cover_story (2006-02)

BIRD’S EYE VIEW: A look at the Candy Factory from the nearby Fort Kid playground.

MOVING ON: Tennessee Stage Company’s Parkhill and Slocum are reluctant to leave the Candy Factory, but have found space on Market Square.

DREAMING BIG: Liza Zenni envisions downtown as a cohesive art district.

RIGHT AT HOME: Jason Bladell and Janet Vancil hope to keep their business in the Peach Victorian house.

LOCAL JOE: 11th Street Expresso House is a popular hangout for Fort residents.

Walking over to the windowsill where her handmade folk-art dolls are perched in all their found-fabric glory—a framed newspaper clipping touts that one of her angels found its way to the top of the White House Christmas tree during the Clinton administration—Jones stares out the window at the ashy sky and plumes of smoke puffing from the old buildings on UT’s Hill. “I may move into the first floor or into a Victorian house, and if not, I may open up in South Knoxville,” she says. “I shall be sad if I go, but I shall be OK either way.”

Should the sale go through, Jones hopes to work with developers to stay in the building, as she thinks her co-op gallery featuring around 60 regional artists’ work might benefit the upscale mixed-use residential/retail development that’s been proposed. But some people, especially non-profit community groups, don’t share her easy-going attitude about the impending sale.

The Candy Factory means different things to different people. Some use it often or occasionally for group meetings, classes and events. Non-profit organizations have offices there, though only a few remain today. Others recall frequenting the place when the seventh-floor boardroom was a popular bar called Flamingo Lounge during the ’82 World’s Fair.

At one time, the entire building echoed its name; built in 1916 by candy manufacturers Littlefield and Steere, the factory once employed 100 people and mass-produced some 400 different types of candy. After closing in the mid-1930s, the Candy Factory briefly became storage for underwear manufacturer Appalachian Mills and then housed Miller’s Department Store.

Finally, in 1979, the city acquired the 70,000-square-foot building to utilize for a possible World’s Fair, dubbing it the Candy Factory. It had a ring to it, despite the fact that the building hadn’t produced a confection in decades. During the Fair, the Candy Factory was home to several restaurants as well as the tropical-themed lounge. Afterward, when plans of putting in residential units were tabled, the building was empty for several years until the city renovated it in 1985 for use by artists and community groups.

Some remember the days when the Candy Factory was part of a bustling artist colony, when the city first bestowed it and the adjacent Victorian houses on the arts community. Eric Sublett, a local artist who was at the forefront of that movement, says, “There was always something going on in those days. We had shows in the hallways, people rented individual spaces, and we would hold events in the studios.” But he recalls that the group’s relationship with the city was always a bit shaky. “There were always different ideas of what an ‘art colony’ was. My idea was that it was sort of bohemian, but the powers that be wanted it to be more of a shopping thing,” he says. “Selling it off always seemed like a possibility. They wanted us to become more economically viable, but the nature of art groups is that the spirit leaves once you become viable. With economic stability comes predictability. Cities generally use the art community to help the blighted areas, but when an economic opportunity arises, the artists become an endangered species.” The group, loosely defined under the name Chroma, began to dissipate in the late ‘80s when the city decided that artists could no longer live in the Victorian houses, says Sublett.

The city of Knoxville sent out a Request For Proposals (RFP) in 2004 asking that developers and tenants submit proposals on the World’s Fair site, which includes the vast park, the Candy Factory, seven Victorian Houses, and the Tennessee Amphitheater. Having received seven proposals in total and narrowing them to four finalists, the city selected that of Kinsey, Probasco, Hays and Associates, a Chattanooga firm in collaboration with Cardinal Development, whose owner Brian Conley is also publisher of Metro Pulse .

On Aug. 16, ’05, City Council voted 6-3 for the sale of the property. Since then, a group of people has become increasingly vocal in opposition to the sale under the slogan Save the Candy Factory.

The plan entails extensive renovations to the buildings and the installation of 47 private condominiums as well as gallery and retail space in the Candy Factory.

