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Seven Days

Wednesday, Nov. 7
Jimmy Naifeh, the speaker of the Tennessee House, unloads on the state Senate for "doing nothing" to help address the state's fiscal crisis. He says the senators are doing nothing so they can be reelected to do more of the same: nothing. Finally, somebody noticed.

Thursday, Nov. 8
A 4-foot-9, 109-pound great-grandmother is indicted in Anderson County on charges including resisting a state trooper's arrest following a traffic accident and assaulting two county jailers. OK, guys, you've had your fun, now would somebody just please give her back her cane.
Dollywood announces that a new attraction, "Adventures in Imagination," is due to open next spring. Although details are scarce, it's believed the adventure will allow visitors to imagine they have never been in Pigeon Forge.

Friday, Nov. 9
Scripps Networks say they are laying off 10 Knoxville employees in a restructuring plan that will allow them to concentrate more of their specialty television production in Knoxville studios. The move will make way for introduction of Scripps' newest program, "Do-It-Yourself Downsizing."

Sunday, Nov. 11
Spot the Irony: The News-Sentinel reports that its "Freedom Engine" campaign has raised nearly $900,000 to buy a new firetruck for the NYFD. Meanwhile, Knoxville Fire Department officials report their training program and facilities are woefully underfunded.

Tuesday, Nov. 13
After a Tennessee Highway Patrol trooper pleads guilty to fixing a speeding ticket, a debate arises over whether he should be returned to duty. Well, of course he should.

Knoxville Found

(Click photo for larger image)

What is this? Every week in "Knoxville Found," we'll print the photo of a local curiosity. If you're the first person to correctly identify this oddity, you'll win a special prize plucked from the desk of the editor (keep in mind that the editor hasn't cleaned his desk in five years). E-mail your guesses, or send 'em to "Knoxville Found" c/o Metro Pulse, 505 Market St., Suite 300, Knoxville, TN 37902.

Last Week's Photo:
Pardon me sir, is that the Chattanooga Choo-Choo? No, you ninny, it's our very own train mural right here in the Old City. It's on the wall of the Jackson Avenue Antiques building, overlooking the courtyard of Lucille's. First right answer came from Joyce Piercy of Knoxville—part of the Piercy-Goss powerhouse team that has so far laid claim to four different Knoxville Found prizes (Joyce is the mother of Cherie Piercy-Goss and mother-in-law of Buzz Goss, both of whom are former is their cat...). The judges are somewhat troubled by the fact that all these responses have emanated from a single email address—shouldn't the cat at least have his own account? Nevertheless, we can't find anything in the rulebook to disqualify Ms. Piercy, and so we are happy to present her with Seth Rogovoy's seminal tome, The Essential Klezmer. L'chaim!

Meet Your City
A calendar of upcoming public meetings you should attend

Thursday, Nov. 15
7 p.m.
UT's University Center Auditorium
Lecture and slide show featuring Dr. Umar Abd-Allah, director of the Nawawi Foundation, and Peter Sanders, a British photographer.

Monday, Nov. 19
2 p.m.
City County Bldg. Main Assembly Room
400 W. Main St.
Regular monthly meeting. A proposal to post the Ten Commandments in the CC Building is likely to come to a vote.


Universe Knoxville Maybe

New proposal generates support, questions

Last week's presentation of a scaled-down set of plans for Universe Knoxville left the virtual reality planetarium proposal on an "iffy" footing. But if all the "ifs" can be satisfied by the undertaking's backers, a majority of County Commissioners appears favorably disposed toward committing $36.5 million in county funds toward covering the project's $106.5 million total cost.

As proposed, the county's commitment (in the form of general obligation bond proceeds) would be contingent on Universe Knoxville's backers satisfying several preconditions.

These include:

Raising $65 million in private investor funds from bond issues that would be backed solely by the project's revenues.

Obtaining a $5 million grant from the city of Knoxville or some other public or private source.

Getting $1.5 million in annual contributions, over and above Universe Knoxville's projected $5 million-a-year operating profit, to help cover debt service on the $101.5 million in total bond financing.

While six or seven of the 19 county commissioners, including Chairman Leo Cooper and Finance Committee Chairman Frank Leuthold, remain adamantly opposed to county funding, a majority seemed warmly disposed toward the feasibility study and financing plans presented at last week's commission workshop. Another workshop is now scheduled for early December, leading up to a formal vote.

