Time Warp to 2009

Prepare yourselves, citizens of Knoxille, for a startling vision of the future: Life in the Year 2009!

Utilizing recently decommissioned time-tunnel equipment from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, we were able to briefly open a fourth-dimensional wormhole into Knoxville's future. In those few seconds, we peered into the strange new world of 2009. Based on those incredible visions, we present our predictions for the battles to be waged, the developments to watch for, and the giant robo-dinosaurs that will seek to exterminate the entire human race. (Or was that in 3009? We may have misdialed.) 

Here's what to expect in the coming year:

Tennessee Budget Woes More Woeful

The economy is in bad shape, joblessness and foreclosures are up, and Tennesseans need health care and unemployment insurance more than ever. So state revenues are shot to hell, and unless things change the budget's gonna get worse in 2009. Gov. Phil Bredesen says that state shortfalls could reach as high as $800 million to $1 billion by the end of this fiscal year. Since this is Tennessee, and the state Legislature is now controlled by the GOP, don't expect new taxes. Instead, look for some major cuts from the state budget.

Now, let's localize this stuff. State higher education is anticipating more than $100 million in losses in state funding for next year, with most of those cuts coming from the University of Tennessee system. The largest UT campus is where again? Oh, yeah, it's about a three-minute drive from where this blurb is now being written in downtown Knoxville. Bredesen has called for program and staff cuts, rather than tuition increases, to deal with revenue shortfalls. Keep in mind, UT was East Tennessee's fourth largest employer (we're pretty sure Phil Fulmer only counted as one employee) as of the end of last year.

Best-Case Scenario: The new Obama administration makes good on its promise of a $500 billion state bailout package to offset new spending increases and help fund infrastructure improvements. Tennessee gets about $268 million of that, and the state breaks ground on more than $1 billion in ready-to-build construction projects, employing thousands whose homes were in danger of foreclosure. UT chugs along more or less unscathed.

Worst-Case Scenario: The Republican-controlled state Legislature continues to slash state spending, particularly in higher education. UT announces the closure of all academic programs except for its medical school in Memphis and the newly opened Dolly Parton Memorial School of Cosmetology in Knoxville. UT's massive layoffs create a ripple effect in Knoxville, eventually leading to 50 percent unemployment, and the city goes into receivership.

County Commission Controversy Erupts!

The charter amendment to reduce the size of Knox County Commission from 19 to 11 members, with two commissioners elected at-large, which was passed in November, will face constitutional challenges in the court in 2009. Both sides seem confident of their constitutional rectitude.

Best-Case Scenario: A simple reading of the state constitution will quickly clear the matter right up.

Worst-Case Scenario: It will become a months-long legal battle with more attorneys involved than actual commission seats.

State Income Tax: Suddenly, It All Makes Sense

On the Tennessee Department of Revenue's Comparative Statement of Collected Revenues, the largest line entry is sales and use tax. Second largest is gasoline. What happens during a recession? People buy less of everything. As of October 2008 gas tax revenues were down more than 10 percent, and sales tax was down by almost 3 percent, following even greater declines in 2007. So the state is in a position where it must fund what are likely to become emergency measures with regard to social services and infrastructure—as unemployment, bankruptcies and foreclosures continue to mount—with less money than it had when times were good, which was inadequate even then.

Obviously, just because people aren't spending money doesn't mean people aren't earning money. As has been reported in these pages, many companies—devoid of exploitation or predatory techniques—are showing growth related to the recession. So the specter of a state income tax comes up in almost any conversation related to UT budget cuts or public services put on hold. A Tennessee state income tax is like an inflatable punching clown: easily smacked down, but it always comes back. After any failed referendum or legislative vote, proponents ask, "How bad will it have to get before people realize?" This may be the year we find out.

Best-Case Scenario: A progressive income tax weighted toward upper-income brackets could bail out Tennessee before we get to the next potato famine.

Worst-Case Scenario: The Republican-led legislature figures out a way to tax only low- and middle-income brackets.

