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VOL. 45 | NO. 6 | Friday, February 5, 2021

Downtown Knoxville is on the rebound

New businesses replacing those lost to the pandemic

By Joe Morris

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In March 2020, downtown Knoxville closed up shop. The COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to rage across the United States, and communities were hunkering down for what was then seen as a few weeks of cloistered life to ride the situation out. As days stretched into weeks and then months, economic challenges soared.

In this new climate, downtown was seen as uniquely vulnerable due to its heavy reliance on events and the accompanying visitors.

Could businesses, particularly hospitality-oriented ones such as restaurant and retail, survive? It would seem so because, even though much of the signage has changed during the last 10 months, the city’s urban core has demonstrated its resilience once again.

On the restaurant front, most every venue that closed saw another entrepreneur take over the space fairly quickly, says Michele Hummel, executive director of the Downtown Knoxville Alliance, whose boundaries run from 11th Street to the historic Old City, Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the waterfront. Some have reopened already, while others are in the process of starting up their operations. On the retail side, the news is similar.

“Considering everything that has gone on, we’re doing pretty well,” Hummel says. “We have space that opened up last year, as well as new space coming onto the market, but people are going in there. That’s good to see, but our businesses continue to struggle. We have hated to see people go, but I have to say that downtown Knoxville has shown that there’s some grit to it.

“We’re tough.”

And cyclical.

Lunchtime visitors to Market Square in Downtown Knoxville walking past the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial.

-- Photos By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

The recent celebrations around downtown’s Market Square and its resurgence over the past 20 years are a case in point. Preservation and economic development entities aligned to help revitalize the square, which had seen longtime businesses close and was largely underutilized. Go back further, however, and the square, along with downtown in general, more closely resembled the lively, bustling atmosphere of today.

That’s because boom town to ghost town and back again is the nature of many municipal centers. Everything from recessions to suburban development pulls people and businesses away, then urban redevelopment and a rise of inner-city living and culture bring them back. That push-pull has been evident in Knoxville over the last 50 years, and it’s why COVID has been seen as a challenge that could be overcome, Hummel notes.

“Market Square was, and is, a gathering spot,” Hummel says. “It just looks different now, as people are working to be safe and practice social distancing. The square was a focus for those people who would eat and shop before going to a concert or show at the Tennessee Theatre or Bijou Theatre. When COVID came and those stopped, we had to change our focus and see how we could support our businesses – and do it safely.”

Hummel and other leaders in the city’s economic development and tourism space worked closely with businesses to make sure they were aware of rapidly changing public-safety requirements. They also brainstormed to create workarounds so that customer service could continue.

The City of Knoxville special events department has provided a fenced area with tables and chairs for Market Square restaurant goers who don’t want to sit inside.

A big early win was the creation of more curbside parking zones for drop-off and delivery, a change that many restaurateurs say is likely to become a permanent part of their business. Attention was paid to other cities’ activities as well, to see how they were navigating outdoor dining, retail operations with vastly reduced maximum occupancy and more.

“The great thing about downtown communities is that they really help each other out,” Hummel says. “If there was a good idea, it got shared out fast. At the same time, we were also looking at what we were doing, and others were doing, through the lens of different ordinances we all have in place because not every idea was going to work in every setting.”

Promoting awareness, engagement

Then came more concerted efforts to make the community aware that downtown was very much up and running – just a little differently.

“We began a campaign called Support Now. Save Local, which provided details on how people could buy gift cards, order curbside delivery, all the things that would help merchants while customers could not dine in, or shop in, their establishments,” Hummel says. “That did a lot to reconnect people to our businesses. Then we worked with them to keep aware of when they were open, what their new hours were, so we could aggressively promote that across print and digital media, as well as outdoor marketing.

“We did everything we could think of to create a ‘new normal’ that included getting people back to downtown Knoxville.”

Dolly Parton’s portrait in Market Square is one of many murals featured on down buildings.

