This is not a comprehensive guide to every newsworthy event that happened in the Knoxville area in 2015. Rather, it is a curated selection of stories that we thought were of interest—which is another way of saying, here’s what we were able to tackle since mid-March. This may not be the fullest picture of our life and times in Knoxville 2015, but it’s one we’re proud to have provided with our micro-sized (yet mighty) team of staffers and contributors. These are stories we believe you couldn’t have found anywhere else but on the pages of the Knoxville Mercury, your dedicated community paper (in every sense of the word).
—Coury Turczyn, ed.
See Also: 5 Really Interesting Knoxvillians 2015
Issue #1 : March 12
Welcome to Our Startover
To be honest, I was actually looking forward to taking a vacation.
In my last seven years of editing Metro Pulse, I’d managed to not work on only two or three issues. So when I was informed about my impending unemployment last October, my first thought was, well, that finally happened. And it was soon followed by a subversive glimmer of hope: Now I can finally relax!
But idle repose was not on the immediate agenda. Nor was peace of mind, financial security, or a reliable sense of confidence in what I was doing. That’s because Knoxville wouldn’t take no for an answer. While there were certainly a lot of people who were upset at E.W. Scripps for shutting down Metro Pulse without regard for its legacy—or without even considering the idea that someone might think it’s worth buying—there were others who were immediately asking, “How can we start a new paper?”
We weren’t sure ourselves. Does publishing stories with ink and paper even make sense any more? Do readers want it? Do businesses still need it? Those are questions I can’t really answer for the media industry at large, but in Knoxville the reply was a firm yes. Most everyone we talked to—community leaders, business experts, advertisers, foundation directors, even media types—was emphatic: It can still work here, and we’ll help you do it. That kind of support cannot be ignored, so we went back to work.
Read more: Introducing the Knoxville Mercury
A Knoxville History Project
A key part of the Mercury launch is the formation of a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit, an educational organization known as the Knoxville History Project. It’s surprising, when you think about it, that Knoxville, almost 225 years old, has never had its own historical organization, perhaps not even a full-time staffer, to promote the city’s own story.
Educational in purpose, the Knoxville History Project will be a conduit for information about Knoxville’s history and culture. Obviously, to say we’re the only Knoxville history organization is not to say we’re the only historical organization in Knoxville. This city is lucky to be the home of the East Tennessee Historical Society, which has funded and organized the best historical museum in the region. They’re in charge of the East Tennessee History Center, which in the last several years has become a successful gathering place for a wide variety of important events. But the ETHS is a 35-county organization, with board leadership and donor funding from as far away as Chattanooga and Bristol. The focus of the Knoxville History Project, a more modest organization in terms of budget and staffing, will different from theirs—it will be the city of Knoxville itself.
The Knoxville History Project will also be the governing organization, the “sole member,” of a new not-for-profit newspaper called the Mercury.
UPDATE: Starting a weekly print publication in the 21st century is not as easy as everyone said it would be.
Issue #2 : March 19
Inside Striped Light
Striped Light resides in what was once a long-empty auto detailing shop just off North Central Street. In the lobby, the faux wood paneling and scuffed linoleum remains. A vintage sign, “Customer Ring Bell for Service,” now shares wall space with fine-art prints. In the corner, a large metal desk with a scattering of papers serves as a bare-bones booking office. On the desk lays a short stack of shrink-wrapped vinyl records by the local band Daddy Don’t—the first release by Knoxville’s newest record label.
Further back, inside a spacious studio with high ceilings, concrete floors, and three roll-up garage doors, sit five vintage flatbed cylinder proof presses: a Korrex, a Challenger, and three Vandercooks. A smaller room serves as an art gallery.
Three longtime friends—Bryan Baker, Sarah Shebaro, and Jason Boardman—dreamed up this unique combination of art, commerce, and heavy machinery brainstorming over beers when they were living in the same town, scheming over Skype when they weren’t. Baker, Boardman, and Shebaro—each a significant figure in Knoxville’s arts and music communities in the past decade—joined forces to finally see their dream realized in December: opening a community print shop/record label in their favorite city. Even more so than business success, the partners hope Striped Light will become a kind of DIY community center, a catalyst for artistic collaboration among Knoxville’s poets, philosophers, artists, and musicians.
The University of Tennessee’s decision to switch its Knoxville power plant from coal to natural gas will roll back East Tennessee’s contribution to global climate change by slashing carbon-dioxide emissions.
But installing 10 miles of gas pipeline through blue-collar neighborhoods and two county parks is no small undertaking. It involves clear-cutting thousands of trees—nature’s original carbon-dioxide scrubbers.
The irony is not lost on Donna Webster, who lives on Legion Drive and is grieving as she watches huge, old trees topple on her road. Trees are also tumbling in Optimist Park and I.C. King Park, which is scheduled to remain closed for the work until the end of May. Last week a large stack of logs sat next to one of the park’s entrances.
The project will tear up parts of popular bike trails through the park’s woods, says Doug Bataille, senior director of Knox County Parks and Recreation. However, KUB and its contractors have agreed to restore or improve what is damaged, he adds. They also shifted the pipeline route at the county’s request so it hugs the railroad tracks instead of going through the middle of the park.
But homeowners in the path of the pipeline nevertheless question whether this was the best route, or just the easiest one to acquire.
