States. "This is about blowing the whistle on the whistle-blower as soon as possible." (C.W.G.)

April 4:

The Third Option

Last week Gov. Bill Haslam announced that he would not accept federal money to expand Medicaid, but he added a big qualifier. He'll take those federal funds, all right, but only if he can work out a deal with the Department of Health and Human Services that would allow Tennessee to use the money to buy private insurance for those who can't afford it (most likely from the forthcoming federal health-insurance exchanges).

"There are a lot of federal requirements that come with Medicaid that make it difficult to provide quality care in the most cost-effective way possible. Instead of insuring more people through an inherently flawed system, we'd hoped to purchase private insurance to insure as many as 175,000 more Tennesseans," Haslam said in speech during a rare joint session of the General Assembly.

The details of this plan were vague and extremely broad because they hinge on making a deal with HHS. In addition to the main idea of purchasing private health insurance with federal Medicaid expansion funds, Haslam's plan would reform the way doctors are paid, allow those who can afford it to contribute copays, and to make the deal renewable only through the state Legislature. (P.H.)

April 18:

Our Fair City

On Wednesday, with some Edwardian fanfare, Mayor Madeline Rogero and her staff announced the centennial celebration of the National Conservation Exposition of 1913. If all goes according to still-unfolding plans, this year's Centennial Conservation Expo will be an unusual Saturday in October involving dozens of regional organizations, all commemorating a huge event that's both almost forgotten and more resonant than ever.

The original exposition was one of the biggest things that ever happened in Knoxville. America's first exposition ever to focus on our diminishing natural resources, planned under the supervision of national conservationist Gifford Pinchot, the exposition drew one million visitors to Chilhowee Park during a remarkable two-month period in the fall of that year, almost one century ago, and made national headlines.

Many who worked together on that exposition would, a decade later, be thickly involved in establishing a permanent project called the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (J.N.)

April 25:

The Case Against Pilot

It reads like a David Mamet play.

The affidavit by FBI Special Agent Robert H. Root that provided enough evidence for a judge to order search warrants for last week's raid on Pilot Flying J headquarters in Knoxville, along with an off-site computer storage facility and three home offices in Nashville, Kentucky, and Iowa, is 120 pages long and filled with multiple excerpts of recorded conversations.

It's those conversations that provide the most damning evidence against Pilot, even as they sound like a re-imagined version of Glengarry Glen Ross, peppered with dirty language and sales meetings at high-end locales. And it's those conversations that reveal the ins and outs of a rebate scheme that allegedly defrauded dozens, maybe hundreds, of trucking companies to the likely tune of millions of dollars over a number of years.

The affidavit isn't an indictment, of course. No one at Pilot has been arrested or charged with any wrongdoing, and it could be years before any charges are brought. Pilot CEO Jimmy Haslam said on Friday that "we feel confident that this company is run the right way and will be continued to run the right way" and denied that he personally had done anything wrong.

"It still appears to us that this investigation is focused on a very narrow band of a very large company," Haslam stated.

Indeed, the affidavit only names around 40 employees, and it doesn't necessarily implicate all of those employees as being involved in the scheme. And Haslam's right—40 employees out of 23,000 or so is a very small number of potential wrongdoers.

But what he didn't say is that those names include some of the most powerful people at Pilot Flying J, including himself. The affidavit alleges that Haslam; the president of Pilot, Mark Hazelwood; the CFO, Mitch Steenrod; the Vice President of Sales, John Freeman; the Vice President of National Sales, Scott Wombold; the Director of Sales for National Accounts, Brian Mosher, and the three regional directors of sales all possibly knew about and/or participated in the rebate fraud for years. These aren't low-level employees skimming off the till. (C.W.G.)

Water Hole

When the Tennessee Clean Water Network released its annual water-enforcement report last week, something looked odd. They collected data on the number of enforcement actions taken against groups or companies that had violated the terms of their discharge permits into Tennessee surface waters and had unnecessarily polluted nearby water sources, and found that there was a sharp drop last year. In fact, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation made only 53 enforcement actions in 2012—a 75 percent decrease since 2007, when there were 219.

"We were appalled then [in 2007]. We thought wow, that is like 2.3 per county. We know there's more bad stuff going on than that," says Renée Hoyos, the executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network. (P.H.)

May 2:

Swept Under the Carpet?

When Melissa Murray landed a job in the University of Tennessee's Building Services department five years ago, she thought she had lucked out. Sure, she was cleaning buildings, mostly during second shift at night, but it was a job at UT, which meant decent pay and good benefits.

