editorial (2006-36)

The Feds’ Concern for Business Viability

A more than welcome attitude toward Market Square

Boom or Bust

The Feds’ Concern for Business Viability

The federal government’s effort to keep four Market Square businesses alive, despite the marijuana and money-laundering charges against the founders, is not only commendable, it’s amazing. There probably are precedents for the feds showing civic concern in the midst of an investigation and prosecution, but that is hardly perceived as the norm.

In the case involving Market Square entrepreneurs Scott and Bernadette West, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Knoxville has bent over backwards in allowing for ownership of four businesses—Earth to Old City, Preservation Pub, Oodles Uncorked and World Grotto—to remain in family hands, with only the Wests’ interests in the buildings set for forfeiture to the government as ill-gotten gains.

Credit for the arrangement, which is exceedingly complicated by leases and partnerships, has been given to U.S. Attorney Russ Dedrick, an old-school hard-liner among federal prosecutors. Although the veteran Dedrick’s reputation has mellowed over time, he’s still respected to the point of being feared by federal offenders. Explaining his soft spot for the ongoing rehabilitation of Market Square and the fate of the West’s businesses in preserving the momentum of downtown Knoxville’s resurgence, Dedrick says that, while he can’t comment specifically on a pending case, it’s not that unusual a situation.

Dedrick says federal prosecutors try to work with states and municipalities to see that viable businesses are sustained. “It’s something I feel we have an obligation to consider,” he says.

In this case, where the Wests are scheduled to enter guilty pleas soon to charges arising from an alleged scheme to import and distribute marijuana and launder the proceeds, their businesses are seen as vital to the square’s continued prosperity and its attraction of more new retail, restaurant and service enterprises.

Scott West’s brother Mike and Mike’s wife, Joanne, have already entered guilty pleas in the case, which the prosecution has characterized as being a big one in terms of marijuana smuggling and money laundering. Mike West is expected to be sentenced to more than 15 years in prison, and his wife could serve several years herself. Scott and Bernadette, who worked tirelessly in behalf of Market Square, the Old City and the downtown while physically restoring their buildings and promoting their businesses, are expected to be sentenced to somewhat lesser terms.

Scott West has admitted and taken responsibility for his wrongdoing, and he says that family members and trusted employees and partners should be able to see that the West-generated businesses continue and strive to thrive. We hope that that’s the case in this instance, especially, and we’re certainly glad to see that the government sees it the same way.

Boom or Bust

From the get-go, the weekend felt a little out of focus. Friday’s moderately-attended Montgomery Gentry concert on the World’s Fair Park lawn was, arguably, downtown’s darkest hour in recent history: We’re glad the Knoxville Sports & Tourism Corp. didn’t lose its shirt completely, but the mere fact that anyone showed up at all (PETA protestors excluded) was sort of disappointing, given Troy Lee Gentry’s recent caged-bear shooting episode.

On Saturday morning, the weird downtown atmosphere was growing even weirder, with the rednecks of the night before suddenly replaced by orange-shirted masses. Meanwhile, the thought of fireworks (with the exception of those launched post-touchdown) was growing more distant. After the game, a few folks hung around for the lackluster festival music lineup on the lawn, but after a long day of tailgating, the consensus seemed to be to head on home or wait out traffic at the bar. By 9:30 Sunday night, when the fireworks kicked off, the weekend just seemed like it should’ve been over already. 

That doesn’t mean ambitions for a bigger, better Boomsday should be foregone and forgotten next year. It could succeed if it were better thought out, presented and promoted. And if Montgomery Gentry weren’t invited back for Round Two. But the challenges posed after its first attempt should be evidence that it must better identify and serve its prospective audience.

There are three kinds of people inhabiting the Knoxville area on a home football weekend: The 100,000-plus who are going to see the game in Neyland Stadium; the many tens of thousands more who are going to watch the game on television; and the many tens of thousands who would not go near the UT campus or its environs on a football Saturday, unless there were a wildly compelling reason, other than football, to do so.

The affair needs not only a better headliner on the entertainment side, it must offer attendees the chance to view the Vols football game easily and well in the midst of the festivities. Think like a Vol fan, kids. If you want to charge these football freaks $15 to spend a September Saturday at World’s Fair Park, you’ve got to make the park more like their living room. Think big-screen projections of the game. Think beer and corndog vendors. Think orange sparklers—let’s keep that Boomsday theme coming.

As it stood, the best entertained people this past Labor Day weekend were the participants in the Vol Navy who got to take in the Vols’ big victory over a highly touted Cal opponent, partied all weekend on the hundreds of boats moored along the Knoxville waterfront, and stayed to have the best seats among the estimated 300,000-plus who gathered there to see a fabulous fireworks display there Sunday evening. Here’s to a Boomsday 2007 festival that floats.