"I felt the feasibility study was more realistic than prior ones, and I really hope we can put this thing together, because I believe it would be good for Knoxville," said Commissioner Wanda Moody, whose position has been pivotal ever since commission started considering UK last spring. But Moody also cautioned that "there are still a number of questions on which we need answers."

Commissioner John Griess, whose swing vote is also crucial, ventured that "if I knew the county's worst case liability was five cents on the [property] tax rate and we'd have a garage to show for it, I think I could support it." Backers insist that the county's maximum exposure is the $2.3 million annual debt service on the county's $36.5 million bond issue (whose coverage by UK revenues would come after payments on the private debt). Since each penny on the tax rate yields about $584,000, that equates to a four-cent exposure. Ownership of the entire property, including an 1,150-space garage, would revert to the county once the bonds are paid off.

The most recent feasibility study, conducted for the county by Economic Consulting Services of Newport Beach, Calif., projects that UK would draw 860,000 visitors in its initial year of operation. Attendance is then assumed to slide somewhat before leveling off at 736,000 a year. That's down from a 1.1 million visitor projection in two previous studies, and the scope of the project has been scaled down accordingly (from $140 million originally proposed) to make the proverbial numbers work.

Whether each of the preconditions to getting the $36.5 million in county funding can be satisfied remains problematic. These preconditions were set forth by developers Worsham Watkins, who originated the UK concept in conjunction with the president of the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership, Tom Ingram, who's become its spearhead. Under their proposal, the chamber would form a not-for-profit entity to run the attraction if it comes to fruition.

Where prospects for obtaining the $65 million in private debt financing are concerned, the project's financial advisor, Joe Ayers of Morgan Keegan, is highly cautionary. "It is going to be an extremely challenging project," Ayers told the County Commission workshop. "Obviously, events of September 11 have changed the capital markets....Investors are going to demand an extreme amount of due diligence."

Mayor Victor Ashe is non-committal about making the $5 million city grant that is being sought. "We're prepared to consider it, but we've got a lot of other obligations, and we could be facing a cutback in state funding," Ashe allows. He's also got five newly-elected City Council members to contend with.

As for the sources of $1.5 million in annual private contributions, Ingram acknowledges that, "These are not precisely defined and not fully committed." But he's quick to add that "we think it's doable." Prospective sources of funds include naming rights for the several museum and theater components of the complex, fees for special events held in them and donations, especially for the new children's museum that is one proposed component.

Stay tuned.

Joe Sullivan

Burning Issue

Arson outbreak worries neighborhoods

The string of 13 arson fires that gutted abandoned homes across inner-city Knoxville on the weekend before Halloween left Lynn Fuson nervous. The house next to hers in Old North Knoxville sits vacant; time and the elements are slowly taking their toll. "The house is really starting to deteriorate," says Fuson. "It makes me scared right now, because it's so close to mine." Peggy Thompson, who lives in Lonsdale, faces a similar problem "There's four [abandoned houses] right around where I live," she says. "One street over there's more. Six or seven that I know of—some burnt, trees laying on them, roofs caved in." Even a neighborhood like 4th and Gill, where home prices have climbed over the $200,000 mark, had an abandoned house torched by arsonists in the past month—although not during the pre-Halloween spree.

Opinions on how to attack the problem are divided, however. Thompson, for one, favors demolition. "What can we do to get these abandoned houses down?" she says. "We do our part and turn them in, but it takes them so long to get them down." The reason, according city codes enforcement officials, is the law. Due process is required before the city can legally demolish private property or order it repaired. Of the 13 houses burned in the arson spree, five had already been condemned and were awaiting a hearing before the Better Building Board, the mayoral-appointed board that handles codes issues. Money is another problem. Demolition and disposal of an abandoned house costs the city an average of $3,000 to $5,000. The cost is generally attached as a lien against the property. But, since the property is by definition abandoned, those dollars are rarely collected.