Now, Murray says, she can't even stand the thought of going in.

"I'm a happy person. And I'm always smiling. I get along with everyone," the bubbly 42-year-old blonde says. "But there's a lot of negativity down there. Everything's negative … You can feel it in the air."

By "down there," Murray is referring to the division of Building Services that cleans the athletics facilities, a division Murray says she was transferred to last summer in retaliation for complaining when a foreman yelled at her. And while the problems in Athletics are the worst, Murray says, they're symptomatic of larger issues in Building Services as a whole.

From January 2012 until last week, 65 employees have left their positions in Building Services. Five of those employees retired, and two died (one on the job), which means a total of 58 employees have been fired or have resigned over the past 16 months. That's close to a 50 percent turnover rate, according to United Campus Workers, the union that represents some 1,400 UT employees (albeit without collective bargaining power). (C.W.G.)

May 9:

Rossini Reboot?

After months of rumors, it was during the rainiest-ever Rossini Festival that word about the fate of its popular Italian Street Fair leaked out to some TV and online media. After 12 mostly successful years on Gay Street and Market Square, the city will be moving the unusual street festival in 2014 to one site that hadn't been the subject of those rumors: Henley Street, between Main and Clinch. It's just three blocks, but a much-broader three blocks than Gay Street provides.

Downtown's response is a resounding, "Huh." Rossini's one of downtown's biggest events of the year, its attendance credibly upward of 60,000. It will move from a circuit of streetfronts that includes about 50 businesses open on Saturdays to one that has none at all. Festivals have moved their locations before without controversy, but Rossini's been so successful, and so unusual—an offbeat concoction of operatic arias and a dozen other kinds of music, arts, beer, wine, and unusual food, with an infectious joie de vivre rare at other festivals—that its move is prompting some concern among patrons and downtown businesses. [Ed. Note: Last month, the city and Knoxville Opera announced that the festival would stay on Gay Street.] (J.N.)

May 30:

Distressed Asset

For those who perhaps still remember the mall off Interstate 640 as East Towne—that palatial new retail hub poised to eclipse West Town as the place to shop back in the 1980s—ambling through the vast halls of Knoxville Center, as it is now known, can be a rude jolt.

Walking in through the door at Mandarin Palace, which fronts on Mall Road, you're hemmed in on the left by monolithic slabs of black glass covering unused storefronts. Keep right and you'll round a corner to see a bungee-and-trampoline attraction for kids in the middle of the hall. Surrounding it are a handful of active retailers—like Yankee Candle, Hot Topic, Mattress Direct—but also at least three or four more empty stores.

And as you keep moving toward the anchor Sears at the end of that wing, it gets progressively worse. The occupancy seems to get sparser and sparser until, on at least one side of the hall, there is seemingly nothing but one long, empty storefront leading all the way up to the bright-lit maw of America's oldest major retailer.

Knoxville Center is what's known in the industry as a "distressed asset"—so much so that in the last couple of years, its owner, Simon Property Group, the country's largest mall operator, had washed its hands and put the property up for sale.

But now Simon has apparently committed to making things work with Knoxville Center, taking it off the market and assigning an enthusiastic young distressed-asset specialist to tackle the full-time job of changing, rehabbing, and reversing whatever it is that makes a good mall go bad. (M.G.)

June 6:

Gigabit Envy

"Hey Madeline Rogero... I heard a rumor that there was a bunch of fiber optic cables run in the underground utility wells Downtown in the 90's by a company that is now defunct," Art Carmichael wrote on Facebook in early March. He tagged Mayor Madeline Rogero, the city, Knoxville's Chief Policy Officer Bill Lyons, Downtown Coordinator Rick Emmett, and a handful of other active downtown residents and business owners—including AC Entertainment's Ian Blackburn and developer David Dewhirst.

His query hit on a problem that many downtown residents and workers gripe about: the lack of consistent broadband access.

It's no secret that there are many places downtown that get less-than-amazing Internet service—while some buildings have perfectly fine Internet connections, others suffer from substandard speeds or don't get broadband service at all.

So why is Knoxville lagging behind even smaller nearby cities in providing a fast, affordable broadband network in its business district? And what will this mean for the city's competitiveness in the digital age? (P.H.)

