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Seizing the Moment on Downtown Development

by Joe Sullivan

The next few months will be decisive in setting Knoxville's course for the 21st century. The city has a one-time opportunity to catapult itself into the ranks of American cities that are on the ascent toward a future in which all its citizens can take pride. A failure to seize the moment will leave Knoxville, or at least its downtown, mired in lethargy that can only be a source of shame.

The downtown development plan that Worsham Watkins has presented to the city can be criticized on many counts. It superimposes a grand design for downtown revitalization from on high rather than allowing for development to percolate from bottom up. It looks too much like a glass-enclosed replication of suburban malls to represent an expression of new urbanism. It's the tail wagging the dog, driven by the need to make the city's new convention center more attractive rather than the preferences of those who live here.

But these criticisms miss essential points. Without the tail, there would be no dog. The convention center has been the catalyst for the city's plans to spend $130 million on garages and other public infrastructure to support a $300 million private investment in Worsham Watkins' imposing mixed-use complex. The convention center provided the impetus for state legislation that allows the city to recapture sales tax dollars that are projected to be sufficient to cover its costs. Convention center visitors are crucial to the success of all the new dining, entertainment, and shopping opportunities that will open up to all Knoxvillians.

Without the driving force of developers like Worsham Watkins, wheels would still be spinning on any communal effort at downtown revitalization to which much lip service on the part of so many has been paid for so long. True, younger developers like David Dewhirst have been making meaningful things happen on a smaller scale, but only Worsham Watkins has both the will and the wherewithal to carry off an undertaking of anything like the magnitude of the one described in this week's cover story.

Critics can carp about the overly-enclosed design of the development, about the lack of a city master plan to provide a framework for it, about an overemphasis on ringing the cash register. But they have no conception of what it takes to line up the tenants and the financing for a highly risky $400 million venture. Worsham and Watkins are hard-nosed businessmen, and if they weren't they surely would have failed—or backed off—in their endeavor. Instead, its scope keeps on expanding.

It's hard to believe that any true Knoxvillian in attendance at the Tennessee Theater last Wednesday could have failed to feel a swell of pride at their exhilarating presentation. Indeed, an enhanced sense of civic pride and purpose is the singularly most important contribution that a major downtown statement can provide.

For too long, too many Knoxvillians have been down on their city to the point of deprecating its ability to keep pace with sister cities like Chattanooga. A reinstilled sense of accomplishment and potential can carry over to many other things. Renovation of the Tennessee Theatre, creation of a worthy children's museum, rehabilitation of more blighted neighborhoods can all be achieved if the resolve is there. Maybe even the community will begin to show more concern for strengthening the standing of its single biggest asset, the University of Tennessee.

In a narrower sense, a development plan that now extends all the way from the World's Fair Park to Gay Street should serve as a catalyst for development on its periphery as well. Once the west side of the 400 block of Gay Street is revitalized, the moribund buildings on the east side that were once the hubs of Knoxville's commerce will surely come back to life as well. The same goes for the south side of Union Avenue.

All this is not to say that the Public Building Authority and City Council should rubber stamp the terms that Worsham Watkins has submitted for approval. More evidence is needed that leases and financing are in place and that sales tax revenue projections are realistic before any commitment of public funds is made. The terms on which any public property is made available to Worsham Watkins need scrutiny. And some accommodation must be found that protects the interests of Market Square property owners, especially its residents, while still granting Worsham Watkins the ability to foster and maintain the character of commercial development and special events throughout the square. A third party review of the entire terms of the deal by a premier consulting firm also has much to recommend it.

At the same time, time is of the essence. Deals of this magnitude and complexity cannot be held in a state of suspended animation. Prospective tenants and lenders can pull away, economic conditions can change for the worse and interest rates can get prohibitively high.

The PBA and Worsham Watkins have seemingly done everything within their power over the past two years to get to the point of taking what may be Knoxville's biggest step forward ever. Assuming they can demonstrate that everything rests on terra firma, the city must either take this step or slide back into the torpor that has prevailed since the World's Fair.

July 6, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 27
© 2000 Metro Pulse