It’s a Saturday night, and the cars are lining up at the drive-in.
Just outside Maryville on East Lamar Alexander Parkway, the shining row of headlights files slowly past the checkered sign for the Parkway Drive-In. They inch past the tiny ticket booth (one adult, two first-run movies: $7) and a tractor stalled just off the gravel track.
Drive past, into the past. The headlights creep among the parked cars, past the pickup where kids pile onto an air mattress covered in fluffy comforters, past the teenage girls taking selfies and the family setting up a playpen in the grass, past a card table surrounded by weathered-looking smokers playing poker, until they illuminate that perfect spot.
Maybe your perfect spot is next to the dad holding his infant daughter through the moon roof for the tallest perspective of her life.
Maybe it’s the spot close to the cement-block concession stand, where, if you wait in a complex system of lines understood only by the initiated, your reward is a patty melt or a Frito pie, or even a bucket of popcorn for a jaw-dropping $2.50.
Or maybe your perfect spot is that far corner where there’s enough privacy for discreetly engaging in time-honored drive-in traditions.
The double (or triple) feature won’t start until it’s good and dark, maybe 9 o’clock or later, but the gates open at 7. You’d best not wait too late. Four hundred cars can fit, but some nights they have to turn folks away.
Why come here instead of the movieplex with surround sound? Why haul the family 30 minutes or, in some cases, an hour to the drive-in?
“All this,” says Gabriel Cooper, the sweep of his arm indicating the teenage girls playing lacrosse and little boys walloping each other with foam swords among about 50 kids in the grass at the foot of the movie screen. “It’s the perfect cliché of Americana.”
At his feet sits his toddler son on a blanket, gnawing a corn dog with intense concentration. His 4-year-old daughter has made a new best friend a few cars down. (Little kids get in free.) “Splish Splash” is playing on the transistor radio the Coopers rented for a dollar from the concession stand—just one more service the drive-in provides, in this case accommodating those who like to listen to their movies under the stars instead of behind a windshield.
“I cannot imagine it with a Walmart next door,” says Gabriel’s mom, Rose Cooper. “There are so few drive-in theaters any more. It would be really sad to lose this.”
The Coopers are among thousands to sign petitions, either at the Parkway Drive-In or online, seeking to protect the business from a prospective Walmart next door. (The online petition garnered 13,255 signatures before it was closed.) Drive-in owner Doug Freeman says light pollution from the planned Walmart parking lot will doom his business by washing out the screen.
Maryville leaders say the firm developing the site for a Walmart has met all rules and requirements, so free enterprise will determine which businesses survive. This angers some residents, who say the Walmart seems to have become a “done deal” before anyone outside government had heard a word about it.
In this script, a 189,000-square-foot big-box store plays the role of “progress” and an old-fashioned, last-of-its-breed drive-in plays the part of “nostalgia.” Their conflict, like many in the movies, is perfectly framed to represent something greater: the struggle for the identity of a small town.
What, in fact, does Maryville want to be? How does “the peaceful side of the Smokies” grow while maintaining that identity—and connecting thousands of tourists to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
Some residents call the Walmart project a wake-up call for Maryville to reconsider its zoning and development rules now, before sprawl and the eventual extension of Interstate 140 change the character of the U.S. 321 corridor beyond recognition.
“I hate to say the Walmart is a lost cause, but it really is,” says Trent Gilland of Townsend. He and his old Maryville College buddy Nathan Higdon, who owns L’Espace Motorcoach in Maryville, grew angry when they heard about the potential fate of the drive-in. They started an online group called “Keep Maryville Quaint” (on Twitter, #KeepMurvilQuaint), along the lines of “Keep Knoxville Scruffy.”
“I don’t know how getting something everyone else already has is progress,” says Gilland. “I just don’t see big box as the way Maryville wants to grow.”
His group of local business owners and activists met for three hours with Mayor Tom Taylor about the Walmart project around three weeks ago. At Taylor’s suggestion, they plan to work on a new brand for the city that they can pitch to City Council. The brand would better define what it means to be Maryville, now and in the future, and could be used as a framework for planning long-term growth—and maybe avoid conflicts like this one.
Walmart in the Spotlight
Walmart often faces the same litany of opposition wherever it comes to town, particularly fears of the harm it could do to locally owned businesses. The case of the drive-in is different, because it isn’t threatened by direct competition for customers. It’s competing for the sky.
And that, Freeman says, could darken his doors forever before a customer lays a dollar in a Walmart cash register. “I don’t have a problem with Walmart. I just don’t want it to bleach my screen,” he says. “We worked too hard for it to just go away. There are maybe three drive-ins in East Tennessee, and you can’t spit without hitting a Walmart.”