A Grand Opening

In September the S&W Grand Cafe, maybe the most anticipated architectural triumph of 2009, will open, bringing crowds into the big art-deco space for the first time in 28 years. Developers promise to reconstruct the original 1937 art-deco interior of the landmark cafeteria so perfectly it'll fool your grandmother. The restaurant will be run by the Balests, a brother and sister duo who have made a success of a French restaurant in West Knoxville, Northshore Brasserie. (It flourished even in the Freedom Fries era.) The Grand Cafe is promised to be more modest in price and menu, if not in elegance.

Best-Case Scenario: Even more Knoxvillians will find good reason to visit their downtown.

Worst-Case Scenario: Even more Knoxvillians will find good reason to visit their downtown, and the wait to get a table for lunch will get even longer.

Downtown Apartment Dwellers Multiply

Though some downtown boosters boast of recession immunity, don't expect as many new downtown condos to enter the market in 2009 as in each of the last few years—partly just because most of the available historical structures have already been built out, but partly because even before the recession consumers were complaining of a lack of modestly priced rental apartments. This year will see more emphasis on rental apartment buildings, and several significant projects of that nature will be emerging in months to come, like David Dewhirst's big JFG conversion on Jackson Avenue between Gay Street and the Old City, due to open in June. Unlike most Dewhirst residential projects, these 54 new rental units will go for moderate prices, estimated at $500-$1200/month. They'll be open in June.

Best-Case Scenario: More downtown residents will further its resurgence.

Worst-Case Scenario: Did we mention those long lines for lunch?

More Fixing-Upping Needed Around Town

Other big renovation projects we're likely to hear about in 2009: Minvilla Flats, the Edwardian rowhouses qua flophouse on Fifth Avenue, primed for a renovation for transitional homeless housing for which there is not yet adequate money. The Standard Knitting Mills Building, just northeast of downtown, sold to another out-of-state firm for residential conversions, so far disappointing in its pace; it's reportedly a haven for derelicts. South High, bought by a little-known but apparently well-meaning developer in 2008—but work on the long-vacant South Knoxville school building is reportedly not imminent, and the place may be on the market again. The White Lily building(s), across the tracks from the Old City, freshly deserted by the company that owns them, is enormous, and as handsome a factory building as we know of in East Tennessee, but its future is an emphatic question mark. And the neighborhoods are full of challenges. Fort Sanders has the iconic Pickle Mansion on Clinch Avenue, threatened with demolition after a ruinous fire but saved, or so we thought, by a young developer, who bought it—five years ago—and has done little obvious since, straining the patience of now-skeptical former allies who are pushing for a resolution. Even Cormac McCarthy's family home in South Knoxville molders away, vacant and overgrown like a scene in one of his novels.

Best-Case Scenario: Renovation plans will get into gear and more Knoxville icons will find new uses.

Worst-Case Scenario: The economy will freeze up developers, and those icons will remain empty.

The Rule of Law Arrives (on Summit Hill)

Maybe the least anticipated positive development for downtown in 2009 will be the introduction of higher education to downtown, and it doesn't even have anything to do with UT. Lincoln Memorial University, whose main campus is about 75 miles northeast of Knoxville, announced that it would be starting a law school and opening it in downtown Knoxville. In a Lincoln-era building, in fact: the 1848 Tennessee School for the Deaf today known to most as Old City Hall. It's set to open for 100-150 students in the fall—a perfect use for a building we couldn't picture as another nightclub.

Best-Case Scenario: More lawyers will populate downtown.

Worst-Case Scenario: More lawyers will populate downtown.

German Engineering With a New Accent

Volkswagen Group of America announced last summer that it would build a new $1 billion plant in Chattanooga's Enterprise South industrial park, employing 2,000 workers, most of whom would be involved in the assembly process. Early reports said that the company was braced for 100,000 applicants. Production of a new sedan designed specifically for North American drivers is scheduled to begin in 2011. The car is still currently being designed, and exactly what it will be or even look like is a matter of speculation. (Photos deemed bogus by VW have circulated in regional media.) For the moment, the vehicle is called the NMS.

U.S. reps of the Germany-based automaker have said they're undeterred by dismal auto sales in the states late last year. Depending on rainfall, grading in prep for construction may have begun by the time you read this. While Chattanooga scrambles to accommodate VW, digging in to build the necessary new electrical substation, suppliers of parts are bidding for contracts and jockeying for premium space in the same industrial park. Knoxville also hopes to benefit by its proximity, and the Knoxville Chamber is actively recruiting automotive manufacturing suppliers.