—S. Heather Duncan
Issue #3: March 26
An Art Untrue
An old friend once quipped, “The half-life of missing the point is forever.” He could have been speaking of the new Walnut Street parking garage in downtown Knoxville.
Just as Knoxville is emerging from its backwater status, it finds itself once again on the cutting edge of the past. It’s difficult to get around what seems a generally held view by several of the new garage’s critics: This is the wrong building type in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Yet, the garage’s very existence serves an important albeit unintended civic function: smelling salts for those committed to the continued reinvention and reinhabitation of our downtown. It demonstrates unambiguously the kind of thing that ought never to happen again in our urban core. For years to come, it will serve an invaluable civic role when we debate new building projects for downtown or elsewhere. It is encouraging to think that the Clockwork Orange-like intersection of vacant streets it comprises at Walnut and Summer Place need not be a Dante-esque signpost to all who enter here; we need not “abandon all hope.”
Issue #4: April 2
Where’s the Money?
Much of the deliberation at the school board’s initial meeting on a budget for the year ahead revolved around allocation of a presumed $10 million in additional funding for teacher compensation.
Superintendent Jim McIntyre recommended applying all of the money to a 4 percent pay raise for all teachers while dispensing with a continuation of the $3.2 million in performance bonuses that have been paid in each of the past two years to teachers with superior evaluations.
What was strangely missing from the discussion was any mention of the fact that the budget as presented didn’t provide a source of funding for anything like $10 million for any combination of the above. Indeed, the only funding identified in the budget for raises was the $4.4 million from the state that represents its share of the 4 percent average teacher salary increase that Gov. Bill Haslam has recommended. But the only mention of this shortfall in McIntyre’s proposed budget was an obscure footnote stating. “Amount of $5,639,000 reflects the remainder needed to grant a 4% average salary increase to certified employees.”
Read more: The Knox County Schools Budget Is Lamentable
Issue #5: April 9
Sex Week’s New Generation
It was a compromise of sorts. Last June, the University of Tennessee’s Board of Trustees approved a policy requiring students to “opt-in” to authorize about $20 of fees to go towards student-organized programming—in lieu of having the General Assembly act on threats to reduce UT’s funding after legislators objected strenuously to the second annual Sex Week, an event co-founded by students Brianna Rader and Jacob Clark in 2013.
The policy’s language says students can opt out of paying for “programming that may be considered by some to be controversial or personally objectionable.”
The fee allocation did reduce student programming money by about $49,000, according to outgoing Student Government Association president Kelsey Keny, whose election automatically made her the chair of the Student Program Allocation Committee when it was created last year.
Sex Week 2015 received funding for just eight of its 35 proposed events. The Legislature would seem to have gotten what it wanted. But not, perhaps, the desired end result.
That’s because Sex Week lives on this week, just as envisioned by its organizers, with all 35 events being offered, from the wildly popular drag show and three presentations by nationally famed sex educator Megan Andelloux to sessions on “Queering Medicine: LGBTQ + Health” and “An Owner’s Guide to Your Package: Vagina Edition.” The sex-ed symposium is treading new ground with 30 new topics among the sessions, such as first-time coverage of disability and sex, the ethics of sex work, and biphobia.
So Long, UC
Go drop in on the University Center. It hasn’t been much heralded, but this month is your last chance to visit a local institution.
It’ll be demolished in a few weeks. That’s not news; its demolition was first publicly announced eight years ago. It had been on the drawing board for some years before that.
They’ll build a much-bigger student center, even though the University of Tennessee is hardly bigger. In fact, in total students, UT’s a little smaller than it was when I was in school, 35 years ago. But folks in the university business agree, if you talk to them privately, that it’s about attracting teenagers, and today’s teenagers demand luxury. They demand extraordinary luxury, even beyond what they have any reason to expect when they’re grownup professionals. La Bohème is so 19th century. College is posh now.
The UC has some history. But is there something about modernist architecture that tends to shed affection? The UC should be a famous and beloved building. I can’t tell that it is. If it were a nominee for the National Register of Historic Places, it would be a slam-dunk. But it’s being torn down, and there’s not a whole lot of demonstrating about that fact. For the last few years it’s been on Knox Heritage’s Fragile Fifteen list, but I’ve met only a few—and there are a few—who regret its loss.
Issue #6: April 16
Public Arthouse Cinema
In February, Paul Harrill and Darren Hughes launched the Public Cinema, a quietly ambitious series of seven independently produced recent movies shown at the Knoxville Museum of Art’s recently updated ground-floor auditorium—“vital works of contemporary international and American cinema … that might otherwise be unseen or overlooked by Knoxville audiences,” as they describe the films on the Public Cinema website.
It’s been unlike any film series here in recent memory. Even in an age of on-demand streaming, some very good and interesting films remain hard to see. The Public Cinema screenings, mostly on Sunday afternoons, have included a European festival favorite (Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat); an intimate documentary (Gabe Klinger’s Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater) and a postmodern fictional documentary (Mark Peranson and Raya Martin’s La última película); a low-budget 16mm comedy (Whitney Horn and Lev Kalman’s L for Leisure); and a romantic comedy starring Jason Schwartzman and Elizabeth Moss (Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip). None of them are available online, and none have been widely distributed in theaters.
“Right now, basically every film we’ve shown has been through the generosity of the filmmaker,” Hughes says. “We have no budget whatsoever.”