Carlson Consulting Engineers, of Memphis, is taking steps to build a Walmart supercenter of 189,000 square feet, says John Jagger, development services director for the city of Maryville. The developer requested five variances for the project from the zoning appeals board.
The board denied the developer’s request to plant fewer trees than rules require but granted parking and greenspace variances. (Walmart will be allowed to leave 27 rather than 30 percent of the acreage as greenspace, Jagger says.)
The lighting request was the source of controversy. Freeman argued against allowing Walmart to use 42-foot light poles instead of the 30-foot poles codes require. He had just learned about the project. Although it’s not directly adjacent to the property he rents for his business, the early plans show the back of the Walmart—which will be lit for night deliveries—separated from the movie screen by only about 500 feet. Freeman says that with shorter poles, the building would have blocked at least some of the light from the front parking lot. Gilland and Higdon also asked the board to deny the variance.
Jagger says the board had already granted similar variances at Maryville’s other Walmart and the new Kroger. And he emphasized that the city will still allow Walmart only a small amount of light spillover—no more than 1 candle-foot (a technical unit for measuring light spillover).
“At formal site plan review, one of the things they’ll have to provide us with is a photometric survey that shows where the lighting fixtures will be and what lighting intensity is on the entire property, including at 10 feet beyond property line,” Jagger says.
But Freeman says it isn’t that simple. The drive-in already has trouble with ambient light on cloudy nights, because the airborne water droplets reflect light from the city back to the ground. Increasing this diffuse light will wash out the screen even if there is no direct light spillover, he says.
Still, public officials deny that it’s a choice between the drive-in and the Walmart. Fred Metz, the city councilman who represents the Council on the zoning commission and zoning board of appeals, calls the Parkway’s demise “pretty highly speculative,” noting its loyal following. “It may be that at the site plan phase we can require some sort of buffering or something,” he says.
In an op-ed that city manager Greg McClain sent to media a few weeks ago, he included a section of “facts we feel need to be understood.” Among them was the prediction (perhaps not, strictly, a “fact”) that increased traffic from Walmart will actually benefit the drive-in. The list also argued that large-scale development increases property values.
Metz says the lighting issue may not be the real threat to the Parkway. The truth is, the owners of the land Freeman leases don’t oppose the Walmart.
“Adjoining property values will escalate, and there’s probably some concern that the drive-in will not be the highest and best use anymore,” Metz says. “I think the economics of land value will have more to do with the demise of the Parkway than light spillover from the Walmart. That will be worth a lot more as a vacant tract than as a drive-in theater.”
Coming of Age at the Drive-In
Drive-ins emerged after World War II as the country became more suburban and populations moved away from downtowns, where movie theaters usually were, says Chuck Maland, chair of the cinema studies program at the University of Tennessee. Maland recalls that the films were second-runs and the sound quality was horrible, coming to you through a little tinny sound box mounted on a stand next to your car or inside your car. But drive-ins were often cheaper than movie theaters and, like the Parkway, offered a different social dimension to the movie experience. Over time they also became a teen-centric activity where “countless movies were never actually seen by dating couples” as they enjoyed the freedom of car culture and all it entailed, Maland says.
The Parkway Drive-In first opened about 1951. Randy Moats, of Maryville, was born more than a decade later but has seen at least one movie there every year it was open since. “When it was a two-lane highway, I can remember the cars would be backed up half a mile to turn in there,” he says. “That was the place.” In 1969, “when they showed A Walk in the Spring Rain, which was filmed in Cades Cove, it was just unbelievable how many people were there.”
Even City Manager McClain remembers going to the drive-in as a child, when “it was really dark because it was way out of town,” he recalled at the May planning commission meeting.
But the Parkway did not operate continuously until today. Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the blockbuster intervened.
What killed drive-ins? Star Wars.
That’s just the short answer, Maland says. But the film forever changed the movie industry by spawning a format that stimulated multiplexes and fed home video, he says. Movie theaters sprouted throughout suburbia and films could be watched on the cheap from the comfort of your couch.
Those factors shut down the Parkway around the time Star Wars came out. Moats says it opened again briefly, only to be shuttered again, in the 1980s.
Sometime in the 1990s, Moats stopped to peek at the Parkway’s overgrown field and rusting projector, ghosts of an era as fleeting as the images that once flickered onscreen. When he was asked to gather some antique cars to show off the drive-in’s grand reopening in 1999, Moats was thrilled.