Best-Case Scenario: There will be good neighbor Beta test programs that allow us all to drive the new car for a week.

Worst-Case Scenario: Fine print in the Big Three bailout will somehow pull the plug on émigré competition.

Northern Climate Heats Up

Eyes will be on Downtown North, the quarter-mile stretch of North Central Street roughly between Broadway and Scott, which has seen some of the most interesting development in town in the last couple of years, from Ironwood Studios to the Magpies/Glowing Body complex. And then there's the "other" White Store Building—not the one that's now Mast General Store on Gay Street, but rather the pre-war grocery space across from the Time Warp Tea Room on North Central in the center of the little commercial cluster long known as Happy Holler. Partially renovated by owner Daniel Schuh, it was to be the site of a trendy restaurant project that didn't work out last year, and has since been discussed as a specialty grocery and a performance space. In December, it was announced that a vegetarian restaurant called Veg-O-Rama would open in a smaller adjacent building.

Best-Case Scenario: We have all-new cool places to go to!

Worst-Case Scenario: They're too cool for us to hang out in.

Downtown Dips North

North Central Street will stick to a diet after the New Year as the Downtown North/Interstate 275 revitalization plan keeps up the good work on a master plan to create a mixed-use residential and retail zone facing a pedestrian-friendly street. Already accomplished: City contractors re-striped a six-block section along the heart of North Central—from Woodland Avenue to Pearl Place, which includes the Happy Holler section—in a way that turned the four-lane street into a three-lane street (otherwise known as a "road diet") with traffic moving in each direction, a center turn lane, and added bicycling lanes and on-street parking. From now until the summer, the city will wait while the Knoxville Utilities Board finishes planned wastewater system improvements on Central Street south of Baxter Avenue, and then the rest of Central will be resurfaced and re-striped, depending on how planning and funding goes.

Best-Case Scenario: North Central gets smoother sidewalks starting in February and Santa's able to ride his sleigh on a bike-friendly street all the way along Central across Broadway and into downtown by December.

Worst-Case Scenario: KUB breaks a water main and we have a half-fat Central forever.

South Knox Waterfront Developments

Revitalizing (or, rather, vitalizing) the South Waterfront is supposed to be a 20-year project, so theoretically 1/20 of it will be completed by the end of next year. It's been slow going so far, but there were some big announcements last year, including Conley family-owned Southshore Properties' plans to start on a 137-unit riverfront condo project, a mixed-use development east of the Gay Street Bridge, and Mercy Hospital's planned medical center on top of what is now Baptist Hospital. The city is also working on waterfront-friendly road improvements, including a roundabout at the intersection of Lincoln, Sevier, and Island Home Boulevard. Unfortunately, there are some homes in the way there. The city is in negotiations with property owners, but at least one, Gary Bayless, says he does not want to sell, especially not for the $97,000 price tag the city has put on his house, which he claims is worth as much as $180,000.

Best-Case Scenario: Ideally, in this economy, new build projects will begin slowly and cautiously. Southshore Properties breaks ground, and demolition of Baptist hospital, slated to begin late last year, finally actually begins. KCDC deals fairly with all property owners whose homes or businesses stand in the way of proposed road development, and the city does not have to resort to eminent domain. National chain stores (except for, um, Kmart and Steve and Barry's) and local businesses, excited about the new development, look for available properties on Chapman Highway.

Worst-Case Scenario: The economy continues its freefall. Private developers go into hyper-conservative mode and pull all South Waterfront plans. The city abandons the South Waterfront project. Seeking to recoup the investments already made, city officials decide to sell advertising space on the animals living within the Ijams Nature Center, touting them as "FaunAds: The Green Approach to Mobile Marketing."

The Strip: Still Stripped of Local Color

Cumberland Avenue, once a college strip of quaint, impertinent, and dangerous sidewalk shops, is now only one mutation away from its complete evolution into an interstate exit, dominated by parking lots and bland chain fast-fooderies. But it's the subject of a last-minute salvation effort by the city to establish form-based zoning here. Form-based zoning is a new-fashioned concept that tends to promote old-fashioned development: sidewalks and alleys and mixed-use buildings, mainly just by removing the hamfisted post-war zoning rules that destroyed so many agreeable commercial centers. Though the rewriting of zoning rules for Cumberland is well underway, city officials say changes will probably not be apparent in terms of actual construction until 2010 or later.