June 20:

Infuse No More, My Lady

It wasn't that long ago that house-infused spirits were a rarity in Tennessee, but these days, everyone from high-end speakeasies like Peter Kern Library to casual chains like Tupelo Honey have them on the menu. However, if the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission gets its way, infused liquors will be banned across the state—that is, unless they've been produced by a distillery.

According to the Public House's Laura Sohn, the crackdown started several weeks ago after a TABC agent read an article in this publication describing one of the bar's specialty drinks, a barrel-aged Negroni. The agent informed Sohn that only distilleries with a manufacturing license are able to age spirits in a barrel. At the same time Sohn was told that, according to the same provision, her house-infused liquors were also illegal.

"I've never heard of anything like this," Sohn says. "I don't know why they've just started enforcing this now."

The law TABC is citing in its crackdown, according to a memo sent out to all licensed establishments in early May by director Keith Bell, is a provision added in 2006 that allows distillers to blend alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages together and then sell them. The subsection reads, in part: "A manufacturer's license may be issued to a person, firm or corporation for the limited purpose of blending nonalcoholic products with alcoholic beverages on premises, either on its own behalf or on behalf of other entities pursuant to contract." (C.W.G.)

June 25:

The Walnut Street Dilemma

On May 15, Knox Heritage announced its annual Fragile 15, their rogues' gallery of historic buildings threatened by neglect or possible demolition. Their stated intent is to raise awareness of the importance of what remains of our older architecture, and prod owners to do something positive. Most property owners aren't happy about the listing, but sometimes it works.

After the announcement, that non-profit fielded a question from a puzzled reporter about one omission: the 1920s brick buildings at 710 and 712 Walnut Street. In late 2011, St. John's Episcopal Cathedral had expressed its intent to demolish them. It would mark the second and third demolitions of intact pre-war buildings downtown in this century.

KH Executive Director Kim Trent explained to Metro Pulse that she and her board didn't include the St. John's buildings on their unenvied list because Knox Heritage had hope for them. Last summer, the church's leadership had seemed open to alternative proposals. Rarely had the preservationist nonprofit been able to offer a demolition alternative that seemed so appealing: a full renovation with no expenses to the owner at all, and one that even promised future profits to the owner.

Things seemed to be looking up, Trent said. The preservationists believed that, after hundreds of hours of volunteer work, they had answered all the church's stated concerns.

Later the same day that Knox Heritage gave the Walnut Street buildings a bye in its Fragile 15, the church—which had still never accepted or rejected either the economic or architectural aspects of Knox Heritage's proposal—went to the Downtown Design Review Board to renew its push for demolition.

There has followed six weeks of misunderstandings, demonstrations and petitions, hearings and decisions and appeals, and of split friendships and frayed nerves. These two modest buildings seem just the flashpoint of a much larger story about power and vision for the future of Knoxville—and the question of whether some institutions are too powerful and important to be judged by ordinary standards. (J.N.)

Ante Up

On June 7, the University of Tennessee's purchasing department issued a request for proposal, or RFP. There was nothing much unusual about this on the surface—UT issues RFPs all the time. What was special about this particular RFP, however, was its subject matter: The university officially announced it was seeking an industry partner for an oil- and gas-drilling "research project" in the school's Cumberland Forest field research unit in Scott and Morgan Counties.

Of course, the RFP had been expected for months, ever since the State Building Commission's Executive Subcommittee gave the university permission for the project back in March. The Board of Trustees will still have to approve the RFP at its October meeting, and the full State Building Commission will take it up after that. If all falls into place the way UT hopes, drilling could start on the forest land in "a year or so," according to Cumberland Forest manager Martin Schubert.

Schubert actually lives in a house in the forest itself, with his wife and children. He's been the manager of the research area for 15 years; before that, he worked in the forest as part of his graduate research for his forestry degree, first planting trees there in 1991. But Schubert seems surprisingly okay with the idea that the land where he spends all of his time may be torn up for oil and gas interests.

"Our mission is to research natural resources," Schubert says. "We have a duty as a land-grant institution to conduct science." [Ed. Note: The RFP did not succeed in finding a financially feasible partner, so the university postponed the project.] (C.W.G.)

July 11:

ICE Status Warms Up

Despite the fact that Davidson County ended its controversial 287(g) immigration policy last fall after five years of sensational arrests, Knox County Sheriff J.J. Jones says he's ready to get the same program started in Knox County.