UPDATE: This summer, Harrill and Hughes announced a partnership with the streaming service Fandor that allowed them to expand the Public Cinema’s recently completed fall schedule and announce a spring 2016 lineup of more than a dozen films from around the world, including Laurie Anderson’s acclaimed documentary Heart of a Dog as part of the Big Ears festival.
Issue #7: April 23
Tennessee law gives residents a right to see most government records and attend meetings where elected officials and other “deliberative bodies” make decisions. The rules, which are sprinkled throughout many different sections of the state code, are referred to as “sunshine laws” because they shine a light on the workings of government, empowering voters to influence decisions. But the weather seems to be clouding.
In the first four months of this year, Knoxville has seen open meetings violations by its 911 board, including the police chief and sheriff; the state Legislature has acknowledged that most of its committees have been regularly holding secret “pre-meetings”; and legislators floated about 25 bills that either attempted or succeeded in reducing public access to records and meetings. Over the last year, several local governments across the state lost high-profile court cases because they “willfully” withheld documents from the public, and still others got away with illegally charging for people to simply look at public records.
The light is getting dim.
—S. Heather Duncan
The Howard House
On Saturday afternoon, a dozen or so sign-carrying demonstrators stood along Broadway, in front of a pretty old tree-shaded house. For whatever it’s worth, dozens of drivers honked in support. The 1910 Howard House at 2921 Broadway, just this side of Atlantic Avenue, is a rarity. Broadway used to have scores of especially pretty old houses, but over the years we’ve turned it over to parking lots, strip malls, drive-thrus. As of this spring, at least, the Howard House is still there.…
There are lots of reasons to save old houses. One of the best ones is the one that’s chillingly practical. It’s that every time—and in my lifetime, it’s been every single time—we tear down an old building, what we replace it with is worse.
I’ll define my terms, here. By “old,” I mean a building 75 years old or more. And by “worse,” I don’t just mean something I personally like less, from some sentimental, nostalgic, past-worshipping point of view.
I mean categorically worse. Cheaper, flimsier, uglier, less sustainable, less versatile, more dysfunctional. Every time we tear down an old building, our city gets crappier.
Here’s a challenge: Can you think of an exception?
Knoxville College’s Fate Remains Unclear
Officials with the historically black college were close to a quiet deal this spring with Knoxville developer Southeast Commercial that would have turned all or part of the campus into something else—although exactly what was unclear. At about the same time, trustees voted to suspend classes until they could raise enough money for the crumbling, indebted Mechanicsville college to operate.
When the Southeast Commercial offer was leaked to the Mercury in April and met with some local skepticism, the college board of trustees delayed voting on it. In early summer they appointed an advisory committee of development and real estate professionals and invited proposals from selected developers. Three responses are being considered, although the college is not revealing anything publicly about what the proposals are and who made them. Board chairman James Reese has said he hopes the board will choose a partner by the end of the year to redevelop the 39-acre campus. Calls to Reese in the last week were not returned.
—S. Heather Duncan
The Walmart Onslaught Gets Stymied, Mostly
Developers for Walmart attempted to roll out a bevy of new stores in East Tennessee, but public opposition seems to have nixed at least two of them. In Knoxville, there were plans for three new “neighborhood markets”: One on North Broadway, another on the corner of Ball Camp and Middlebrook pikes, and one at the corner of Western Avenue and McKamey Road. The first two projects, which both would have required zoning changes, seem to be dead.
The parking lot for the North Broadway store would have required the demolition of a century-old craftsman home, the Howard House, a move fought by local preservationists. Although Walmart bowed out, the house must still be sold due to the terms of a will. Kim Trent, executive director of Knox Heritage, says she has been approached by other interested developers and is referring inquiries to the Howard family.
In Ball Camp, the neighborhood market would have taken 7.5 acres of Knox County’s small Nicholas Ball Park in exchange for a 103 acres that could have been used for a park in Hardin Valley. The county backed away in response to backlash from residents.
In Maryville, a much larger Walmart Supercenter continues through the early stages of the development process. The store will be located on Lamar Alexander Parkway next to the historic Parkway Drive-in, whose owner has said will have to close because the megastore’s parking lot lights will wash out the movie screen. Some longtime residents were outraged when those plans became public, arguing that local leaders allowed Walmart’s involvement to remain cloaked in secrecy until it was too late for the public to influence the process.
John Jagger, Maryville development services director, says the developer for Walmart closed on the purchase of the property in mid-November and engineers have indicated it will probably be late winter or early spring before they submit a formal site plan for early review.
—S. Heather Duncan
Issue #10: May 14
The Dirty Guv’nahs’ Last Waltz
Last month, just before the Dirty Guv’nahs’ headlining appearance at the Rhythm N’ Blooms festival, James Trimble sounded philosophical about the band’s future. The Guv’nahs were winding up nearly a year’s worth of tour dates in support of their fourth album, 2014’s Hearts on Fire, and considering their options for the future.
“We’re trying to figure out our direction—like every band, you’re always writing music and always trying to stay busy,” Trimble said. “We’ve got this certain genre and this certain thing we’ve developed, and it’s our career, but we’re trying to always ask the question, do you just keep doing more of the same or do you try to expand?”
The answer to Trimble’s question turned out to be neither. Earlier this week, the Guv’nahs—Trimble, bassist Justin Hoskins, drummer Aaron Hoskins, guitarist Cozmo Holloway, keyboardist Kevin Hyfantis, and guitarist Michael Jenkins—announced online that they’re breaking up.
