Two events drew big crowds in Fountain City on Wednesday.
Dr. John Tumblin’s kinfolks were receiving friends in the chapel at Lynnhurst Cemetery. The well-loved optometrist’s funeral service was scheduled at noon, and there’d been a steady line of friends, neighbors and longtime patients staking out their seats after paying their respects to the Tumblin family.
About a half-mile east, at the intersection of Sanders Road and Jacksboro and Tazewell pikes, next door to the spot where Tumblin’s office used to be, there wasn’t a parking place to be had at the Fountain City Diner. Inside, proprietor Penny Wagner was giving out free hugs to customers who’d heard that the diner is going to close in August. The place was packed, and not everyone was taking the news of the closure as calmly as Wagner.
“I called Bill Baxter’s office,” said a woman sitting at the counter. “I told him he ought to know that we are vengeful around here.”
She was speaking of the founder of Baxter Properties, the limited liability corporation that owns the parcel on which the diner sits.
Wagner said that the diner’s lease had run out and that she and her husband, Dennis, had been attempting to negotiate a new deal with Baxter Properties, which wanted a 56 percent rent increase plus an annual 3 percent increase for the next five years. She said that she and Dennis can’t afford that and that they’d been attempting to convince Baxter Properties, which is headed by Bill and Ginger Baxter’s daughter Jennifer Baxter Reynolds, that the sum they want is out of line with comparable Fountain City rentals.
She said negotiations ended abruptly Monday morning when she and Dennis came in to work after the long holiday weekend (the diner is closed Sundays) and found a “Building for Lease Sept. 1” sign affixed to the awning.
Wagner’s son, daughter, two nephews, two nieces and sister all work at the diner, as does Dennis, who is the chef and master baker who creates the fancy pies for which they have become famous. All of them will be out of a job on a yet-to-be-determined day in August. She said they will not attempt to reopen because they are scared to rent again and cannot afford to buy a place of their own.
The diner has had a 10-year run on the Smithwood corner. Their first landlords were Leo Cooper and Herman Baker, whom the Wagners had known all their lives (Cooper’s wife, JoAnne, was Penny’s art teacher at Halls High School). Penny says that except for this final disagreement over money she can’t complain about the Baxters as landlords. They maintained the property and were prompt to fix anything that went wrong, she said.
“We’ve had 10 years of wonderful blessings. There’s never been a place like this in Fountain City and there never will again. We’re going to miss our customers as much as they will miss us.”
Several members of the Tumblin family, including John’s brothers Richard, 89, and Jim, 93, both lifelong Fountain Citians and pillars of the community, don’t endorse Wagner’s praise for the Baxters.
On Tuesday, Dr. Tumblin’s son Michael said his dad was still going to work every day at the age of 87. Michael Tumblin criticized Bill Baxter on a Facebook discussion of the diner’s closing:
“He evicted my father in October of last year after being at that location for more than 20 years, just because he wanted to tear the building down. This after not providing air conditioning last summer at all!!!
“He forced my father to retire at 87 years old and my dad was still going to work every day because he was passionate about his work, and passionate about his patients and the care he gave the Fountain City communities for over 30 years. When my father was forced to retire he lost his purpose. My father’s funeral is tomorrow, because some people who have a purpose live for that purpose.”
I was unable to reach Jennifer Reynolds for comment but spoke to a close friend of the family, who said that Bill Baxter, who now lives in Wyoming, isn’t involved in the day-to-day running of Baxter Properties, which owns 41 parcels in Knox County according to public records.
“The building is owned by Baxter Properties, which people assume to mean Bill. Baxter Properties is one of his children, not him. You may think that is a difference without a distinction. If so, I vehemently disagree. Should some 30-something-year-old budding young businesswoman subsidize the price of someone’s lunch or their rent simply because her dad has some money?”