Other inner-city residents, particularly in the area's numerous historic districts, look on demolition as a last resort. "It is a solution, nowhere close to an ideal solution, though. Once it's gone, it's gone," says Chester Kilgore. Kilgore lives in Old North Knoxville, a few blocks from one of the arson-damaged houses on Leonard Place. Ann Bennett, staff member for the Historic Zoning Commission, agrees, adding that the resulting vacant lots come with their own set of problems. "If you go to more than two neighborhood meetings," says Bennett, "somebody's going to bring up a problem with a vacant lot—whether it's illegal dumping, vagrants loitering or that it's simply overgrown."

Kilgore certainly envisions doing a good bit more than demolition. "The thing that would solve it completely," he says, "is to get every house occupied. You wouldn't have vagrants and vandals coming in if someone's living there." But that also is easier said than done.

The Homemaker Program, the city's fund for acquiring and reselling abandoned property, generally runs an annual budget of $200,000 with the goal of acquiring and reselling 20 to 25 properties, both vacant lots and blighted houses. As with demolition, the majority of those funds are rarely recouped because the developers purchasing the property—often non-profit, affordable housing developers like Habitat for Humanity—typically require some form of subsidy to make their projects feasible. And the easiest way to accomplish that is by lowering the sales price, often to a fraction of the acquisition cost (by law, the city must pay appraised value for acquired property).

History doesn't hold much promise either. In the last decade the census tracts that make up Knoxville's Empowerment Zone, which encompasses much of the inner-city, lost nearly 4,000 residents. Since 1960, the loss is a staggering 28,000. "There's been so much disinvestment in our center city," says Bennett, "that it's going to be hard to get it back. Which is not to say we shouldn't make a start. But it'll be a long haul."

Until then, Lynn Fuson goes to bed every night, nervously watching the abandoned house next door, anxious for the best. "It's a huge house," she says hopefully. "It could be a wonderful home for somebody."

—Matt Edens

Wanna Ralph?

Nader fights on

Political activist, consumer-rights crusader and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader told a University of Tennessee audience Tuesday night they must become "strong citizens" by reasserting civic values over commercial ones.

Nader said universities should teach civic training, allowing students to become active participants in democracy and apply abstract knowledge to real situations for the benefit of the nation. He also told students they should demand a biannual auditorium meeting with the trustees, a suggestion that met with applause.

In an interview before his lecture, Nader said today's college students are more politically active than those of 10 or 20 years ago, due to their involvement in anti-sweatshop and anti-globalization movements. He says the rise of public interest research groups (PIRGs), non-profits that advocate for public health and well-being, have given students more resources and opportunities.

UT students proved Nader right, filling the 535-seat University Center auditorium to capacity. Four hundred crowded into a spillover room to watch a live satellite feed while about 100 were turned away.

Nader says the major political parties are ignoring important domestic issues because of the "War on Terrorism." He listed a living wage, campaign finance reform, universal health care and the energy supply as the chief topics lawmakers must address.

He calls for "a crackdown on corporate crime, fraud, and abuse," saying corporations have used September 11 as an excuse to milk the government for more money.

"The level of corporate greed is orders of magnitude more than 20 or 30 years ago," he says, noting government subsidies, bailouts, and loopholes that help companies avoid paying taxes. General Motors directed less than 2 percent of its earnings to federal income tax last year, Nader says. And he says the proposed repeal of the Alternative Minimum Tax would allow corporations to pay even less taxes.

The Anti-Terror Bill passed by Congress is another piece of legislation that strikes a dissonant chord with Nader. He says the new law would inhibit protest against government policies. "The definition [of a terrorist] in the bill is very broad. The question is if someone is demonstrating in front of the World Bank in Washington, are they going to fit that definition?"

In the question and answer session following his speech, Nader criticized the war in Afghanistan for destroying residential and humanitarian sites, as well as contaminating the water supply. "What we're doing is burning down the haystack to find the needle," he said.

On the campaign front, Nader says the Green Party made gains in this month's elections, winning 55 local seats. He continues to stress the necessity of public funding for campaigns to eliminate the problem of "soft money" buying off candidates. "We've seen again the corrosive effect of dirty politics and dirty money," he says.

Answering a question from the audience, Nader once again denied allegations he "ruined" the 2000 election. He said the two-party system allows Republicans and Democrats to kowtow to corporations while maintaining arrogant reliance on the people's vote, a trend he says must be bucked by the creation of third parties.

—Tamar Wilner

November 15, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 46
© 2001 Metro Pulse