Issue #11: May 21
Lucas Richman’s Final Call
“Where words fail, music speaks” was Maestro Lucas Richman’s simple introduction to the encore selection—the poignant and wistful Variation IX (“Nimrod”) from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations—on his final concert as music director of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra last weekend. While that quote from Hans Christian Andersen is often used a bit too generically, its tearfully succinct use on this occasion was befitting the moment. It followed round after round of tumultuous applause and ovation for Richman and the orchestra—a demonstration of appreciation for his 12 seasons of accomplishments that rendered any more words quite meaningless, and probably, impossible.
Issue #12: May 28
Christenberry House Demolished
The century-old Christenberry house at 3222 Kingston Pike, near Sequoyah Hills, the subject of several varieties of contention over the last couple of years, no longer exists. It was demolished early Tuesday afternoon, hours before City Council’s expected passage of the city’s new 60-day demolition-delay ordinance.
In April, John Chesworth and his wife Paula purchased the property for a reported $835,000, a sale that reportedly preempted an announced auction. Included was the century-old house, almost 6,000 square feet of it, and a sloping lawn of 4.8 acres.… The Chesworths, who live in West Knox County, reportedly have plans to build a new house on the property closer to the waterfront.
Knox Heritage executive director Kim Trent says she met Chesworth about two weeks ago. She reports that Chesworth told her he had no plans concerning the house, and seemed interested in the prospect of preserving it. He agreed to meet with Knox Heritage to consider preservation options.
Records indicate the Chesworths took out a $30 demolition permit last Wednesday. The city building inspections department, which had for many years made a practice of notifying the Metropolitan Planning Commission of demolition-permit applications, did not do so in this case. Kaye Graybeal, MPC historic-preservation planner, says she’s been told the city has ceased the practice because it unduly delays demolitions under current guidelines.
On Tuesday afternoon, Graybeal noted that this week’s events demonstrate the need of the new resolution. “Perhaps if we had had the 60 days, something could have been worked out,” she says.
Read more: Historic Christenberry House Demolished
UPDATE: The 60-day “cooling off” ordinance was passed by City Council on May 26, the same day as the demolition by the Chesworths.
Issue #13: June 4
Our Shortsighted County Mayor
County Mayor Tim Burchett’s contention that Knox County Schools can’t afford the two new schools provided for in its budget is full of baloney. And even if it had any merit, Burchett has no authority to tell the school board how to use its money.
At issue are school board-approved plans to build a $33 million Hardin Valley Middle School and a $22 million elementary school in what’s called the north central section of the county. The board also recommended construction of a Gibbs Middle School, but only if the county pay for it out of general funds and not funds allotted to the school system. So in trying to sweep away plans for all three schools with one brush, Burchett is making Gibbs a straw man for the others.
Read more: Our Shortsighted County Mayor
UPDATE: Four days later, Burchett and schools superintendent James McIntyre announced a Memorandum of Understanding (that was later approved by County Commission and the school board), which allowed for $3 million from the county’s general fund to pay for one year of teacher bonuses. New middle schools in the Gibbs and Hardin Valley communities were also added to the capital improvement plan. In September, Sullivan publicly made amends to Burchett.
Issue #14: June 11
UT Overrides NC-1 Conservation Zoning
Three 1890s Victorian houses are likely to fall due to the University of Tennessee’s plans to build a classroom and laboratory building on White Avenue in Fort Sanders. The houses are in relatively good shape, for 120-year-old wooden houses, and pretty. All have been recently lived in; one was owner-occupied and recently renovated. Each was once the home of someone famous and influential, whose impact on the city, and the university, is still felt more than a century later.
The houses are within a boundary of the NC-1 conservation district established by City Council and the Metropolitan Planning Commission 15 years ago, intended to provide a layer of oversight to protect the neighborhood’s best historic architecture. By NC-1 zoning, before a contributing historic building can be demolished, a developer would have to state the case for demolition before public boards, the Historic Zoning Commission and the MPC. However, UT, being a state institution, can override city wishes and policies, and is doing so in this case.
UPDATE: After paying nearly $3 million for the houses, UT demolished two of them. Under a tight deadline (literally), one house avoided the wrecking ball by being moved to Clinch Avenue.
Craft-Brewery Mania Reaches Knoxville
With almost a dozen new microbreweries on tap, can Knoxville become a true beer destination?
At least 11 different breweries had plans to open by the end of 2016. And although they cross the map, many are clustered in the Old City and around North Central Avenue, which raises hopes for boosting tourism with an ale trail. Why so many new breweries on tap all at once? Industry insiders say it’s due to a growing thirst for craft beer combined with favorable changes in Tennessee laws and Knoxville zoning. Blount County economic-development officials have been working for several years to woo a major brewer. Rachel Buchanan, director of economic development for Blount Partnership, says at least one brewer is still considering the Pellissippi Place location; in case that doesn’t work out, the partnership started changes to its marketing website last week in an effort to pursue others. But smaller would-be breweries in Knoxville struggled to find locations that weren’t barred by a city sin ordinance. The beertopia dream has gotten a boost from a burgeoning roster of local beer festivals as well as the South College brewing-science program, which pours forth new brewers being hired to develop the local beers.
