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New Century's Resolution

by Joe Sullivan

New years are a time for new resolve and new initiatives; new centuries, all the more so.

The year 2000 holds promise of being one of the most momentous in Knoxville's history. Indeed, long-awaited plans for downtown development that are due to be unveiled on January 10 could be the catalyst for lifting the city out of late 20th century doldrums into 21st century dynamism.

Since these plans remain sight unseen, it takes a leap of faith to believe that developers Earl Worsham and Ron Watkins, working in conjunction with the Public Building Authority, have come up with a grand design worthy of such hype. But even if their design doesn't look so grand to some and seems grandiose to others, it should serve to galvanize the community just as the idea of hosting a World's Fair did a generation ago.

For this new century quest to be productive, through, new civic and political leadership is needed to bring it to fruition. And that is what is missing from the equation at this juncture. Mayor Victor Ashe professes not to have seen what Worsham Watkins and the PBA have come up with and says he's reserving judgment until he does. But this sounds coy on the part of the mayor who has funded their effort over the past year and is known to have gotten frequent briefings on their progress.

While the plans have taken on a multi-faceted life of their own, an original impetus was to create visitor attractions to enhance the drawing power of the city's new $160 million convention center. And one might expect that Ashe would have championed them on these grounds alone. Apparently, though, the best that can be expected is that he will back into support of downtown development just as he backed into his support of the convention center as a CYA maneuver after aborting plans for a downtown baseball stadium.

Making matters worse, Ashe is contributing to an erosion of PBA's leadership capabilities at this crucial juncture. After County Commission deplorably rejected the reappointment of PBA's long-time chairman, Jim Haslam II, in August, Ashe considered naming him to one of the two city-appointed seats on the board whose terms expired this year. This meant leaving their two incumbents, Howard Blum and Doris Sharp in limbo. But that was understandable for a time given Haslam's stature as Knoxville's preeminent civic leader of the past generation. Now it's five month later, though, and neither Haslam, Blum, Sharp nor anyone else has been named to fill these seats. Nor does Ashe show concern for PBA's emasculation at the very time its role is pivotal in championing downtown development while also guiding a participative public process aimed at building consensus on what form is should take.

When asked about his plans for making PBA board appointments, Ashe says, "That's not even a blip on my radar screen." Nor has County Executive Tommy Schumpert made any move to fill the county-appointed seat for which Haslam's nomination was rejected. "I'm gong to wait three or four months to let the situation at PBA clarify itself," Schumpert says.

Yet it's starkly clear that PBA is suffering from a leadership void that's compounded by the year-end departure of its stalwart CEO, Mike Edwards, who announced his resignation shortly after Haslam got rebuffed. It's true that even though their terms have expired, PBA's bylaws permit Haslam, Blum and Sharp to continue to serve on the board until successors are appointed. But perpetuation of their lame duck status is becoming almost as big a community embarrassment as was County Commission's rejection of Haslam in what seemed to be a payback for PBA's refusal to play ball with Sheriff Tim Hutchison after the sheriff wrested control over construction of a new jail away from PBA.

For the community's sake as well as Haslam's, he should not be left in the demeaning position of trying to preside over the biggest public undertaking of the new century without a mandate. Moreover, for all his civic contributions over many years, Haslam symbolizes an oligarchic style of leadership from on high that runs counter to the need to build acceptance for the undertaking from the bottom up rather than the top down.

Exactly what's contained in Worsham Watkins' grand design remains veiled in secrecy. But it's known to include entertainment, office, residential, and retail components and perhaps a new hotel. These would all go up in a downtown corridor that stretches form Henley Street to Gay Street north of Union Avenue. To support these private sector initiatives for which Worsham Watkins would serve as master developer, major public sector commitments for infrastructure are also planned. These include garages with as many as 3,000 parking spaces and what's referred to a building pad over Henley Street to create a pedestrian friendly link between downtown and the convention center in the World's Fair Park.

The city's infrastructure costs, which Edwards previously estimated at $40 million, are sure to be an issue, coming atop a $160 million outlay for the convention center itself. Also at issue will be the extent to which proposed new development impinges on the character of downtown landmarks such as Market Square.

PBA's out-going CEO, who will stay involved as a consultant at least until a successor is named, insists that tax revenues generated by the massive undertaking will not only cover debt service on its public sector components but also a substantial part of the convention center's cost. The main source of these revenues is the recapture of all incremental sales tax collections in the central business district above a current base. The state legislature provided last year for this local recapture of sales tax dollars that would otherwise have gone to the state. Assuming the state maintains its 6 percent sales tax rate and assuming sales projections prepared for PBA by a Chicago-based consulting firm are accurate, Edwards says, "It's amazing haw much the recapture legislation yields."

However, all of this is contingent on keeping all elements of the Worsham Watkins grand design in tact. "To attract the critical mass of people that are needed to make the whole thing fly, everything is interdependent on everything else," says Edwards. And just getting it all off the launch pad is going to take reinvigorated leadership of the PBA and a much more supportive involvement on the part of Victor Ashe.