Multiple other steps were created for the city center’s commercial denizens, from enhanced advertising and other awareness vehicles to new signage that included street decals to enhanced support around stepped-up cleaning and sanitization practices. Those were paired with cancellations of major events such as the annual downtown Christmas parade, as well as working with the Dogwood Arts’ Art In Public Places program and other partners to add 10 new murals to Strong Alley, joining the already popular, seasonal Downtown Knoxville mural.

“We tweaked projects like decorating windows so we could keep things festive,” Hummel says. “The Peppermint Grove, or holiday, lighting on the square has been extended to mid-February. We adapted our Elf on the Shelf Adventure scavenger hunt campaign so we could put the passport for it on our site as a download, and then the elves were in various windows. That way people could get out, enjoy downtown, but not have to go into any of the businesses if they didn’t want to do so.”

Adapting to post-COVID world

Thanks to lessons learned over the past year, once the vaccine has taken hold in communities and people feel more comfortable venturing out, Hummel points out downtown Knoxville will be ready. It also will operate a bit differently than before.

Market Square is quieter than it was a year ago, While the pandemic hit Downtown Knoxville hard, new businesses are coming in where old one were forced out of business.

“We’re certainly going to be engaged in concerts and events, but this has been a real eye-opener for us in terms of how heavily we relied on those activities,” she says. “We’ve had to learn to think of new ways of doing things, and so I believe you’ll see us create events that are our own as well. The merchants have also changed up how they operate, from delivery to curbside pickup and other ways they had to adapt.

“A year ago, who would have thought people could pick up mixed drinks from a restaurant? People are still coming out; they’re still coming downtown. We want to maintain that, and we also want to take all that we have learned and help the area grow even more.”

While certainly affected by the pandemic, the city in general also has fared pretty well in terms of business loss, adds Kim Bumpas, president of Visit Knoxville.

“We have seen a lot of new restaurants and retail opening, as well as new breweries, coffee shops, a food truck park and other types of restaurant and retail,” Bumpas says. “Hotels have been doing a lot as well, such as the Hyatt Place Knoxville Downtown expanding its rooftop experience, and Graduate Knoxville opening Peyton Manning’s Saloon 16, while others like the Cumberland House Knoxville joined the Tapestry Collection by Hilton.

Similar activity has occurred across the region, she says, echoing downtown’s ability to fit in new enterprises as others cut back or closed. That’s because while it has taken a hit, tourism is still helping to fuel the local economy thanks to a strong and visible push around safety.

“Travel is very much still down, but not like other places,” she adds. “Our November 2020 numbers showed us down about 17% year over year, but if you look at cities like Louisville or Columbus, they are down more than 40% for that same time period.

“We are a strong driving destination, and we’ve also been promoting ourselves as a safe destination to visit. That has really paid off. Every survey I’ve seen shows that people very much want to get out of the house and go somewhere, but they want to go where there is a mask mandate and protocols. Our visitors come prepared to follow those, because they want those rules in place for their safety.”

As 2021 unfolds, Bumpas continues, Visit Knoxville will mirror the Downtown Alliance’s efforts to join with all its partners to push that message. Her team also will be working with both old and new businesses in the tourism and hospitality sector as the vaccine rolls out to take advantage of what she predicts will be strong pent-up demand for entertainment of all types.

“People want to venture out,” she says. “They are tired of digital meetings and events. They want to do things in person. If they have to wear a mask to it, they are mostly ready to comply. And they want to stick around; we’re seeing an uptick in visitors who are staying longer than two or three nights.”

Rosy predictions aside, Bumpas does note that the pandemic hit the local economy hard, and a rebuilding process lies ahead not just for the tourism and hospitality sector, but the entire city and region.

“We’ve weathered the storm pretty healthily, but I would never downplay the devastation that has occurred,” she says. “It is real, and it has hurt a lot of our businesses. We’ve worked hard and done better than most destinations, but there are still a lot of people hurting and so we’re working to get things back to whatever normal is going to look like just as soon as possible.”

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