coverstory (2007-45)

Wild Turkey

Feature Story

Love it or hate it, the Turkey Creek shopping center has changed life in Knoxville. And itâ’s multiplying. Where will it take us next?

by Leslie Wylie

The Turkey Creek shopping center divides Knoxvillians neatly into three ideological camps:

The Shameless Devotee: â“I love the smell of Super Target,â” a twentysomething in a puffy vest exclaims as she bursts through the storeâ’s double-doors. Itâ’s like sheâ’s drunk on a cocktail of cellophane wrapping and consumerism, or maybe sheâ’s just had one too many Starbucks mocha lattes. Other favorite Shameless Devotee destinations include Office Max, Old Navy, and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

The Reluctant Accomplice: These are the folks who generally regard Turkey Creek with some degree of remorse but shop there nonetheless. They are easily identifiable by their costume (dark sunglasses) and clumsy alibis: â“Is this Wal-Mart? Oh, how embarrassing. I thought it was EarthFare. No wonder I couldnâ’t find the organic produce department.â”

The Conscientious Objector: Earlier this year, a local blogger posted a survey positing the question, â“How often do you go to the Turkey Creek shopping complex?â” on a popular online community forum. Conscientious Objector responses included â“I refuse on principal, because of where they built the thing,â” â“It is the epitome of mall culture sprawl,â” â“Turkey Creek was a waste of public monies and an abuse of the public trust,â” and â“Um, never.â”

Love it or loathe it, though, Turkey Creek holds more sway on life in Knoxville than you might think. The ambitious, 410-acre mega-retail development in far West Knoxville exists as something of a small city unto itself, replete with restaurants, office space, medical facilities, banks, hotels, a multiplex cinema, adjacent subdivisions, and even a greenway. Itâ’s what city boosters like to call a â“destination,â” drawing visitors, not just from Knox but also surrounding counties, who are ready and willing to toss their dollars into our sales-tax pool.

Whatâ’s more, itâ’s spawning a whole new generation of mini-Turkey Creeks throughout the region. Some people think thatâ’s a good thing. Others suspect that itâ’s a sign of the apocalypse. Whatever camp you fall in, one thing is for certain: Turkey Creek has taken a bulldozer to the way we do consumerism in Knoxville.

ANATOMY OF A SHOPPING CENTER

For those who werenâ’t around to experience the drama surrounding Turkey Creekâ’s evolution firsthand, a quick review:

Even in the mid-â’90s, when Turkey Creek was still in utero, the development had its critics. To be located a full 14 miles west of downtown, it struck many as a poster-child for suburban sprawl, automobile dependency, and irresponsible land stewardship. You want to pave a road through the wetlands? Try selling that idea to local environmentalists.

Keep in mind this was all taking shape in an era when tumbleweed was still billowing down the streets of downtown. Some questioned the wisdom of building a commercial empire in the suburbs with the center-city still wallowing in decay. As then-City Councilwoman Carlene Malone, a vocal opponent of the project, put it to Metro Pulse in 1997: â“Letâ’s spend $4.1 million on a project as far from the center of the city as you can go and still be inside Knox County. Then letâ’s moan and groan about revitalizing downtown. Are we schizophrenic? Are we nuts? Why not just build the convention center out there?â”

Still, the development had plenty of supportersâ"most notably, former Mayor Victor Asheâ"and the scent of profit trumped the stink of marsh water. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, the construction scaffolding fell, revealing a big-box shopping paradise. Like a desert boomtown in the midst of the California gold rush, the development rose up out of a largely unsullied plot of countryside to capitalize on the westward shift of populationâ"a population earmarked by disposable income. The middle-to-upper class Turkey Creek demographic had already found its gold; it was just looking for a place to spend it.

At Turkey Creek, the possibilities by which one could rid his or her wallet of its contents are endless, thanks to its dozens of stores and restaurants. Size-wise, Turkey Creek defies definition by industry standards. Not counting the wetlands and roadways, Turkey Creek rounds out to between 300 and 320 acres of developed land, which, for a rough comparison, is about 10 times the size of the interior of West Town Mall.