More than a year after Knox County residents first requested a meeting to discuss the community's concerns about the 287(g) policy, Jones finally met them face-to-face to give some answers at a forum hosted by Knox County Commissioner Amy Broyles at the Knox County Health Department's auditorium last Tuesday night. The crowd of about 60 people who gathered to press him and two deputies on why Knox County needs 287(g) repeatedly brought up the abuse of undocumented immigrants in Nashville that stemmed from Davidson County's utilization of the program. The biggest concerns were racial profiling, arrest and deportation due to minor offenses, and the climate of fear many are sure the policy will create among Knox County's immigrant communities.

"I hear your concerns," Jones said many times throughout the night. "[But] I have to make the decisions for Knox County [sheriff's department]."

He said he expects to sign the 287(g) memorandum of understanding within the next few weeks after technical agreements on matters such as transportation of detainees are ironed out. [Ed. Note: Knox County's application was later rejected, prompting Jones to announce he would have to stack illegal immigrants "like cordwood" in jail.] (P.H.)

July 18

World's Fair Plays

When, with some fanfare, the city of Knoxville announced the creation of a World's Fair Park Working Group in May, the stated purpose was to work with the University of Tennessee and "World's Fair Park stakeholders" to "explore possibilities to enhance World's Fair Park as a center for cultural resources" and then "determine feasibility and support of the concept."

But as the two meetings of the group over the summer have made clear, this description is slightly misleading—what the group is actually trying to determine is the feasibility of moving the Clarence Brown Theatre (and, with it, UT's theater department) to the park. And if that doesn't work out, well, they might look into building an outdoor stage.

"To have a nationally renowned institution be more accessible to the public has some intrinsic merit worth exploring," says Bill Lyons, the city's chief policy officer. "I'm not going to be apologetic about having a public meeting about a good idea."

But former mayor Victor Ashe, an active supporter of the Legacy Parks Foundation and parks in general, says the city shouldn't have even begun to consider eliminating some of its greenspace without first having a discussion as to whether that's in the best interest of the public. (C.W.G.)

July 25:

The Greenwood Mural's Re-emergence

The smell of adhesives and solvents in the University of Tennessee University Center's ballroom marks the beginning of the next chapter in the strangest art story in Knoxville history. Over the next two weeks, EverGreene Architectural Arts of New York will be working on restoring and preserving the controversial 29-foot-long Greenwood Mural, before removing it from the University Center, scheduled to be demolished late next year. In the short term, the University of Tennessee will store it in its warehouse on Middlebrook Pike, then put it on display, temporarily, at the UT Downtown Gallery next June, for a six-week exhibit. Its fate has drawn interest from art scholars around the country. (J.N.)

August 15:

Keep On Truckin'

When food trucks first started appearing in downtown Knoxville last year, there was a lot of confusion. There were trucks at First Friday and the Wednesday Market Square Farmer's Market before the trucks' owners were told in no uncertain terms that what they were doing was illegal.

Park on the street when it's already closed off for vendors at the market Saturday? Totally cool. Park on the Square for special events for which you've got a permit? Great. Park in a private parking lot with the permission of the owner (and, often, a fee to use those spaces)? Fine and dandy. But park on the street, the sidewalk, the Square, or any other place in town considered to be in the city right-of-way, including public parks? No way, no how.

The reason for the street ban was not, as some have thought, that the city has a problem with food trucks—they don't (that is, as long as you've got your business and health department permits in order). The problem is with the city's ordinance regulating food vendors, which dates from 1960 and was written to regulate hot dog carts and fair food at festivals.

In February, the city announced it was looking into starting a pilot program to allow food trucks to actually park on the streets—that is, in certain specific locations downtown and elsewhere.

"We're trying to find a balance," City of Knoxville Downtown Coordinator Rick Emmett says. "We want the least controversy possible."

What Emmett is referring to is the protracted battles that have gone on in other cities around the country as they, too, have struggled with adapting their outdated laws to deal with the new influx of street food. Restaurant owners complain that food trucks hurt their business and that the trucks' ability to go somewhere else if business is slow is an unfair advantage, and they have petitioned in some cities for distance requirements up to 1,000 feet. (C.W.G.)

August 22:

The "Green" Mile

Last Friday, Gov. Bill Haslam announced that the state was the recipient of $1.69 million in federal funds to create and expand recreational trail programs in 12 locations across the state.

"These grants assist local governments and organizations in improving community amenities such as trails, greenways, and recreational facilities, making the outdoors more accessible to Tennesseans," Haslam said in the press release. "The health and wellness of our residents is a top priority and these amenities provide another step to make our state healthier."