Rather than competing, the new breweries have mostly been helping each other out and have now formed a Knoxville Area Brewers’ Association, says Zack Roskop, secretary of the group and owner of Knox Brew Tours. The association, which aims to promote the economic and tax benefits of breweries to local governments, has scheduled its first meeting for Jan. 25. He says the group also plans to launch a website by Feb. 1 with a map of the “Knoxville Ale Trail” and a passport quaffers can get stamped at each brewery in order to receive a free ale-trail T-shirt.
Although many new breweries had aimed to start pouring or distributing by the end of this year, some have met delays, and spring seems to be the new goal. Alliance and Crafty Bastard breweries both opened in late summer, and Cold Fusion started self-distributing its beer to local beer markets and pubs.
Roskop gave the rundown on further upcoming brewery openings: Scruffy City brewery should be open “any day.” Last Days of Autumn, which found a location near the Old City, is shooting to open Jan. 18. Balter Beerworks has been hiring a large staff and plans a grand opening for early February. Fanatic, which has been distributing since spring, plans to open a tasting room in February or March. Hexagon hopes to open in March or April; Shultz Brau, which had intended to open in October, looks more likely for around March. Pretentious Beer & Glassware Co. will likely be pouring other people’s beer in three months and start brewing its own in six, Roskop says. The number of tours offered by his company has expanded and he says he expects to be working with 10 breweries by March.
—S. Heather Duncan
Issue #17: July 2
Marriage Equality Legalized
“I’d like to introduce my husband,” said Jon Coffee, as his new spouse, Keith Swafford, swung his hands up in the air.
The first gay couple to get married in Knox County, Coffee and Swafford thanked the crowd of about 400 at the Tennessee Amphitheater at World’s Fair Park Friday evening for their support in the fight for marriage equality.
“I’m just so damn happy,” Coffee said to another round of cheers.
On Friday, supporters of marriage equality gathered at the amphitheater less than nine hours after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide in Obergefell v. Hodges. The court ruling struck down Tennessee’s 9-year-old ban on gay marriage and ended restrictions in 14 other states, opening the legal door for couples like Coffee and Swafford to be married and allowing recognition for existing marriages like those between Sophy Jesty and her wife, Valeria Tanco.
Jesty and Tanco were plaintiffs in the Tanco v. Haslam court case that challenged Tennessee to recognize their marriage. The case was later consolidated with three similar cases and argued before the Supreme Court.
On Monday, Mayor Madeline Rogero announced on her official Facebook page that the city would be giving the Henley Street Bridge a rainbow lighting effect through Tuesday night. (On Wednesday, it was reconfigured red, white, and blue for the Fourth of July. The bridge’s lighting often changes, and specific requests can be made to the Office of Special Events.) The post gathered more than 1,600 likes and more than 500 shares (at presstime), and has more than 80,000 views—the highest numbers of any Facebook post since Rogero took office.
Was the South Ever Confederate, Anyway?
There’s something the opposite poles in the Confederate flag debate have in common. When they talk about the South, exalting and glorifying the South or ridiculing and berating the South, they’re talking about “the South” as if it’s only white people.
The South is everybody who lives here. And considering its African-American population, it may be a more cosmopolitan region than any other. African-American culture has pervaded and energized and inspired the South, its music, its cuisine, its literature, more thoroughly than that of any other region on the continent. Blacks may be the largest part of what makes the South the South, and different from all other places. Any symbol that does not acknowledge that fact can’t say much about the South that’s true.
Read more: Was the South Ever Confederate, Anyway?
Issue #18: July 9
Mountain bikers have a rich and diverse relationship with gravity. The adrenaline surge of a downhill plunge, even with the risk of a fall (called a “gravity check”), is all the reason they need to do it again.
In Knoxville, that’s what the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club does: It hurtles forward to expand Knoxville’s trail system and its horizon. And then it does it again. And again.
Most recently, the club won a coveted grant to build a downhill trail so tough even most local bikers would never try it. In some ways, it was a strange goal to motivate a community. But for two weeks this spring, the Downtown Downhill campaign was all anybody in Knoxville could talk about. The trail project was competing online with two others, the winner claiming a $100,000 Bell Helmets grant.
To put it in mountain biking terms, Knoxville stomped it. The gravity trail received 26,619 votes from 25 countries, beating out its closest competitor by more than 10,000 votes.
But this is just the latest step in the club’s transformation of South Knoxville. The club and Legacy Parks were the masterminds behind creating 42 miles of South Loop biking trails and the surrounding Urban Wilderness. Just since 2008, the club of around 250 members has built (and continues to maintain) about 30 miles of trail. Its ability to partner effectively with other user groups, local governments, and the nimble nonprofit Legacy Parks has amplified its trail-building skills into a broader influence on the local culture, economy, and land use.
—S. Heather Duncan
Issue #19: July 16
MPC’s Sex-Discrimination Brouhaha
A former employee of the Knoxville Metropolitan Planning Commission has filed a lawsuit against the commission, Knox County, and the city of Knoxville, alleging that she was fired last year in retaliation for helping a co-worker pursue a sex-discrimination complaint.
Dee Anne Reynolds, the only woman in management at the commission, was fired by former MPC executive director Mark Donaldson for insubordination in June 2014, after almost 12 years at the agency. The decision came three weeks before Donaldson announced his own retirement from the office, which handles countywide land-use planning and administers zoning rules.