Best-Case Scenario: We have all-new cool places to go to!

Worst-Case Scenario: It stays pretty much the same.

SEC's Boy Wonder: Fly or Flop

You might be inclined to call new University of Tennessee head football coach Lane Kiffin a boy wonder. He's only 33, which makes him the youngest head coach in the SEC, and at 31 he was the youngest head coach ever in the NFL, and before that he was offensive coordinator for the high-powered University of Southern California Trojans. But his historic stint as coach of the Oakland Raiders ended with a 5-15 record, which may tarnish his reputation as a wunderkind.

On top of that, Kiffin's inherited a team that finished 5-7 in 2008 and his late-season replacement of Phillip Fulmer interrupted UT's recruiting process. But Kiffin's making about $2 million a year to turn the program around. So what's going to happen with UT football in the Lane Kiffin era?

Best-Case Scenario: If Florida quarterback Tim Tebow turns pro and Georgia keeps underperforming, the SEC East could be wide open.

Worst-Case Scenario: The team that rallied around Fulmer when he was fired never gets behind Kiffin, he's stuck with Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens at quarterback, and somehow Monte Kiffin's defensive scheme fails to take hold. Even if the SEC East is wide open, it's still a balanced division, and fans and boosters will be howling mad with anything less than seven wins and at least one victory over Florida, Georgia, or Alabama.

K-Cups for K-Town

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, based in Vermont, cut the ribbon on its new facility at Forks of the River in November. The coffee company invested $50 million in the Knoxville operation, and expects to eventually employ 300 caffeine achievers. The plant's particular specialty will be "K-Cups," a hardshell variation of the single-cup coffee pod, made to work in the Keurig Coffee Maker system, popular in workplaces. Green Mountain prides itself on being socially responsible, and says one of the attractions to Knoxville was its designation as a Solar America City.

Best-Case Scenario: Free Keurig coffee machines for all Knoxvillians!

Worst-Case Scenario: No free coffee, causing severe productivity drops among underpaid journalists.

No Legal Liquor For You, Civil Districts

It took a couple days to certify the votes, but Knox Countians decided in November that businesses outside Knoxville proper should be able to serve liquor by the drink. The state does not necessarily disagree, but it does have a law in its code and constitution that prohibits such a thing (57-3-106). Those outlying areas, like Halls and Carter, are seen by the state as civil districts, a term not much used anymore. According to state law, no civil district adjacent to a municipality in which it is legal to serve liquor by the drink may serve liquor by the drink. Thanks to the Knoxville annexation frenzy of the late 20th century, there are no longer any civil districts that don't touch Knoxville.

The Knoxville office of the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission says they've received "many" calls from county business owners seeking permits, and those business owners don't like what they're being told. The ABC spokeswoman said she didn't know when the state law was enacted, and couldn't imagine its original purpose. Whether or not Knox County would-be spirit-sellers have the sand in them to pursue a constitutional amendment remains to be seen.

Best-Case Scenario: Um. More liquor for Knoxvillians?

Worst-Case Scenario: The law goes unchallenged and Halls becomes our center of speakeasies and blind pigs.

Oh, When Will We Have Our Own Boutique Hotel?

Metropolitan Plaza, the $78 million mixed-use development slated for the site of the retired State Supreme Court building, is still in the works. Ground-breaking and ribbon-cutting dates remain uncertain, however, since shovel number one still depends on financing for the developer, Nick Cazana, and some city-to-state interaction that will make available the property. And the project is expected to take two years to complete. Excitement stalled briefly during a short-lived lawsuit brought by a group with connections to the nearby Holiday Inn Select. But it was resolved that the project did not violate a 2004 referendum prohibiting public funds toward vaguely similar projects. (The referendum was actually pushed through by the same group that cried foul this year.) Part of the complex would be a 200-room boutique hotel, which would certainly be capable of serving folks attending all manner of Convention Center events.

