Judith Coulter

Waterfront developer, downtown booster

Arts Desire:
The do-it-yourself studio offers a novel take on weekend nightlife by hosting a Friday "date night," wherein couples can throw pots, order take-out, and order from a beverage menu that includes a small selection of beers and wines. "Even my son has come around to the studio," Coulter says with a laugh. "And that's pretty unusual, since anything your mother is associated with generally can't be considered cool."

On her time as a private consultant:
"I basically spent '93, '94, and '95 on the road all the time," Coulter remembers. "But Ben was pretty young, so we took a tutor on the road and went for it. He learned lots of Spanish and had some experiences he wouldn't have had otherwise." Coulter herself speaks both Spanish and Portuguese.

On the safety of living downtown:
Coulter recounts that her closest brush with "danger" came in the form of an impeccably-dressed (but woefully inebriated) young man who, though he harbored no ill intent, gave her a shock one evening by walking uninvited through her home. "He was a guest at a party at one of the other condos, and I have no idea why he thought this was the way out," Coulter remembers, shaking her head. After several unsuccessful attempts at rectifying his sense of direction, the youth rendered the point moot by tumbling pell-mell down the steep embankment that buttresses Coulter's condo.
"There I was out in the rain in nothing but a T-shirt, trying to help this poor guy scramble back up the bank," she says with a giggle. "It was really quite a scene."

by Mike Gibson

On this especially bright, breezy February afternoon, Judith Coulter is taking a quick lunch (cold cuts, fruit, and herbal tea—sugar and lemon) at her favorite table: in her very own living room, with picture window panoramas of the riverfront real estate that fairly consumes her every waking thought.

"If you look out there and all you see is those tanks, you probably shouldn't live here on the river," says Coulter, sweeping her hand toward the cluster of cumbersome industrial fixtures that subsume much of the landscape opposite her waterfront condominium. "But when I look out there, I see herons and wildlife, and the JFG sign and the's a real working waterfront. For me, there's something magical about it."

As designated developer (along with partner Arthur Collins) for Knoxville's once foundering, now-flowering riverfront project, Coulter's chief mission is that of selling the profligate pleasures of downtown living—she liberally name-drops Regas and Calhoun's on the River and Harold's Deli and any number of other favorite fixtures of Knoxville's center city. "My career has really been all about marketing," says Coulter. "If I have an in-born talent, that's it. I love envisioning things. Here, my job is to convince people it's okay to live downtown, to play in downtown, to come back to the city."

But Coulter's sales pitch has a certain ring of authenticity, a zealous integrity that seems born of genuine affection for her adopted home. "I simply fell in love with Knoxville," she says of her introduction to the city some seven years ago. "It represented the best of everything I thought I was raised with."

Having moved south from Connecticut, Coulter, with her colorless accent and big city effervescence, often finds herself labeled a child of the North. ("As soon as anyone heard Connecticut, I was branded a Yankee for life.") In truth, the Baton Rouge, La.-born daughter of a corporate chemist (her father concocted the formula for Ultra-Brite toothpaste, a distinction she jokes "failed to lend any of us any sort of sex appeal") spent most of her formative years south of the Mason-Dixon, and moved too often to call one locale home.

The oldest of six siblings, Coulter graduated from a Catholic high school ("That's where I learned to beat the system," she chuckles) and earned her degree (history and poli-sci, with a minor in education) in only three years, the last of which was spent at Princeton University in New Jersey.

She says she "wrangled" her first big job—at the Chicago Advertising Club—by working first as a secretary, all the while proving her worth by volunteering to organize sundry office projects. She soon created her own position, an organizational role that—among other things—required her to plan and solicit speakers for the club's monthly luncheons. "I interned with George Gallup in college; he was like my mentor," she says. "So when I had to put together the first lunch, I called him up and begged him to come and speak. The program was a huge success."