As reported by former Metro Pulse writer Cari Wade Gervin on her Tumblr on July 9, Reynolds’ lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court almost exactly a year later, demands compensation in the form of lost pay or reinstatement to her former job as finance manager, plus attorney’s fees and interest.
—S. Heather Duncan
Issue #24: Aug. 20
Will It Pay Off?
The Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project’s constant lane shifts and ever-evolving construction patterns are now part of daily life for the thousands of people that live, work, study, and play around Fort Sanders, and it’ll continue for at least the next two years as crews upgrade utility lines, pour new sidewalks, put in landscaping, and ultimately cut the four-lane thoroughfare down to just two lanes of travel. It’s all part of an ambitious attempt to add some more character to this chunk of asphalt many have long treated as a cut-through to somewhere else, and it’s a plan that has drawn more than a few complaints voiced in media coverage of the construction.
Business owners hate the traffic snarls that may be costing them customers, nearby residents ache over the added struggle to get home, and commuters moan about anything that delays their forward progress. If you’ve been anywhere near this vehicular mess, you likely know the headaches. But the city administration has a dream, and that dream is to foster the sort of college strip other cities enjoy—a pedestrian-friendly boulevard that attracts quirky shops and unique restaurants, that serves as a lifeblood for students and families alike, and that draws out visitors to what could become a vibrant extension of Knoxville’s blossoming downtown.
It’s a dream even those most affected by the construction say they believe in, too. The question is, can it become a reality?
UPDATE: The city also has plans to start work on redoing the streetscape along N. Central Street from the Old City north through Happy Holler in the coming year, and ultimately give a similar facelift to Magnolia Street east of downtown. Plus there’s all that public/private work happening along the South Waterfront. It’s all a bid to capitalize on the urban resurgence that has catalyzed downtown and keep the city’s path of more density and walkability.
Black Lives Matter in Knoxville
Drawing inspiration from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a local group of activists is aiming to reignite dialogue in Knoxville’s black community over issues of race, economics, and other factors impacting African-Americans.
“We want to take the reigns and carry on the work of our forefathers before us in the civil rights movement,” says Andre Canty, one of the more than half-dozen organizers behind Black Lives Matter Knoxville, a local rendition of the national Black Lives Matter movement.
Canty and others are aiming to latch on to that national movement to ferment change locally. Many involved have traveled to other cities to take part in demonstrations, workshops on social organizing, and to network with other activists following fatal police encounters that claimed the lives of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo. and Baltimore, among other cities.
“These places are our Birmingham and our Selma (Ala.) of the ’60s and ’70s, so we like to go out to places and report back to people about what they’re experiencing (there),” Canty says. “It really gives a sense of how urgent things are and what we should do here, though it’s less about responding and more about being proactive.”
Issue #26: Sept. 3
Avoid Physical Contact
W here Third Creek Greenway winds between the playground and the creek in Tyson Park, a picturesque bridge spans the water. It arches over the grayish stream, swollen with rain, beckoning to the lush green meadow beyond.
A little girl runs toward the bridge, arms outstretched, and peers down at the burbling water. Next to her is a sign that reads, “Notice: Avoid Physical Contact. Stream Fails State Bacteriological Standards. Possible Sources of Contamination: Sanitary Sewer Leaks/Overflows, Failing Septic Tanks, Animal Waste.”
Until about 30 years ago, urban creeks were mostly a dumping ground that few people saw as an asset. For much of the 19th century, the city was growing so much that nobody saw them at all. Streams were routed into pipes under neighborhoods and parks, in concrete canals behind factories and strip malls, and in straight ditches next to roads. Greenways have reminded us not only of the creeks’ presence, but also their potential to be something beautiful and natural.
The city has budgeted $1 million for developing new greenways this fiscal year, as it did last year. It will spend about half as much on creek cleanup. But that investment has risen about 16 percent over the last five budget years. The city is also spending $3.3 million on its entire stormwater program, which is aimed at reducing runoff for both flood control and pollution prevention. That is up from $2.7 million in fiscal 2011/12, a 22 percent bump.
—S. Heather Duncan
Issue #27: Sept. 10
Clutching a sign that reads “TN is not for sale!”, India McAfee stepped into a line with 150 or so other people picketing along Cumberland Avenue Thursday afternoon. He joined chants directed at passing motorists—“Hey Haslam, step off it! Put people over profit!”—fishing for a few honks in support of people like himself, University of Tennessee employees who fear they will lose their jobs under a new proposal from Gov. Bill Haslam looking to outsource building operations and maintenance for many state agencies, including the university system.
UT workers and supporters took up positions at both ends of the Strip, one group in front of the College of Law and another by the Pilot gas station, voicing opposition to changes organizers say could affect more than 1,000 jobs at UT Knoxville alone—and that’s not including other state offices with local operations that may be handed over to a contractor with the lowest bid. Two guys still wearing their gray maintenance uniforms held up a banner that has Haslam’s head superimposed on the body of Miley Cyrus, riding a wrecking ball. It read: “Haslam – tearing UT down brick by brick.”
Issue #29: Sept. 24
Tucked in the hollows of Cocke County about an hour east of Knoxville, where rolling Tennessee hills meet the peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains, Charles Mason has turned his lush-green farmland into a testing ground. The 67-year-old cattle rancher, real estate investor, and sometimes-farmer took a chance this year planting a new, experimental crop he hopes will bring a big return when harvest rolls around this fall—and in the years to come—but it’s a gamble that may net him little more than headache.