Yet while trail systems in Sparta, Martin, and Memphis are growing with the governor's blessing, the biggest trail system in the governor's hometown looks increasingly likely to be partially destroyed, as the Tennessee Department of Transportation attempts to move forward with plans to extend the James White Parkway through South Knoxville's Urban Wilderness to John Sevier Highway.

The governor's stance on it? He doesn't officially have one. [Ed. Note: The extension project was voted off the long-range plan of the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization in October, thus finally killing it.] (C.W.G.)

September 19:

Strong Medicine

Last Thursday, between 20 and 30 protesters spent an afternoon at the intersection of Vanosdale Road and Middlebrook Pike hoisting their signs high, handing out fliers to drivers who dared to pause long enough to ask for one in traffic, and waving at their neighbors as they drove by. Some drivers looked on quizzically, others smiled, waved, or showed a thumbs up to the small crowd. One boy on the bus home from Bearden Middle School shouted from a window, "I agree with you!"

Some protesters sat in their lawn chairs, propping up signs reading "No New Tennova Hospital" against their knees. A few stood on one of the four corners of the intersection the whole time. The group of mostly retirees, led by West Hills resident Rocky Swingle, were pretty clear about why they were out there.

"We want them to not build this hospital," Swingle says plainly.

Just across the street toward Old Weisgarber Road is the woodsy land Tennova Healthcare has optioned for a new hospital complex to replace North Knoxville's Physicians Regional Medical Center (known to most by its former name, St. Mary's).

But Swingle and many of his neighbors in West Hills, as well as North Knoxville residents, are not happy about this plan, and were out last Thursday to try and spread the word that Tennova's arrival is imminent. [Ed. Note: Tennova's request for rezoning the property was approved.] (P.H.)

October 3:


Driving on Highway 90 from Campbell to Claiborne County, as it winds through the valley next to Clear Fork, with the bright September sun dappling your windshield as the leafy trees above begin to change their color, it's hard not to think you're in one of the most beautiful places in Tennessee. Going up and down the Appalachian ridges on the winding road, the scenic vistas and picturesque terrain look like an ideal destination for mountaintop resorts.

Then you look closer—not just at the rotting buildings covered with kudzu and the rusted-out cars on the side of the road, the most visible signifiers of the extreme poverty in the area—but at the mountaintops themselves. One ridgetop seems to sharply plunge down, as if a giant took a bite out of it. When you get closer to another, you see there's only one lone row of trees at the top. A third seems to have almost no trees at all.

These mutilated landscapes are mostly the result of coal mining. Although logging also happens in the area, it's the mines you see cutting a wide swath in the topography when studying satellite imagery on Google Earth.

According to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, there are 20 permitted coal mines in Tennessee, although only four or five are actively mining, given the current low price of coal. Sixty percent of those mines are in Campbell and Claiborne Counties. (The rest are in Anderson, Cumberland, and Fentress Counties.) It's been this way for over a century—coal is a way of life around here, and it's hard to find a person who doesn't have some kind of connection to the industry, even if he never worked in the mines himself.

Yet despite the poverty in the region, and the desperate need for jobs, coal isn't king of everyone's hearts the way it once was. As two companies look to move forward with new mines that could consume over 3,000 acres, some longtime residents are teaming with environmental activists to fight the permits. A handful of temporary jobs, they say, isn't worth the permanent destruction of their mountains and streams. (C.W.G.)

October 10:

Seniors Rule, Teachers Drool

Ten Points.

That was the difference between the winning proposal to restore and redevelop the old Knoxville High School into an independent-living facility for seniors and David Dewhirst and Mark Heinz's proposal to turn the school into a mixed-use development that would have included retail, offices, an event space, and affordable housing for teachers.

There's no doubt that either development, both of which include a small amount of artists' studios, would have a positive effect on the neighborhood—a massive property full of people has to be better than the partially abandoned building's current state. But not everyone's sure a good use for the building is the best use.

"It is a bit surprising for me," says City Council member Mark Campen, who lives in North Knoxville and was on the steering committee that recommended suggested uses for the building. "I've got nothing against seniors, but I'd have liked to have seen a mix of uses come in there."

That steering committee worked with the Community Design Center to issue a report assessing the viability of community-proposed uses for the historic facility, including returning to its roots as a school, a hotel, office space, and an artists' co-op. Their top recommendation was to use the building for housing.