Bill Lyons, the city’s economic development director, gives reason for picking this particular plan. “First, the plan provides for the rehabilitation of a historic structure, but it also provides the $1.6 million for the city to use elsewhere (none of the other plans offered substantial sums of money), it helps provide for art space at the Emporium (through a $200,000 grant), it relieves us of the operating costs of the Candy Factory, and it helps provide life to the area that only residents can bring.”

“The World’s Fair Park is pretty nice as it is, but you’ve got the Sunsphere, the Tennessee Amphitheatre, the Victorian Houses and the Candy Factory that are blights on the area,” says Conley. “Our plan is a comprehensive approach to curing these ills, and to bring people down to that area and revitalize it.”

The plan offers $1,612,000 dollars for purchase of the Candy Factory and projects to invest an additional $8,085,000. The developers also propose to purchase the seven Victorian houses at $215,580 and invest another $1,495,000 in their renovation. In addition to the 47 condos, the second floor of the Candy Factory is slated for gallery space and the street level will be retail, most likely including the South’s Finest Chocolate Factory.

 “Being able to save a historic building and put it back into use is helpful to a downtown,” says Jon Kinsey. “More people living downtown is always a boost for a city.”

Mayor Bill Haslam agrees that residential space is a worthwhile use of the building. “The more people we have living down there, the more businesses can thrive there—retail is about having rooftops around it,” he says.

The proposal also included a restaurant/lounge concept for the 5th and 6th floor of the Sunsphere in conjunction with Market Square merchants Scott and Bernadette West. Also, it proposes to reopen the landmark to the public with a 4th-floor observation deck and offices on the 7th and 8th floors. “The city can take that $1.8 million dollars from the Candy Factory sale and put it into the structural issues in the Sunsphere and the amphitheater,” says Conley. “We’re proposing to spend another million dollars renovating the inside of the Sunsphere.”

Though maybe the least ballyhooed aspect of the proposal, the Sunsphere’s reopening might hit a harmonious chord with many Knoxvillians. As Mike Edwards, president of Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership notes, “People come to Knoxville and want to go up in the Sunsphere, but right now it’s just an oversized lawn ornament.”

But only three of seven members of KCDC board attended that meeting, and the board wasn’t deterred by the 13 speakers as they unanimously approved the development proposal the following morning. Even so, the city opted to postpone the City Council vote, which had been slated for Jan. 3. “We didn’t hear anything at the hearing that we haven’t heard before,” says Lyons. “We’ve mainly heard from the Green Party and East Tennessee Progressive Network. In trying to contact other community groups that meet at the Candy Factory, we’ve found that they’ve all found other places to meet.” Lyons cites proximity to the holidays and concerns voiced by Council members as the impetus for postponing the final vote.

“Nothing prevented any group from coming up with an alternate proposal during the RFP period, but none of them did,” says Lyons. “Their implied solution is that taxpayers will keep spending all this money just to maintain it. But if they go and blow this vote, there will be no solution.” The city currently subsidizes the building in the range of $200,000 per year.

But Tom Parkhill of Tennessee Stage Company, one of the few organizations still retaining an office in the Candy Factory, says that suggestion isn’t feasible. “As far as the RFP, we are such a small group, how would we have possibly come up with a redevelopment plan?” he says of his staff of two.

In fact, one tenant did respond to the city’s RFP, though she admits it was a modest proposal. “The city sent out RFPs to all of the tenants, and so I did it,” says Jones matter-of-factly. “I just explained that we were a budding co-operative, and we would like to stay. We told them we could move anywhere, to any floor of the Candy Factory. We basically just requested to stay.” And she just might.

“It’s lonely here now,” says Brandon Slocum of Tennessee Stage Company. “I really miss all the people here because there was such a camaraderie.” Slocum strongly decries the city’s claim that the Candy Factory is underutilized, recalling when the different groups would overflow from rehearsal spaces into the hallways. Some of those groups have left, she says, because the building’s fallen into a state of disrepair. Slocum and Parkhill have finally decided to move as well, having settled on a space in Market Square above Village Marketplace.