Coulter's tenure in Chicago lasted some four years, and her list of lunch-time guests would eventually grow to include personalities as diverse as Phil Donahue, Gloria Steinem, Hugh Hefner and even Hustler Magazine maven Larry Flynt. But it was her next job—as director of marketing for an architecture firm in Newhaven, Conn.—that would see her hone the specialized research techniques that now drive Knoxville's most ambitious downtown development to date.

"What I started doing was to use polling and demographic techniques to analyze patterns, to show developers what the market would accept at a particular location," she explains. "It was essentially putting together a workbook for the developer to follow."

Her first client, developer Arthur Collins, soon became her partner, as the two broke from the Yale firm and founded their own consultancy. Some of their more ambitious projects included plans for massive waterfront developments overseen by the Mexican government, as well as the ambitious Lake Pontchartrain development in New Orleans. "If anyone says 'I bet you can't find a place with more difficult political obstacles than Knoxville,' I point to New Orleans," she says with a weary chuckle.

It was in 1992, while serving on the board of the Waterfront Center in Washington, D.C., that one of Coulter's speaking engagements included a symposium in Jacksonville, Fla. Present at that conference was Betsy Childs, then in charge of Knox Mayor Victor Ashe's incipient waterfront plan, who was taken with both the speaker's palpable creativity and her infectious cheerleader spunk. When Childs collared the consulting duo after the program, Collins revealed with no small enthusiasm that his first professional project was the Valley Fidelity Bank Building in Knoxville. Two weeks later, the partners were sharing lunch with Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe.

Coulter says she rapidly became enamored of the city and its riverfront canvas. In the wake of various logistical controversies, she saw the fledgling project move from its former southside location to its current cityside home. "That offered us an area of land with almost continuous possibilities," she says, eyes sparkling.

But if Coulter was taken with the city and its unrealized development potential, she's been considerably less infatuated with the seemingly endless political wrangles (parking dibs questions at Calhoun's on the River, uncertainties over the unfolding of the development in relation to the pending South Knoxville connector highway...) that have slowed the project's growth.

"I had no idea how big a job it was when I got here," she remembers. For the first time this afternoon, a battle-weary exhaustion breaks across her preternaturally animated face.

"Every blessed thing has been a challenge. Just getting it all approved...I'd rather swim the entire river with weights on my feet than go through that again. It was like stuffing five squirming children underneath one little blanket and trying to keep them all in place.

"It simply shouldn't have taken seven years to put all of this together; the time has been the toughest part of the whole process," Coulter continues (the pending development calls for, among other things, a new marina, a large commercial building, retail and restaurant space...) "Financing hasn't been easy, either. It's not like getting three acres out West and putting up a Wal-Mart..."

Coulter is as quick to trumpet the project's enablers as she is to bemoan its well-chronicled albatrosses; she notes that the Webb family, founders of Webb School, have invested in one of the neighboring condos, and points to the Regas family's signing of an epic lease (for a new riverside restaurant) as a turning point in public confidence in the development. "When the Regases put their name on the line with a 99-year lease, that sold a lot of people."

Count Coulter chief among those who would lead by example. Besides having invested in her own riverfront condo, Coulter (along with five partners) is now shepherd of Arts Desire, a paint-it-yourself pottery studio she hopes will be an early cornerstone of the offing development. "I got the idea from another studio, and I fell for it hook line and sinker."

As she speaks, Coulter briskly clears the (fairly minimal) wreckage from today's lunch; in less than one hour, more than a dozen 13-year-old friends of her only child, son Ben will assail her well-appointed condominium for an overnight stay. Ever the marketeer, Coulter has scheduled a full slate of city-centric activities—a trip to Regas, breakfast at Harold's, a meeting with Knoxville Police Chief Phil Keith—in hopes of forging a whole new generation of converts.

"I'm certain that this will be the last big downtown project I engineer," Coulter sighs. "I've found a home. My big goal now is to see this thing through and make my work at the studio I created."