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Is the Downtown Hilton Really Condemnable?

by Joe Sullivan

When Worsham Watkins recently unveiled its downtown development plan, the Holiday Inn Select adjacent to the city's new convention center figured conspicuously in the renderings. But the chairman of the Knox County Tourist Commission, Mike Ragsdale, has seen renderings that portray a very different picture.

Instead of the Holiday Inn, a new visitors' center adorns the site, with ample parking for motor coaches to take visitors on sightseeing tours. Ragsdale stresses that plans for such a center are "still at a conceptual stage." But they already appear to be one element of a multi-faceted effort by the city to justify condemnation and demolition of the Holiday Inn.

The Public Building Authority has been requested to renew its recommendation (originally made in March) that, "the city acquire the Holiday Inn and consider alternative uses for pending demolition." And the PBA is also preparing to recommend downtown street changes that include a widening of Henley Street at the Holiday Inn's doorstep to a create a right-hand turn lane onto a reopened Clinch Avenue viaduct.

These thrusts are due to come to a head at a City Council workshop scheduled for July 20. "Whether or not we proceed depends upon the outcome of the workshop," says Mayor Victor Ashe. But he makes his predilections clear. "In terms of dealing with the issue, it would be very helpful to have City Council's approval to acquire the property," Ashe says. And what is the issue? "The hotel itself is not the issue; it's a matter of our plans that envision other ways to make use of that property including a visitors' center and better traffic flow."

While Ashe won't say so, it's hard to avoid the impression that the speed with which the city is proceeding has been spurred by the Holiday Inn's recent announcement of plans for a $3 million refurbishment of its slightly shabby premises. According to the hotel's Chattanooga-based owner, Franklin Haney, this upgrade into a rebranded Crowne Plaza Hotel "ensures that the City of Knoxville will take advantage of the overriding wisdom that says a convention center needs a flagship hotel next to the property."

Officials scoff at the notion that a $3 million spruce-up will produce a flagship hotel worthy of serving as a headquarters for conventioneers. They point to a PBA-sponsored study concluding that a $33 million investment would be required to meet that standard and that such an investment would be uneconomical. Regardless of whether it becomes a flagship, though, the Holiday Inn clearly remains a viable 293-room property whose value Haney repeatedly placed at $25 million—on its way to $28 million unless the city intervenes.

Whether this price tag was intended as a deterrent to condemnation or as a negotiating ploy is a matter for conjecture. But even if the city were able to acquire it for the $13 million appraised value at which it's carried on the tax rolls, it would still add substantially to the city's monumental $290 million outlay for the new convention center ($160 million) and infrastructure supporting prospective downtown development ($130 million).

Even more important than the money are the principles involved. Private property can only be condemned for a valid public purpose, and such purposes ought to be compelling. Any intimation, for example, that taking out the Holiday Inn has anything to do with facilitating the new 415-room Marriott Hotel that Worsham Watkins is proposing would be totally taboo. Yet all of the other asserted reasons for a take-out appear strained or premature.

Plans for a new visitors' center (whose cost has yet to be defined) come close on the heels of completion of the $5.5 million Gateway Regional Visitors Center at Volunteer Landing. True, the Gateway Center is hard to get to from downtown, and parking is even more difficult. But while Mike Carrier, the president of the Knoxville Convention and Visitors' Bureau, sees a need for a more accessible facility near the convention center, he views the Holiday Inn site as only one of several options. "We wrote Worsham Watkins that we would like space somewhere in their development or we could do something in the convention center itself," says Carrier.

The PBA's recommendation for the Holiday Inn acquisition was based largely on two factors: (1) "a potential for connection with the re-use of the City's existing convention center"; and (2) "expansion plans for the new convention center call for future additions to be constructed under the Clinch Avenue viaduct and on the current site of the Holiday Inn." The former, of course, refers to the much-heralded prospect of a Scripps Cable/HGTV "destination attraction," which has yet to materialize. The latter seems beyond the realm at this stage.

As for the widening of Henley Street to create a right-hand turn lane onto a reopened Clinch Avenue viaduct, PBA's Dick Bigler says, "That would probably mean taking some Holiday Inn property, but less than 20 feet." So much for the sidewalk in front of the hotel, but it hardly spells sayonara for the eight-story structure, which can be accessed in other ways as well. Space for tour and shuttle buses has been provided adjoining the convention center across Clinch Avenue from the Holiday Inn, Bigler says .

Uncharacteristically, Ashe doesn't even seem to have his ducks in a row on City Council on this issue. "I'd have to see something more viable than a visitors' center to justify a condemnation," says Councilman Ed Shouse, who is usually in lockstep with the mayor. "While I feel Haney was more or less posturing on his upgrade plans, it's been a struggle for him to keep going ever since the World's Fair. Now, when something comes along 18 years later, I'd hate to knock him out."

Unless and until the city can come up with stronger justifications of a condemnation, it's likely to get knocked out in the court challenge that would almost surely follow.

July 13, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 28
© 2000 Metro Pulse