“When I first heard about it, well, I guess I just looked at dollar signs,” Mason says with a smooth, Southern drawl. “If it yields what it’s supposed to, I feel it could be a good cash crop for a lot of people, and maybe it’s something that can help my son maintain the farm.”
Mason is growing one of the state’s first legal industrial hemp crops in more than 70 years. That’s right, weed’s cousin is now legal in Tennessee—at least for industrial farming and use in manufactured goods, with plenty of restrictions attached. He signed up this spring, along with nearly 50 others across the state, for a tightly-regulated Tennessee Department of Agriculture pilot program to try a hand at growing the state’s inaugural crop. Out of 12 people growing in East Tennessee, Mason’s spread is by far the largest at 60 acres, and he’s the only local growing on a commercial scale.
Yet, the plant is still technically illegal, and experts say the industry still has a ways to go before hemp transforms into a viable cash crop. Can these early pioneers survive this start-up environment and give rise to a new industry in Tennessee, or will their struggles be for naught as the cannabis plant continues its tango with the federal government and the realities of farming economics set in?
UPDATE: One of the biggest complications in year one was timing. Seeds were delayed getting in from Canada and didn’t get into the ground until late in the season—too late, it turns out. Like many other hemp pioneers in the state, Mason declared this year’s crop a total loss, turning his stock of cattle loose on it in October to save money on feed. How extensive those losses are across the state is still unknown as the Tennessee Department of Agriculture works to round up outstanding field reports before year’s end, but it also expects an even bigger pool of applicants come spring thaw 2016.
Issue #31: Oct. 8
UT’s Billion-Dollar Building Boom
On the UT campus, (mostly) men, (some) with doctorates, appointed (not elected) to envision and manage its 560 acres, are in charge of what currently amounts to $1 billion in construction.
The perception of the current decision-makers in the Office of the Chancellor, and many in UTK’s Office of Facilities Services, which reports to the chancellor, is that the university is landlocked by Cumberland Avenue, Neyland Drive, and the east/west boundaries of the campus; they kvetch that there is no room in which to build on campus. They seem to long for a meat ax. Fortunately, there is still time for the university to find a scalpel in its tool kit and see the same thing that many who teach urban design see when we look around the Knoxville campus: potential building sites and plenty of dross space that, through a well-considered building campaign, can be transformed into identifiable places.
If the campus is to lose its 1970s office-park status and become the kind of fine quasi-urban land-grant campus it aspires to be, the university must stop spreading out like a gas filling its container, and contract to better define its open spaces—thinking of buildings less as stand-alone objects and more as walls to exterior rooms.
Read more: Modern Architecture and Politics (Part 2)
Issue #32: Oct. 15
E.W. Scripps Prepares to Exit
In the one year since we were laid off, the ownership of the News Sentinel has shifted to the Journal Media Group, which is based in Milwaukee, Wisc. JMG has owned the News Sentinel since early this year. But last week, we heard that Gannett, which is based in Tysons Corner, Va., will purchase the Journal Media Group, including the News Sentinel.
So in the space of little over a year, the News Sentinel will have been owned by three different national corporations based in three different states.
It’s Gannett’s second time in town. They were the primary owners of the old daily Knoxville Journal, the News Sentinel’s rival, from 1981 to 1986, but gave it up, according to their honchos du jour, because they didn’t like the Journal’s submissive relationship to the News Sentinel. Now they own the News Sentinel. Will they keep it longer than they kept the Journal? Who knows.
Today, Knoxville’s only daily paper, and all its commercial television and radio stations, the folks most of us depend on for local news, are owned by out-of-state corporations.
Corporations exist just for their shareholders, and their shareholders aren’t necessarily interested in promoting quality journalism in some middle-market place like Knoxville. They’re interested in making money to take that cruise or send junior to college. Shareholders aren’t evil, corporations aren’t evil. They’ll keep Knoxville’s best interests in mind as long as there’s money to be made in it.
Issue #34: Oct. 29
Mind the Gap
There is a hole at the southeastern corner of Knoxville’s Western Plaza. On the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015, another building by of one of Tennessee’s finest 20th-century architects was lost in the gap between no-longer-new and not-quite-old-enough. The former Hamilton National Bank building was not the largest of Robert B. Church III’s buildings, nor was it his most elaborate. It was, however, the most distinguished of his extant buildings (particularly before its several “renovations,” first by United American Bank and later by First Tennessee) and easily the finest example of mid-century modern architecture along all of Kingston Pike. Kem Hinton, of Tuck-Hinton Architects of Nashville (who knew the building well as a student of architecture in Knoxville) characterized the demolition as a “tragic loss.” Hinton elaborated: “It was perhaps the finest statement of its kind in our entire state.”
Issue #35: Nov. 5
Veggies on Wheels
Not so many years ago, a restaurant aptly known as Veg-O-Rama came and went in Happy Holler.
Not so many months ago, a new produce and vegetarian baked goods market in South Knoxville had a grand opening and a quiet closing within months of each other.
Many local restaurants—Sunspot, the Holly Hambright enterprises, the Three Rivers Market food bar all spring to mind—do a brisk trade with the local vegetarian foodies, but as for establishments that are vegetarian all the way? Is Knoxville really ready for that?