The International Council of Shopping Centers breaks outdoor retail developments down into broad categories based on concept, acreage, and tenants. While Turkey Creek is sometimes referred to as a â“power centerâ” (a 25-80-acre development with three or more anchor stores and several smaller tenants) or a â“lifestyle centerâ” (similar to a power center but smaller, between 10 and 40 acres, and usually featuring a cinema or other entertainment feature), it shares characteristics with both and is technically too big to be either.

Jim Nixon, a partner in development team Turkey Creek Land Partners, explains, â“Itâ’s a mix. We have an entertainment component, we have a power center component, a lifestyle component and an adjacent residential component.â”

By the developersâ’ standards, itâ’s an effective, well-rounded model that still leaves them a little room to expand. While the developmentâ’s growth does have a ceilingâ"â“After weâ’re finished with that, there will be very little land left,â” Nixon saysâ"it hasnâ’t reached it yet.

Remaining projects center on a 190,000-square-foot westward expansion of the Colonial Pinnacle section, which already includes the Pinnacle 18 Regal Cinema, several retailers and a couple of restaurants. The final draft should feature, among other things, a 458-car parking garage. Also, as announced in mid-October, an Imax theater should be in place at the cinema by Dec. 14, in time to screen the Will Smith movie I Am Legend.

Elsewhere, thereâ’s still some construction on the south side of Parkside Drive, and the developers are in negotiations for a second department store, Belk being the first. There have also been rumors that Costco is eyeing Turkey Creek for a possible store location in the near future.

DESIGN MATTERS

Aesthetically, the development ranges from discrete, town-center inspired store rows to the flashy, neon-lit bravado of the Pinnacle Cinema. Thereâ’s little uniformity from section to section except that everything looks clean, corporate, and newâ"and everything is fronted by a massive parking lot, a design element that rubs some of Turkey Creekâ’s critics the wrong way.

University of Tennessee architecture professor Mark Schimmenti points to a rendering of Jackson, Miss., on his laptop. The sketch, which focuses on a few blocks of the cityâ’s downtown, shows green spaces, fountains, and multi-level, mixed-use buildings with parking in the back rather than the front.

â“This is the way Turkey Creek couldâ’ve looked had they put some thought into it,â” he says. â“Youâ’ve got to get the recipe right, not just the ingredients. You donâ’t eat the eggs, the sugar, the butterâ"you eat the whole cake. Youâ’ve got to mix it up. Youâ’ve got to have connectivity.â”

Turkey Creek, he argues, for all its expansiveness, is fragmented. There are no pleasant roads upon which to walk from store to store, no landscaping of interest, few benches where shoppers can sit down and people-watch or eat lunch. Thereâ’s a sterility to it, a lack of human connection, because there are so few public spaces. For some, thatâ’s a plusâ"there are no homeless people to walk around on the sidewalk, for instance, or fire-and-brimstone spewing street preachers. But for others, it just makes Turkey Creek seem detached from reality.

â“This is not a naturally occurring environment,â” Schimmenti says. Unlike the organic growth of ordinary cities, he says, Turkey Creek is a carefully moderated, studiously orchestrated imitation of the real world.

The professor links the origins of Turkey Creekâ’s design to the primitive model of the fully-enclosed shopping mall, which rose to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. The malls were anchored by a handful of large department stores and were linked together by road-like walkways lined with smaller retailers. In the beginning, the relationship between the large and small stores was somewhat parasitic; oftentimes, only the smaller retailers were asked to pay rent, as the department stores were considered the destinations upon which everything else was piggybacking.

The layout of Turkey Creek isnâ’t so different, with big-box stores like Super Wal-Mart, Super Target, and Bed, Bath & Beyond functioning as anchors. Sandwiched in between are smaller stores, a handful of them local, touting everything from video games to pianos. Of course, unlike the early days of shopping malls, every Turkey Creek tenant is expected to pay rent at a premiumâ"between $25 and $30 per square foot, on average.