The movie studios’ decision to shift all distribution from film to digital was the nail in the coffin for many of the drive-ins that survived the last century. Digital projectors still aren’t cheap. Freeman, who bought an 80 percent stake in the Parkway in 2003, invested $80,000 in a digital projector for the Parkway last year. (Previous owner Perry Humberd still owns 20 percent of the Parkway and the Midway Drive-In in Harriman.) Freeman did not update the projector at the Midway because he felt its business couldn’t offset the cost. The Midway has been for sale for several years—with no takers.
Enthusiasm for drive-ins has revived a bit in the 21st century.
Nostalgia brings regulars to the Parkway from as far away as Madisonville, Morristown, and Oak Ridge, Freeman says. But nostalgia alone hasn’t provided enough fuel to keep drive-ins flourishing. The survivors have a little something extra fueling business. For the Parkway, it’s mountain tourists, Freeman says. These aren’t just people on vacation—they are people who spent the day visiting rustic mountain cabins and stopping at shops that sell traditional carvings and mountain dulcimers. The drive-in fits in perfectly with the character of that whole trip: nostalgia for the simple things and slow-paced family life.
Few members of the crowd at the Parkway on a recent Saturday night could remember the old drive-in days. “My parents brought me when I was little,” recalls Taylor Sparks of Seymour, a young woman on a date with Tyler Green, who remembers coming to the Parkway with his whole Little League team as a kid. The young couple’s drive-in dates are a three-year tradition, but they don’t go unchaperoned: Zeus and Roxy, two beautiful huskies, can cuddle with them in the truck bed.
Jaia McClure, who lives in the neighborhood across the parkway from the drive-in, made a video for her Facebook page of her three children reacting to the dire predictions about Walmart and the drive-in. Her son, like many 9-year-old boys, responded with thoughts of mild violence (vague threats to slap the future Walmart management), while her daughter, 11, talked about how the big-box store would funnel money out of town.
But those kids have been going to the drive-in with family and friends from the neighborhood many times each summer for most of their lives. They don’t want it to remain just because it reminds them of a lost childhood. It’s part of the childhood they are living right now.
Still, some kids used to modern cinema technology are unimpressed. “It’s not a real movie,” says Jackson Hawkins, 8, while waiting for his dad to slice him an apple over a cooler used as a table. His family had come on an errand from Sevierville and decided to make a day of kayaking and watching a drive-in movie. Jackson shrugs. He prefers seeing films in IMAX.
The last of Knoxville’s many drive-ins, the Twin-Aire, closed in 1988. By the next summer movie season, a Walmart had replaced it.
The first public signs that Walmart was interested in building a large store on East Lamar Alexander Parkway came when the Cable and Milsaps families each asked in March to have their Blount County property—six parcels altogether—annexed into the city of Maryville. During the time it was in the county, the property that fronted the parkway was zoned commercial, but some of the back acreage was in a “suburbanizing zone,” a residential district that allows some commercial development, Jagger explains. The property owners made the request after being approached by Carlson Consulting Engineers of Memphis, which was looking to develop a Walmart but wanted it to have city services. The property bordered the city limits, which is a requirement for annexation in Maryville. It would be annexed into the city’s adjacent “business and transportation” zone, the city’s equivalent to commercial zoning. City Council approved the annexation and zoning of the property without the issue drawing any public attention. (If the property had remained in the county, it would have had to go through a public process to rezone the back acreage, Jagger says.)
Metz notes that the U.S. 321 corridor is zoned for commercial development. “Commercial is the correct zoning, in my opinion, for it,” he says, saying 30,000 to 50,000 cars drive it daily. “If it hadn’t been Walmart it probably would have been something else. You can see commercial development just kind of walking down there.”
Taylor says many people in Maryville believe—incorrectly—that the city offered Walmart incentives to locate a store on the parkway. The city did not invite Walmart or provide tax breaks, he says.
But Gilland, who was at the zoning board of appeals meeting, disputes that. “Even though we’re not offering tax abatement to Walmart, we’re offering regulation abatement,” he says.
Many Maryville residents question why another Walmart is needed when there is already one on U.S. 411 and another in Alcoa. Taylor says it’s not his job to judge demand. And he points out that while some oppose it now, Walmart rarely lacks for shoppers.
But the former biology professor and former chair of the Great Smoky Mountains Association admits, “I’m getting beat up by my friends” over the Walmart. Taylor sold his own family-owned auto parts store about a decade ago to a chain after “seeing the writing on the wall” about how difficult it was becoming to compete with them.
Regardless of his opinions, he says he can’t tell a property owner what to do if their plans fit with current zoning. “And there’s good reason for that,” he points out. “In some ways, laws were written to prevent me from redlining black property owners.” If City Council can pick and choose individual developments, that opens the door to discrimination as well as favors for insiders, he says.
