Knoxville: Scruffy no more

Frank CagleFrank Talk

Has Knoxville finally lost its inferiority complex?

With the beginning of a new city administration I thought it might be good to look back at how the most recent mayors brought the city back from a period of angst, stagnation and Chattanooga envy to repopulate downtown and make the city a vibrant place to live.

Frank Cagle

The city reeled from a series of body blows in the 1980s and it took a long time to come back. The decade opened so full of promise. The World’s Fair was a success and refuted the Scruffy Little City insult in a Wall Street Journal article questioning whether it would be successful.

But after the fair, federal agents raided the banks owned by Jake and C.H. Butcher Jr. and investigations of fraud of corruption cast a pall over the fair’s success. The two events ran together in some people’s minds given that Jake Butcher had been a leading proponent and supporter of the fair.

Thus began the general angst. There was financial pain for some investors, but the Butchers also had a non-FDIC-insured financial institution called SIBC in which many folks had deposited retirement funds. They lost it, mired in a bankruptcy that dragged on for years.

You can’t appreciate the vibrant downtown, the development of the South waterfront, the thriving business community without understanding how far we’ve come. Forgive a short history lesson.

Here are a few scenes from the 1980s.

A sociologist at a junior college in upstate New York did some kind of ranking system that made Knoxville No. 1 as a livable city. Town leaders went berserk. The fellow was invited to town for a big luncheon and speeches and he was King for a Day. Sadly, it just revealed how needy for a “win” the city had become.

Along the same line, some young folk renting cheap office space on the second floor of a Market Square building came up with a video game that had some brief success. The Chamber of Commerce, grasping at straws, immediately declared Market Square to be a high-tech hub. The young folk moved out of town to pursue their careers and somehow the new Silicon Valley on Market Square faded into oblivion.

Chattanooga built an aquarium and there was a lot of gnashing of teeth in Knoxville as to why we didn’t think of that. Chattanooga envy got to be the common refrain, contributing to a defeatist attitude and a great deal of unease about the future. It led to a process called Nine Counties One Vision –

seeking to achieve the same results as Chattanooga. The only flaw in the plan was that in Chattanooga the Lupton family contributed millions to build the aquarium and Gov. Ned McWherter matched it with $10 million in state funds. Knoxville just had meetings. Or, as one wag described the Knox County Commission, One County 19 Visions.

Downtown Knoxville was hanging on although most of its retail business had moved west. The downsizing of TVA under board chair Marvin Runyon began to empty out the headquarters towers. Fewer people were working downtown and foot traffic diminished. The remaining department stores, like Miller’s on Henley St. and Watson’s on Market Square, closed. The number of lunch places began to decrease.

Along came Chris Whittle, who had a lot of spaces rented for his publishing empire. The city block now known as the Sen. Howard Baker Federal Building was constructed to bring everything together as Whittle’s new headquarters. He employed scads of bright young people and things were really looking up. Then Whittle bet the company on transforming it from a print-based concern to television and video and it was not a success. It was the Butcher banks all over again, just without the stealing and the fraud. But another failure was a body blow to the city. Knoxville just seemed to be jinxed.

Some people thought we could eliminate the One County 19 Visions by combining city and county governments into a metro government. In the election campaign Metro supporters won every debate, but lost the war. It hasn’t been tried again.

After a decade of stagnation, in the 1990s things began to change. If I had to pinpoint something that marked a starting point for the city’s resurgence, both metaphorically and in reality, it was in 2001 when Ashley Capps asked the city to support something called Sundown in the City, bringing musical entertainment to Market Square. The response wasn’t yes, it was HELL YES! In marketing terms, it began the branding of downtown as a cool destination that attracted young people.

Downtowns in general got to be cool again and Knoxville had blocks of buildings just waiting to be filled with loft apartments. Capps’s concerts made coming downtown cool. Meanwhile, guys like David Dewhirst and Leigh Burch were busy developing places for people to live downtown.

The train started slowly but it picked up speed. Mayor Victor Ashe provided facade grants and other incentives early. Mayor Bill Haslam added a movie theater and continued to push downtown development. Mayor Madeline Rogero transformed South Knoxville with waterfront development and support for the Legacy Parks Foundation effort.

And the people keep coming. It appears that folks in Knoxville these days are having too much fun to suffer from angst or a hangover from the sad old days. Now Scruffy City is an ironic term.

Frank Cagle is a former managing editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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