â“You have to watch your tenant mix carefully,â” says Turkey Creek developer Nixon. â“You donâ’t want to put someone in there that doesnâ’t fit into the mix.â”

Tenant-developer relationships, he says, are typically initiated at one of four International Council of Shopping Centers conferences throughout the year. Assembling the right combination of tenants is a tricky feat, Nixon says, not unlike piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. Making it more difficult is the marketing practice of co-branding, wherein different but relatively similar brands (Victoriaâ’s Secret, Talbotâ’s, etc.) will link elbows and sell themselves to developers as a package deal. â“One of them probably wonâ’t go unless they all go,â” Nixon explains.

Thatâ’s a primary reason why mega-shopping centers like Turkey Creek manage to leap from zero to, say, 80-percent occupancy in such a short period of time. Stores donâ’t open one at a time, in a natural, organic manner; itâ’s one-stop shopping from the get-go. In Turkey Creekâ’s case, the blow-up occurred on this side of the millennium, when the big-box stores opened in 2001 and 2002. Since then, the majority of the blanks have been filled.

According to Nixon, Turkey Creekâ’s boomtown momentum owes as much to a leap of faith as to a feat of planning. The developers, he says, merely singled out the right place at the right time and hoped that if they built it, the retailers would come. â“There were definitely some elements of luck,â” he says.

VIEW FROM BEHIND THE WHEEL

Turkey Creekâ’s scope is both a curse and a blessing. On one hand, whatever it is youâ’re shopping for can usually be found somewhere within the developmentâ’s epic collage of big-box retailers, specialty shops, and restaurants. And because theyâ’re all relatively near one another, you donâ’t have to zigzag from store to store across town to find what you need.

On the flip side, because there are so many stores and so many shoppers occupying such close quarters, Parkside Drive, the main artery running through Turkey Creek, can get congestedâ"a complaint that, as the shopping district grows ever larger and more popular, is repeated with greater frequency.

â“I try to avoid Turkey Creek because of the traffic,â” says Garren Burkey, whoâ’s waiting in line for his phone to be repaired at the Turkey Creek Verizon Wireless store. â“Today, we just made a day of it.â”

Burkeyâ’s wife Lyschel says that, unlike her husband, who tends to go shopping for just one thing, she can usually knock out a whole shopping list with just one visit to Turkey Creek. Living off nearby Gallaher View Road, itâ’s not much of a drive to get there, either. â“For me, the convenience factor outweighs the headache of the traffic,â” she says.

Traffic might not be so bad if more shoppers walked from store to store. But because the development is so far-reaching and the stores so spread out, itâ’s not unusual to see shoppers driving from one end of a parking lot to the other to visit stores at opposite ends. Even shoppers who are willing to hoof it on foot, however, may not be in luck.

â“Turkey Creek is not very pedestrian friendly,â” say Jeffrey Nash, a local developer whose projects include the Crimson Building downtown. It can be nerve-wracking, for instance, to navigate the sidewalks along Parkside Drive with a heady current of automobiles streaming past. Even in the parking lots, impatient drivers have been known to honk at pedestrians who arenâ’t moving fast enough to get out of their way.

Nash is a native of England, and heâ’s quick to point out the fact that the Turkey Creek model is a strictly American phenomenon. Not that developers havenâ’t tried to adapt the model to metropolitan areas of the United Kingdom: â“They say, â‘It works so well in the United States, surely we can make it work here.â’ But it doesnâ’t.â”

Although grocery stores are becoming increasingly common abroad, Europeans are accustomed to shopping at multiple vendorsâ"the butcher, the baker, etc., in their own neighborhoodsâ"so the one-stop shopping shtick doesnâ’t carry much appeal. Also, itâ’s a much more localized economy. A Caesar salad, for instance, isnâ’t shipped hundreds, or even thousands, of miles before it reaches its final destination on someoneâ’s plate, so the usefulness of big-box importers like Wal-Mart is limited.

Besides, Nash says, itâ’s unlikely that such a development could even get off the ground. â“You canâ’t just build a Turkey Creek anywhere you want to,â” he says. â“The government wonâ’t release land for building when there are brown-sites that need regenerating.â”

This, he says, is partially accountable for the absence of suburban sprawl abroad. Between towns, he notes, thereâ’s actual green space, whereas on Interstate 40, you could drive all the way from Knoxville to Kingston without seeing a piece of undeveloped land. â“Your cheap gas is one of the worst things that could ever happen here,â” he says.