The stalemate issue here is to what extent the city is responsible for supporting artists and community groups. “I think these groups play a really important role in our city,” says Haslam. “But we have to be wise stewards of the citizens’ money. We have to find a more cost-efficient way to help support these groups.”

Lyons says Knoxville’s policy to date in providing for arts groups has been overly generous, and that free space is virtually unheard of throughout even the most progressive American cities. “Being a taxpayer does not grant someone the right to use a public facility at the time of their choosing at no cost. If that was so, a few people who wanted to play basketball could demand to have the coliseum opened for them at no cost. It takes $50 to reserve a city picnic shelter for a day. A group wanting to use the World’s Fair Park, such as for Greek Fest, has to pay a fee,” he says. “This is because, unlike a public park, these facilities require security, utilities, janitorial or other direct costs. It has long been a principle that in such cases specific users pay at least a part of the cost. The same can be said for city swimming pools. Passive public parks and greenways are different because using them creates only the slightest additional cost to the taxpayers.”

But Lyons faces a deluge of criticism from Save The Candy Factory members because of his stance. Many equate the loss of the Candy Factory with the loss of a park. “This space is city-owned, but it’s also taxpayer-owned, which means it’s owned by all of us, and we should have a say in what happens to it,” says Norris Dryer, Green Party member. “Can you imagine the uproar if the city tried to sell off Sequoyah Hills Park?”

When community groups objected that the city wasn’t providing any alternative meeting spaces, Lyons came forth with a list, which can be accessed on the city’s website, of 50 places, mostly schools and small recreation centers, that provide meeting rooms for $20-25 per hour. This only seemed to incite more opposition. “I found the list to be not at all satisfactory,” says David Buckwalter, an architect and Green Party member. “The cost disenfranchises small groups because that begins to get fairly expensive. Lyons has said to go to Panera or Shoney’s, but I think that’s missing the point. Community groups contribute to the vitality of a city, and the city should support that.”

“I want to be able to stand at the One Vision Plaza at the Corner of Summit and Gay, look both ways and see a cohesive arts district,” says Zenni. Her vision includes the newly situated Art Market Gallery (previously in the Candy Factory) and Yee Haw Industries on central Gay as well as UT’s 1010 and Downtown Galleries, and Aespyre, Preston Farabow’s studio around the corner on Jackson Avenue. If you walk just another block from Zenni’s designated spot, you’d find two new galleries, Thru the Lens and World Grotto and Marketplace, in addition to Market Square’s existing gallery/boutiques Bliss and Earth to Old City.

When Zenni first came to the ACA, it was housed in the Candy Factory, where she says the organization stagnated from a lack of foot traffic. “It was clear to me that to stay in the Candy Factory would have shrunken the capabilities of the building,” she recalls. So she started talking with local developer David Dewhirst about the possibility of moving into his building on Gay Street, laughing that the luxurious space was “bombed out” at the time.

It was Zenni’s job to recruit tenants to the new Emporium. “I offered a space here to every entity in the Arts and Cultural Alliance (which was the majority of groups in the Candy Factory).” At a lease of about $5 per square foot, most groups accepted. Among the groups that came are Circle Modern Dance, Knoxville Writers Guild, City Ballet and Keep Knoxville Beautiful. Of groups that remained in the Candy Factory, such as Tennessee Stage Company, she says, “They were holding out for free space at the Candy Factory. [Former Mayor Victor Ashe] had told them that as long as he was in office, they could remain there, but it was at their own risk….they honest to God did not believe the city would do it. They were playing a game of chicken with the city.”

Zenni still holds out hope that the Emporium might become useful to the groups that remain in the Candy Factory. Down in the unfinished basement of the Emporium, she describes the plan she and Dewhirst recently conceived: to essentially replicate the seventh floor of the Candy Factory, complete with the large boardroom, and three ample studios. “I’m thinking ahead when this will be more of a touristy area, so I want a lot of glass so that people can look in and see what’s going on in these studios,” she says. If the plan is approved, Dewhirst will lease the basement space for $3.15 per square foot to the city, and Zenni foresees a very affordable hourly usage rate.