“We wonder that every single day,” quips Whitney Ross, the co-owner with Rebecca Clayman of the Dinner Bell Fresh food truck, open since August and utterly, completely, vegetarian—often vegan, to boot.
He’s only half serious, and any doubts are not keeping the pair from plowing right into action.
“We have a simple mission: Healthy, happy Tennessee,” he says.
Issue #36: Nov. 12
Dust has been swirling along a cavernous stretch of Cherokee Trail in South Knoxville since April when excavation work started on Knox Ridge, an ambitious cluster of high-end student dwellings being tiered into existence on the steep terrain. It’s just the sort of prominent section of the crown that could have potentially been protected under development guidelines that took effect in 2012 as the Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan. But it wasn’t.
Even after local governments spent nearly $400,000 and thousands of hours in staff time to develop those guidelines, in many parts of the county they are routinely overruled, discarded, or not cited at all. In unincorporated Knox County, it’s not a requirement that they are put to use despite the HRPP being adopted as part of the county’s general plan, and Knox Ridge just makes it into the county line.
Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero says these natural environs are critical for the region to develop into a destination for outdoor enthusiasts. But there’s more than just outdoor sports and tourism at stake. There’s the intrinsic value of unspoiled land and our quality of life, issues of pollution from runoff and erosion, deforestation and the potential implications of climate change, the delicate balance between property rights and government regulations, the influence of the local business community on politics, and fundamental differences between Rogero’s activist vision of government and Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett’s anti-government philosophy.
It’s impossible to decipher some motivations from a trove of Knoxville city officials’ emails detailing months of negotiations with Regal Entertainment Group to move its corporate headquarters to the South Waterfront, but one thing is clear: Both Regal and property owner Southeastern Development Associates earned a much sweeter deal after tax dollars became involved.
The negotiations, code-named “Project Hollywood,” kicked off in earnest this past February after city officials, including Mayor Madeline Rogero, pitched the basis for an incentives package to Regal executives—this just a few months after separate negotiations stalled between Regal and property owner SEDA, then called Blanchard & Calhoun Commercial. The city’s proposal—ironed out over nine months of back-and-forth between city staff, the Knoxville Chamber, and top SEDA and Regal officials—includes several millions more in incentives for Regal to stay in Knoxville, according to more than 400 pages of emails released Monday in response to a public records request from the Mercury.
SEDA and Regal had been working on a similar deal, records show. A draft letter of intent in December 2014 outlined a potential sale price as low as $4 million for the building, with SEDA contributing $2 million towards renovations, but the companies never reached an agreement. The city later agreed to purchase the building for $6 million, a figure hammered out during negotiations and not based on an appraised value, says Bill Lyons, Knoxville’s chief policy officer. SEDA had purchased the entire 23-acre former Baptist Hospital property in 2013 for $6.25 million.
Issue #39: Dec. 3
The Bearden Zone
As voguish as mixed-use development has become in many places, it’s surprising that Knoxville’s zoning ordinance prohibits it except for downtown. But that may belatedly be about to change.
At the request of City Council, the staff of the Metropolitan Planning Commission is crafting a mixed-use zone for Bearden that would permit residential and other uses along what’s a strictly commercial stretch of Kingston Pike from Western Plaza to Northshore Drive. MPC’s executive director, Gerald Green, envisions promulgating a draft for public comment before year end. And if the new Bearden Zone is adopted by Council, he believes it can serve as a template for mixed-use zoning extending out the city’s other commercial corridors, including Broadway, North Central, Magnolia, and Chapman Highway.
The mixed-use concept would only apply to areas presently zoned commercial, not to residential zones. And given the immense popularity of downtown as a place to live, shop, dine, and be entertained while walking rather than driving to their destinations, it seems compelling to extend these lifestyle amenities to other sections of the city.
Issue #41: Dec. 17
KPD’s Checks and Balances
In 2015, the Knoxville Police Department and the city faced lawsuits over police brutality related to the shooting death of a fleeing man and the alleged beating of a Hispanic man, several officers have been accused of racial profiling in efforts to make drug arrests, dashcam recordings of altercations with police (including the K-9 mauling of a suspect) have been missing at trial, and a judge has said KPD needs to provide more training on citizens’ rights.
The Mercury examined the personnel files of more than 20 officers who have either recently been the subject of lawsuits related to use of force, had repeated misbehavior problems or high-profile errors, or who have been flagged for recurring problems by the department itself. In these officers’ cases, reprimands, “counseling forms,” and even suspensions often appear to have had little to no effect on officers’ annual reviews, pay raises, or promotions. The department itself investigates potential criminal allegations against its officers, even in cases that involve deadly use of force or shooting deaths.
Although more than 100 officers have been flagged in the 14 years since an early intervention system was instituted to nip problem behaviors in the bud, only one of those officers has actually been enrolled in the correctional part of the program. In all other cases, supervisors decided the officers’ activities weren’t a problem.
KPD Chief David Rausch is making some policy changes aimed at recruiting more responsible officers, reducing the use of force, and more accurately identifying problem officers early. But with KPD solely conducting investigations of its own officers, questions still linger about accountability, checks and balances, and conflicts of interest, as investigators are tasked with casting a critical eye on the conduct of colleagues who are, in some cases, friends.
—S. Heather Duncan
Read more: Checks and Balances: KPD Accountability
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