However, the report was not particularly supportive of an elderly residential community. It goes on to say, "Senior or assisted living is another option, but with the current development of Oakwood School and other existing nearby senior living options the market may be saturated. Knoxville High School may also be too large for an effective senior citizens housing environment. [Ed. Note: The RFP selection was later approved by County Commission.] (C.W.G.)

October 31:

Protest March

The Pride of the Southland Marching Band boasts some 345 members, but on Saturday, Nov. 9, their ranks will swell to more than 800 when the University of Tennessee Alumni Band joins them on Shields-Watkins Field for the annual homecoming celebration.

Informally dubbed the Over the Hill Band, the alumni will start checking in before dawn, some as early as 5 a.m., to be ready for the noon kickoff. By 7:30, the Pride alumni, 466 strong, will be packed into the band room, tuning up instruments and studying routines. Some will have traveled across the country to be here.

"Anybody up for going into the administrative offices and blasting ‘Rocky Top' with your instrument?" asked one alum on the "We support the Pride of the Southland and Director Gary Sousa" Facebook page. "We could video tape it. … Would be as funny as when the guy quit his job by marching band!"

The Pride alumni march every year, but not in these numbers. They will be showing up in force to support the members of the present marching band and to serve as a living reminder of the band's 144-year tradition. There is concern among many that the tradition is being jeopardized by changes mandated by the athletics department. Band director Gary Sousa's public complaints about budget cuts and piped-in, pre-recorded game time music in Neyland Stadium, followed by his subsequent suspension for insubordination, ignited the controversy. (B.B.)

December 12:

Redrawing the Lines

Late last month, Knox Heritage held its annual preservation awards ceremony at the historic Bijou Theatre. There were hors d'oeuvres from Martha Boggs at the Bistro next door, and there was wine, and everyone smiled as photos were snapped, and everyone cheered as awards were presented.

Still, there were dark undertones to the festivities. It's been an inconsistent year for preservation in Knoxville—two downtown buildings demolished, a third threatened, and even though the city now owns the McClung warehouses, there's no guarantee they can be saved.

Then there was the news about Fort Sanders. As Jack Neely first noted in our Nov. 7 issue, the city has been in talks with Covenant Health about amending the neighborhood conservation overlay district to allow Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center to tear down four buildings and expand to the corner of 18th Street and Highland Avenue. The same city that worked to save South Knox High School, the McClung Warehouses, and the Kern Bakery. The same preservationist mayor who was on hand at the Bijou to present an award.

As attendees mingled, chatting about current events, you could hear one word over and over: "unprecedented." Remove part of a conservation overlay? Allow demolition of four historically significant properties that could be restored to their original glamour by an owner willing to spend the time and money? Has that ever happened? Isn't it unprecedented?

As it turns out, it is. It's never been done, according to Metropolitan Planning Commission staff. But that doesn't mean it couldn't be, as Mayor Madeline Rogero told us at the soirée.

"There's a process in place to where that can be done. Whether it would be approved or not, it's a process that you go through. But there is a process in place to do that in the rules," Rogero says. "And are we purists? No. Can we save every single structure? No. But we are committed to historic preservation, and [just] because we disagree on this doesn't mean that we don't support historic preservation." (C.W.G.)

December 19:

Sounds Great

Monday evening at Deane Hill Recreation Center, the city rolled out a blue-sky master plan for Lakeshore Park. Considering it's almost 200 acres at the high-profile corner of Lyons View and Northshore, there was a good deal of interest, even on a weekday evening in West Knoxville shopping traffic. More than 100 people, including at least five City Councilmembers, showed up to witness a presentation hosted by city Parks and Recreation Director Joe Walsh. Mayor Madeline Rogero spoke briefly. Ashley Shomaker, president of the market-research firm U30 Group, whose offices are located down the street from the park, described polling 540 park users, and presented their views—that most folks like what's there now, want more of the same, but with better river views and access.

Recent years have seen earnest proposals for a wide variety of probably mutually exclusive uses for the former mental institution, from extensive botanical gardens to homeless shelters to a BMX dirt-racing track. The plan as proposed seems to aim for the broad middle, and at Monday night's meeting, there were few complaints.

Attendees spoke with earnest excitement, even though everyone who spoke made it clear this was no done deal. It's all pending funding, and most of the funding, at least in the current political climate, will have to be from as-yet-unidentified private sources. To be completed, the plan may be upwards of $60 million, and the city's prepared to cover less than 10 percent of that, about $5.5 million. (J.N.)