Zenni’s open about her willingness to play ball with the city. “When the alliance was formed five years ago, we wanted to bring arts and culture to the forefront of the political consciousness. We’ve done the best we could to be used as a tool for problem solving—when the city was revitalizing this block, we said ‘yes,’ and that was political,” she says. “We want to position the arts in this city as a solution to political problems.”

As idealistic as Zenni makes the Emporium and her utopian arts district vision sound, some community groups say it still won’t work for them—namely Tennessee Stage Company, which turned down Zenni’s offer to move into the Emporium, explaining that the initial plans didn’t include any rehearsal space. “We went to all of the early Emporium meetings and requested rehearsal space, but apparently that’s not what the developers had in mind,” says Slocum. Even with the proposed new rehearsal space in the basement, Tennessee Stage Company doesn’t intend to use the Emporium. “$2 or $3 an hour seems reasonable, but for Shakespeare on the Square, which we perform for free, we rehearse each show at least 100 hours, and we do two shows, so that’s not feasible for us,” says Parkhill.

The Smoky Mountain Glassmasters, who currently operate out of the peach Victorian house in the World’s Fair Park, say they don’t foresee moving to the Emporium either. “A lot of people want to put all of the art into one building on Gay Street, but most cities have several pockets of art,” says Jason Blasdell, pushing aside his shaggy hair and looking up from his work on a large old-fashioned stained glass sign that reads “Coffee Shoppe.” “I like the Emporium, but it’s just not us. We need a big space. We use this whole house, while some artists over there are two or three to a room.

“At one point Brian Conley told us that they wanted us to stay, so we were surprised when the city sent us an eviction notice,” says Blasdell. That notice, sent Nov. 17, notified them to be out by December, but then they got a call and were told they could stay ’till February. “We don’t know what’s going on, and it’s the not knowing that’s killing us,” says Blasdell.

The Glassmasters want to stay in their house after renovation, if at all possible. They currently pay a low rent to the city, but they worry that the business may go under should they have to relocate or pay a higher rent. Janet Vancil, a soft-spoken woman with nearly clear eyes, watches Blasdell’s work as she speaks: “I’d really like to see this area become more vibrant. We’d like the other houses to be inhabited because it would increase our foot traffic.”

Conley confirms that he would like to see existing businesses remain. “In our proposal, we said we’d really like to keep the 11th Street Expresso House and the (South’s Finest) Chocolate Factory to anchor the Candy Factory, and nothing has changed,” he says. “The Mountain Laurel Gallery and the Glassmasters are the types of tenants we want in the Victorians, but all that will have to be negotiated.” Owner of South’s Finest Chocolate Bill Douglas says he’d like to remain where he is as well.

Only two of the seven Victorian Houses are inhabited, by the Expresso House and the Glassmasters, partly because the city’s planned on renovating and/or selling the houses for some time. Tom Salter, at his desk in the Emporium, moved there with Keep Knoxville Beautiful from the blue Victorian house in August ’04. As far back as 1997, when he began working with KKB, Salter remembers, “There were always rumors that the future of the houses were uncertain, and I just had it in my head that a day would come when the city would ask non-profits to leave for renovation.” When Salter heard about the opportunities at the Emporium, he was immediately interested. “I like it here, it feels more secure, and we have more walk-in visitors,” he says. “But I am nostalgic for the Candy Factory (KKB still holds board meetings there). Anyone who’s led an active community life has used it at least a few times. I’d like to see some public space retained. The critics of the change say there’s no place as good as the Candy Factory, and there’s a lot of truth to that.”

The city vehemently denies this. “Where the public discourse has gotten off-track is where people ask, ‘How is the whole area blighted if only one of the Victorian houses is condemned?’” says Mark Mamantov, attorney consulting with KCDC. “But the definition of blight is quite broad. Any area where there is deleterious land use and dilapidation can be blighted.”