Taylor also notes that the drive-in itself faced vocal opposition when it reopened. Neighbors said it would be too loud and the glare from the screen would illuminate their homes. “But it met all the requirements of the zoning,” Taylor says. “The drive-in does a good job. And we’re going to expect and demand that Walmart be a good neighbor, too.”
Taylor emphasizes that the project was discussed in planning commission meetings, City Council held three public hearings on it in one night, and the Council voted on it after two readings. “We had no one speak at any of those,” he says.
But the company name never showed up on any agenda or public notice.
“The way development works is typically these companies go out to third parties, who buy the property,” says Taylor. The same thing happened in Knoxville and Sevierville, where a Chattanooga developer has been scouting locations for Walmart Neighborhood Markets, including a controversial project that would bulldoze a historic Knoxville home.
As with that project, Walmart, via spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg, says it has no plans to announce any new stores at this time.
In Maryville, both the property owners signed nondisclosure agreements, Taylor and Metz say. (Attempts to reach those owners for this story were unsuccessful, and it’s unclear whether they’ve actually sold their property yet.) However, “We knew pretty early on that Walmart was the stakeholder here,” Taylor says.
Sometimes companies speculate on land without committing; Taylor says seven or eight developers are currently nosing around Maryville, looking at commercial properties, a notable increase compared to the last three or four years.
“Most of the time they’re very secretive about who they’re working for. On the private-sector side, it’s not that transparent at all,” he says. “I have to admit that some cities are more into announcing these kind of things.”
But he and City Manager Greg McClain say the city shouldn’t talk about unconfirmed development possibilities.
Bizarrely, even at a recent Maryville Regional Planning Commission meeting, held long after a slew of local stories about the Walmart, McClain and almost all the citizen speakers referred to it as “Big Box,” as if still striving not to speak a secret name.
The whole approach creates a catch-22 for citizens. Gilland expresses frustration at being told “it’s too late for you to change the Walmart project” when no one knew the Walmart project existed until all key decisions had been made.
Metz concedes this point. The only real opening for influencing the process comes in watchdogging every meeting, or working to change regulations before a project gets proposed to start with.
Keep Maryville Quaint intends to do both.
In the Zone
It begins, Higdon says, with attending every single city meeting so residents can see what’s coming. “The mayor basically said that to change this for today, we’d basically have to have done it 10 years ago,” Higdon says. “So we’ll look for the next 10 years.”
The next step, Higdon says, is “being sure the zoning regulations really capture the spirit of the brand of the city.” Whether that brand is “Keep Maryville Quaint” or something else is part of a larger conversation in which his group, McClain, and Metz have all voiced interest.
“I’m not an idiot. I understand that we have to grow,” says Higdon, who ran unsuccessfully against Taylor and Joe Hann for an open City Council seat in 2012. Because the footprint of the town is not expected to be much larger even 125 years from now, “the growth has to be really good growth,” Higdon says.
He and others want Maryville to have these conversations and make some changes before the long-delayed Pellissippi Parkway Extension is built. Its exact route hasn’t been established, but it’s likely to intersect U.S. 321 near the site of the Parkway Drive-In.
The extension has been in the works (and stalled) for years, but its draft environmental impact statement was basically reaffirmed last summer, and most Maryville leaders and residents feel that it’s only a matter of time. Many speculated, although no one knows for sure, that the extension is part of the reason Walmart is interested in that particular site on Lamar Alexander Parkway.
Higdon, who grew up in Maryville and attended Maryville College, says he fears that if the extension dumps cars out at the big box, visitors will stop there and then drive to the mountains without ever visiting Maryville. “They’re just going to bypass the city,” he says.
Metz agrees that “once that punches through over there, it’s going to change that whole area.” He says overdevelopment is a fair concern and that it might be a good time to discuss zoning along U.S. 321 to “see what you can do to fit everything in tastefully with the surrounding area.”
Higdon says he’d like to see zoning that limits store sizes (noting that even Walmart has an array of models), requires even more greenspace (perhaps 35 percent of the property to be developed), and sets more limits on the architecture and appearance of commercial development. Cities ranging from Gatlinburg to Hilton Head, S.C., have created rules that give those towns a uniform feel. (Higdon stresses that he’s not advocating Gatlinburg’s Swiss Village look, but at least something less hodgepodge than what happens now.)
Taylor says he’s not convinced most people want uniform architectural development. And he argues that Maryville already has “pretty strict” building codes. “We’re often accused of being anti-business,” he says.