Cazana says the city is currently in communication with the state to wrap up the real estate. Presuming that happens in a timely manner, he hopes to present the development to city council at their next gathering. The plans for the parking garage—which will support everything else—are complete, and all other plans should be put to bed in six to eight months. Cazana also says the hotel will be operated by a recognized brand, and that both Marriott and Starwood have visited Knoxville to consider themselves there.

Best-Case Scenario: A downtown crowded with conventioneers.

Worst-Case Scenario: A downtown crowded with conventioneers.

Gelato for the Masses

In April, just in time for ice-cream weather, a place called Coolato Gelato will open in an old Victorian building that's been vacant for more than 20 years. More than just another ice-cream parlor, it'll be the only simple food and coffee shop that's open almost all day, from 7 a.m. until midnight, offering Italian snacks like panini sandwiches along with the Italian ice, which the owners (we confess, RobertTheBruce, they're Yankees!) say they've made trips to the Old Country to perfect. It will likely be the first street-level business in the broader S&W project to open.

Best-Case Scenario: A gelato craze sweeps Knoxville, giving Baskin Robbins a run for the money.

Worst-Case Scenario: We find out whether gelato really is good for you—the hard way.

Cupcake Wars vs. Donut Wars

2008 was truly the year of the three-bite yum in a fluted muffin paper. Peggy Hambright of MagPies fame employed a cupcake-crazed mom to develop custom flavors for every month, and moved her storefront into new North Central digs. St. Louis-based The Cupcakery entered the fray in June with a store in Bearden (after testing the waters with another offshoot in Oak Ridge opened in early spring), Cities Cupcake jumped in a mile to the east on Kingston Pike, with, as is only fitting, cupcakes named after different cities, later that same month. Buttercream galore—how could you possibly top that with a better food trend?

Best-Case Scenario: The announced construction of a Dunkin' Donuts not three doors down from locally owned and operated Dippin Donuts on Kingston Pike in Bearden sets off enough support for the home team that loca-vore donuts become the rage in Knoxville.

Worst-Case Scenario: Recalling our cholesterol, Knoxville bakeries spur themselves to more and better varieties of trend-setting English muffins.

A Not-So-Hidden Pearl

The turnaround in UT men's basketball under head coach Bruce Pearl has been unprecedented: The team actually wins games (and championships), and fans actually go see them. But Pearl's success has come at a price. Fans aren't just getting used to making it into the NCAA tournament anymore—they expect a high seed and a competitive run. UT's made it to the Sweet 16 each of the last two years and enjoyed a brief stay at the top of the polls in 2008, and Pearl has what might be his most talented roster yet. With a salary of $1.1 million, when do expectations become a burden for Pearl?

Best-Case Scenario: A talented but inexperienced team gets it together just in time for the postseason and makes an unexpected run to the Final Four.

Worst-Case Scenario: A talented but inexperienced team struggles to make it back to the Sweet 16.

Quilters Invade!

The Convention Center, still mired in massive debt and failing to make an easily quantifiable return on more than $600 million in public investment, scored a major coup last year by booking the convention for the American Quilters Society for this year through 2011. In July, 10,000 thousand blanket and sweater enthusiasts are expected to descend on Knoxville. KCC General Manager Mary Bogert says that the 2009-2011 conventions could create as much as $45 million in area economic impact.

Best-Case Scenario: As it turns out, one of the members of the group is also a major events coordinator who represents hundreds of trade shows and business organizations. She is so impressed with Knoxville that she pitches the KCC to every one of her clients. By year's end, some of the country's largest conventions—among them Rotary International, the National Association of Realtors, and the Sweet Adelines—book their shows in Knoxville. The KCC begins paying for itself by 2015.

Worst-Case Scenario: There is a massive flood during the week of the AQS convention, and the Convention Center, along with Neyland Stadium, become refuge centers for people who were unable to evacuate the city in time. By day three, federal help has yet to arrive, and soon the KCC becomes a sweaty, violent, hellish prison (though there's plenty of comfy bedding); scissor battles and epidemic needle wounds are inevitable, and a decimating thimble shortage ensues. When the waters finally recede, the memory of that horrible week is so painful that city officials decide to tear the Convention Center down, adding millions more to the debt already owed on the building. AdventureCon is forced to relocate to the basement of the Central United Methodist Church on Third Avenue. They are given a four-hour Saturday slot between an AA meeting and a Christian singles mixer.