While some say the properties are habitable as they are, others blame the city for any degradation. “Most of us groups would have liked to see the city maintain the building, and this goes back to the previous administration,” says Dryer of Victor Ashe’s run as mayor.

Chamber Partnership’s Mike Edwards, who worked for the Public Building Authority until 1999, recalls being aware of the Candy Factory’s structural damages back then. “Our fear was demolition by neglect,” he says. “As with a lot of historic buildings, it requires a lot of money to keep it from falling into irreparable conditions, but I’m not sure that’s the only reason the city’s surplussing it. They originally acquired it for the Fair, and it came to be used by artists through default. Then the previous administration wanted to sell it, but they didn’t want to deal with the hullabaloo of surplussing it because so many would dispute it.”

Essentially, as far as revenue to the city is concerned, TIF maintains whatever taxes exist at the time of the building sale for a specified period of time—in this case 15 years. Since the property has been owned by the city for over 20 years, no property taxes have been assessed during that time. If 15 years sounds like a long time, KCDC’s Dan Tiller explains, “That’s actually a rather short period of time for financing. If you’re buying a house, it’s usually stretched over 30 years.”

Should Council approve it, the TIF amount on the Candy Factory will be $1.4 million, which will be loaned to the developer by a bank to finance renovation. KCDC estimates that the projected amount of property tax revenue generated by a redeveloped Candy Factory is $72,100 to the city and $86,450 to the county per year. Property taxes from condo owners will go to repay that debt. If the condominiums do not sell, the developer would assume repayment on the debt. Once the sale is completed, the building will return to the tax rolls and property tax revenue subsequently generated will be used to pay back remaining loans, with approximately 75 percent going toward paying off the loan and 25 percent going to service the city’s general debt.

“That looks like an awfully sweet deal for the developers and a relatively poor deal for the city,” says Buckwalter. “It just makes a lot more sense to me for the city just to own and maintain the building.”

Lyons disagrees. “With TIF, it’s money that’s not going to come anyway. If the Candy Factory is not sold, there’s no tax money,” he says. “Once the building is renovated, however, it’s going to be generating a lot of tax money…TIF has proven to be an effective tool in downtown renovation here and in other cities. It’s that or watch these buildings deteriorate.”

The debate on whether the Candy Factory is blighted goes back to a 2002 facility assessment study done by Cockrill Design and Planning, which estimated renovation of the building at about $3.2 million dollars. “The mayor’s office has been saying it can’t afford the $10 million, but that study calls for much less,” says Buckwalter. “To hold the $3.5-4.5 million cinema project in one hand and the Candy Factory in the other, we’re essentially putting millions of dollars into supporting passive consumption rather than this active, living thing.” Buckwalter and others also point out that the Convention Center is a much more significant drain on the city’s financing than the Candy Factory.

Councilman Rob Frost voted no on the initial proposal, explaining, “My two main concerns with the plan were, socially, was it in the public’s interest to divest itself of these assets, and financially, is the city getting the best return on the assets? I wasn’t convinced that the city needed to get rid of those assets at the price being offered.” Still, he predicts, “I think [the vote] will pass, but I can’t speculate on the votes themselves.”

Everyone technically wants to “save” the Candy Factory. Some people want more than anything to retain the building as a community space. “The ideal would be to maintain use of the Candy Factory as it has been,” says Doyle. “But at the same time, we see dual occupancy as a win-win situation (in requesting the retention of some meeting space). It would benefit potential condo residents, and it would be preserving some of the building’s social history. Being near the World’s Fair site, which represents bringing diverse people together—preserving some of that would feel good.”

At times, it even seems like politicians and citizens are speaking the same language, if not the same dialect. “This ‘Save The Candy Factory’ logo,” says Becker, “That’s what the city’s campaign is all about. We want to repair this old run-down, but historic, building so that it better serves the community.”