SHADES OF GREEN

But Turkey Creek isnâ’t all acres of asphalt and carbon-copy big-box stores. Thereâ’s a wetland reserve on the periphery of Turkey Creek, accessible to shoppers with the tenacity to locate its rather modest main entrance on Lovell Road, next to the McDonaldâ’s.

The reserve is home to the developmentâ’s namesake, a stream that once flowed parallel to Lovell Road along overgrown Farragut pastureland. Beavers started damming the creek in the early-â’90s. When it flooded, it created the 20-acre wetland that would become a hot-button point of contention when plans for Turkey Creek, the shopping district, were announced by Turkey Creek Land Partners roundabout 1995.

To be fair, only a couple acres of the original jurisdictional wetland were slated to be directly affected by the development, either by the extension of Parkside Drive or by the filling in of commercial frontage on Lovell Road. Environmentalists, led by a group that called itself the Turkey Creek Wetland Alliance, argued that wetlands are sensitive ecosystems and that to alter even a percentage of the area would damage the entire wetland.

Eventually, an agreement was reached. Because wetlands are protected by county, state, and federal laws, and law dictates that lost wetland must be recreated through mitigation, Turkey Creekâ’s developers allotted 58 acres for additional wetland, a rerouted Turkey Creek and a buffer zone.

A winding, scenic greenway was built, the construction of which presented its own challenges as well. â“It was difficult to talk people into a greenway,â” recalls Donna Young, greenways coordinator for the city. Twelve or 13 years ago, she says, â“greenwayâ” was only just beginning to make its way into the lexicon of local citizens, who were reluctant to give the city easements to their land.

These days, the wetlandsâ"now referred to as the Turkey Creek Wetland Natural Area Parkâ"donâ’t seem to be any worse for the drama thatâ’s surrounded them in recent years. The Tennessee Izaak Walton League, a company focused on the protection of local waterways and public lands, manages the park, led by Mark Campen. Campen reports that the area is still inhabited by a range of wildlife including beaver, fox, deer, coyote, raccoon, and owls. A so-called â“Bioblitzâ” is being staged for the spring of 2008, during which biologists and specialists in various fields of natural resource science are invited to identify any and all plants and animals they can find within a 24-hour period.

â“A mini-All Taxa Biotic Inventory, if you please,â” Campen says. â“There are a lot of neat critters that stop over, pass through, and reside in the parkâ"even with all the development, Kingston Pike and I-40 surrounding it. That, in part, was the value we saw in Turkey Creek Wetland as an outdoor classroom.â”

The League considers it their mission to keep young people involved in the park, giving them hands-on experience with water quality evaluation and plant and animal identification. The wetlands have also been a catalyst for community service: Recently, a Girl Scout troop built and installed signs and benches along the greenway, and various Eagle Scout projects have focused on the removal of invasive plants and the curtailing of erosion farther up in the watershed.

Adults have plenty of excuses to enjoy the park as well. â“The greenway gets more use than ever,â” Campen says. â“In the mornings, lunchtime, and evenings, joggers, walkers, birdwatchers, and bicycle riders can be seen using the paved trail.â”

At about the time this paper goes to press on Tuesday night, City Council will be voting on whether to adopt the greenway into the city of Knoxville greenway system (the easement is currently being held by Knox County). The switchover has been a long time coming, due to various issues related to deeds and maintenance. With any luck, it will be the final stretch of red tape the Turkey Creek wetlands have to contend with for a while.

â“Itâ’s being finalized,â” confirms Sharon Boyce of the cityâ’s law department. â“Weâ’re just tweaking the language. It should go through.â”

MORE ROOFTOPS, MORE RETAIL

As Turkey Creek grows ever largerâ"and spawns mini-Turkey Creeks in the metro areaâ"are there really enough shoppers to go around?

â“Retail follows residential,â” explains Mike Edwards, president and CEO of the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership. â“This is the axiom that drives everything. Retail clusters around the demographics of the population; where the people live is where they shop.â”

â“What Turkey Creek does,â” he continues, â“is acknowledge that there is a huge amount of disposable income within a 15-20 mile radius.â”

Historically speaking, the Knoxville retail market has been prone to expanding westward, following residential growth trends.