Metz points to Maryville’s requirement that buildings have architectural details and not uninterrupted walls that literally look like big boxes. When the city required low signs around the Foothills Mall, Metz says, “Developers went nuts. It was going to be the end of Western civilization. And of course they’re all doing great business down there.”
But at the May planning commission meeting, even many speakers not associated with Keep Maryville Quaint voiced fear that new development would change the character of the town or the approach to the Smokies.
Jeffrey Vincent told the commission that the city needs to give companies incentives to redevelop existing buildings, bemoaning the number of empty downtown storefronts as well as empty big box and former grocery stores.
John Rush of Walland (who said “I could care less about the drive-in theater”) expressed frustration about the traffic snarl he thinks Walmart will create. “When it’s on a scenic highway like 321, there should be a chance to have a discussion before it’s a done deal,” he told commissioners.
Gilland says he would like development to complement the natural beauty of the Smokies. He says Keep Maryville Quaint plans to seek information about the National Park Service’s “dark sky assessment” for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and, if possible, model what effect the Walmart might have. The park service’s “night skies team” measures the brightness of the dark. According to its website, the team works with neighboring communities to protect dark skies, including using zoning to set appropriate outdoor light usage.
Gilland is also interested in exploring overlay zoning or a special zone for the U.S. 321 corridor. He questions whether the development attracted by Walmart will support the “peaceful side of the Smokies” marketing that Blount Partnership uses to advertise Townsend, Maryville, and Alcoa.
Walland resident Elan Young spoke to the Maryville planning commission about the Walmart project and the “peaceful side” last week. “I think a brand is something that needs to be protected,” she said, explaining that Maryville visitors expect “something that’s wholly different from what you get in Gatlinburg.”
But Kim Mitchell, director of tourism for Blount Partnership and the Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority, says she doesn’t see Walmart or Maryville commercial development as a threat to the brand.
“We totally think the growth is going to be a great addition,” she says. “We by all means do not want to see anything have to shut down because of any big box. But that is part of growth sometimes.” She says Walmart would likely bring more restaurants to that end of town, which would serve tourists visiting Townsend in winter, when many of its restaurants are closed.
And when it comes to a uniform appearance for development, Mitchell says that would be great for the approach to Townsend. But on U.S. 321 nearer Maryville? “I don’t think that’s something we’ll have a lot of interest in,” she says. “I don’t think we’ll ever, ever become a Pigeon Forge.”
At the planning commission meeting, McClain framed the debate as a clash between tradition and the economic growth that could drive Maryville into the future.
“Quaint” is worth discussing, he said. “But ‘quaint’ means a lot of things to a lot of different people. If you’re talking about ‘quaint,’ you can end up with higher taxes if you aren’t careful and give the impression that you’re not business-friendly.”
Shirley Rupert, a lifetime resident of Maryville, countered, “We already have the best schools and parks in the state based on the economy we have now, so to say we need more is not a good case for that.”
Despite these differences of opinion, and perhaps in keeping with the character of Maryville, speakers protesting the Walmart complimented the commission on its service and everyone on both sides of the board table was unfailingly polite.
It is Cynthia Jalean Johnson’s 15th birthday, and she has brought the whole party to the drive-in: the pizza, the bags of chips, the cake, the bouncy teenagers with pink- and blue-streaked hair. Many are Alcoa High School Band members, but, like the rest of the drive-in clientele, they come in an array of skin colors and sizes. Several pump their fists in the air and yell, “Save the drive-in!”
“We come to the drive-in all the time,” says Cynthia’s mom, Atlean Johnson. “It’s good, cheap, clean family place to go and not have to worry about anything. … I like Walmart, but to push out the mom-and-pop places like this, places where you can come together and have no strife—it’s not fair.”
By 8 p.m., the noise is raucous. The Pink Panther theme on the drive-in radio competes with shouts from little boys wrestling in their pajamas and a teen’s blasting bass. A woman walks to the concession stand, explaining her momma’s recipe loudly into her cellphone: “I used canned biscuits and put them over the chicken in the pan …” On the loudspeakers, free ice cream is offered to the first person to answer a complex movie trivia question. Some nights, there are scavenger hunts.
But then the sun sinks behind the screen. At last, it’s almost dark. Time for the main event. People start returning to their pillow piles, their armchair-sized faux-velvet beanbags, their little corner of the evening. The movie comes on—no previews—and suddenly it’s quieter than in a theater, except for the pleasant peep of distant frogs. A single star winks out as clouds drift in.
The sun has set on the Parkway Drive-In. In four or five hours the movies will be over, but the lights won’t come up—except for the headlights, heading back through the halogen haze of Lamar Alexander Parkway while the drive-in shrinks in the rearview mirror.
S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org
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