(In 2001 the Metropolitan Planning Commission issued a Census-based report revealing that Knox Countyâ’s center of population has crept from a point in Lonsdale in 1980, less than a mile west to Pleasant Ridge Road in 1990, to a point in the median of Western Avenue between Forty-fourth Street and Interstate 640 overpass in 2000.)

But over the past five years in particular, population growth has been pushing in other directions as wellâ"east, north, south, and even into neighboring counties. Additionally, huge amounts of investment have landed in areas closer to the center city, most notably downtown itself. The idea that tax revenue generated by Turkey Creek may be, to some extent, shouldering the development thatâ’s occurring downtown is an interesting one to ponder.

Dutifully, retail growth has followed, confirming, says Edwards, what the Census has already been telling us: Our population is growing. And theyâ’re going to need somewhere to shop.

â“Since Turkey Creek started its explosion,â” Edwards says, â“if you were to go out and look at retail on Clinton Highway, or Chapman Highway, and to some extent Pellissippiâ"not really looking at political boundaries of counties but at shopping masses, Turkey Creek is not the lone mega-center out there.â”

Lately, the list of new shopping centers has grown difficult to keep up with. None of them quite compare with Turkey Creek in terms of sheer breadth, although Dumplin Creek, a 190-acre development off I-40â’s Exit 407 that is still in the early stages of development, runs a respectable second. The same group of developers that birthed Turkey Creek are responsible for Dumplin Creek, and Nixon, one of the partners, says we can expect a smaller version of Dumplin Creekâ’s elder sibling.

Already, the Sevierville area is chomping at the bit for it to open. â“For us, any new developmentâ"especially an upscale retail developmentâ"is phenomenal,â” says Amanda Maples-Marr, marketing coordinator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. â“So many of our visitors, their number-one activity is shopping. And, of course, itâ’s going to be great for the residents of Sevierville as well.â”

Other new developments incorporate a strong residential component into their mixed-use design. A notable example is the new-urbanism style Northshore Town Center at the intersection of Northshore Drive and Pellissippi Parkway, a work-in-progress featuring a combination of retail, office space, and residences in a â“Main Streetâ” setting. But as ambitious a project as the Northshore development is, a 450-acre technology park at the intersection of Pellissippi Parkway and Old Knoxville Highway in Alcoa, may be even more impressive when itâ’s all said and done. Which, granted, may not be for another 40 to 50 years.

The development will be called the Pellissippi Research Center, says Fred Forster, president and CEO of the Blount County Chamber of Commerce. â“Ultimately, weâ’ll have about 2,500 people living there and a bunch more working there and playing there,â” he explains.

Itâ’ll be a paradise for computer geeks and science nerds, so to speak, with 230 acres of the park devoted to research and development and corporate office space and the other 125 acres used for mixed-use development. The idea, Forster says, is to create an synergistic environment in which technology-minded people are able to interact not only on the job but in their day-to-day lives as well.

On a smaller, and more strictly commercial, scale, there are other mini-Turkey Creeks: North Fork Station in Halls; Harvest Park Shopping Center, on the old Farmerâ’s Market site near Knoxville Center Mall; South Grove (sometimes referred to as â“Chicken Creekâ”) on Chapman Highway; Hamilton Crossing in Maryville; Town Creek on Highway 321; and Creekwood in Lenoir City.

What areas are developers eyeing for future developments? There could be a Turkey Creek coming to a suburb near you, says Ben Kenney, of local real-estate development firm Woods Properties. In a recent issue of the Southeast Real Estate Business trade journal, he concluded a roundup of new Knoxville-area developments with the following prediction: Based on their strong housing starts, Halls, Powell and Hardin Valley may be big-box hotspots to watch for in the future.

Kenney gives credit where credit is due, though. Turkey Creek was the boomtown that got the mega-retail ball rolling in the first place.

â“What I think Turkey Creek did was put Knoxville on the map with respect to the major national retailers,â” he says. â“We had this project that was so big and it developed so quickly, it made people pay attention to Knoxville that might not have been paying attention previously.â”

Turkey Creek generates lots of tax revenueâ" or is it being siphoned from other malls?

To this day, there are Knoxvillians who wonâ’t set foot in Turkey Creek on principle, citing any number of urban planning principles they claim the development has violated. But even the staunchest doubters would have a hard time arguing that Turkey Creek isnâ’t contributing at least one useful thing to the city: sales- and property-tax revenue, and a lot of it.

â“From the city standpointâ"Iâ’ll put my mayorâ’s hat onâ"thereâ’s been a lot of talk about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing,â” says Mayor Bill Haslam. â“The bottom line is, itâ’s an incredibly profitable thing.â”

According to Haslam, Turkey Creek is putting an extra $4-$5 million in the budget that wouldnâ’t be there otherwise. Obviously, local governmentsâ’ front-end investments saw rapid returns; the city and county government-funded extension of Parkside Drive, for instance, was paid for by the second year after Turkey Creek opened.

â“For people who say, â‘I wish that had never happened,â’ from a city of Knoxville standpoint, thatâ’s $4-$5 million dollars that weâ’d have to come up with elsewhere for roads, parks, and education,â” he says.

Assessing the larger economic impact of a commercial development like Turkey Creek isnâ’t easy. For one thing, business owners and managers are rarely inclined to discuss sensitive details like sales totals. For another, sales-tax records broadly chronicle activity on large, impersonal swaths of real estate, not individual shopping outlets or retail developments.

â“The best we can do is some proxies, and those can be either good or bad,â” explains Jim York, deputy finance director for the city of Knoxville. He pulls out a list of sales tax receipts for the county for the past seven years. (Between 75 and 77 percent of the sales tax in Knox County is generated inside the city, where Turkey Creek is located.) The numbers climb steadily, starting with $137.3 million in 2001-2002 and ending at $174.7 million in 2006-2007.

â“Growth in the last few years has been pretty good, but I canâ’t tell you that itâ’s all Turkey Creek. Thatâ’s speculation,â” York says. He refuses to hazard a guess at how much of the cityâ’s total sales tax revenue is attributable to Turkey Creek. â“Anecdotally, Iâ’d say itâ’s significant, but whether itâ’s 10 percent or what, I donâ’t know,â” he says.

Thereâ’s always been some skepticism, however, as to whether the development is actually generating new sales tax revenue or just displacing it from other shopping areas. A handful of West Knoxville restaurants, among them EdisonPark Steakhouse and Old College Inn West, have closed in the last couple of months, citing competition from the Turkey Creek restaurant pool as a primary reason.

Businesses outside Knox County arenâ’t immune, either. Turkey Creek is accessible to at least four neighboring countiesâ"Anderson, Blount, Loudon and Roaneâ"whoâ’ve felt the effects of its drawing power.

Parker Hardy, president of the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce, describes Turkey Creek as a â“huge magnet.â” He says, â“Thereâ’s no doubt that the Turkey Creek development is attracting shoppers from Oak Ridge.â”

Rather than throwing its hands up in defeat, however, Hardy says Oak Ridge is taking it as a challenge. â“It has just underscored our need in Oak Ridge to develop more retail,â” he explains. â“Weâ’re working very hard to attract businesses that will help keep more of our retail dollars at home, and I donâ’t think Turkey Creek is going to detract from our ability to do that.â”

Other shopping hubs in the area donâ’t seem to be taking quite as big a hit as one might expect. Les Morris is the spokesperson for Simon Property groups, which manages West Town Mall. He says that the mallâ’s third-quarter numbers just came out last week, and that both sales-per-square-foot and occupancy are up from what they were a year ago.

â“The enclosed mall market is a mature market,â” he says, noting that West Town Mall was built in 1972 and Knoxville Center, originally called East Town Mall, was built in 1984. â“Today, itâ’s en vogue to build â‘lifestyle centers.â’ Simon isnâ’t building any new regional enclosed malls, but that doesnâ’t mean theyâ’re not thriving.â” â" Leslie Wylie

Columns

All content © 2007 Metropulse .