How a pub and a free concert revitalized Downtown Knoxville

How a pub and a free concert revitalized Downtown Knoxville

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Tens of thousands of people could be seen milling the streets of Downtown Knoxville during the recent Rossini Festival, eating and drinking in area restaurants and bars. Tens of thousands of people could be seen milling the streets of Downtown Knoxville during the recent Rossini Festival, eating and drinking in area restaurants and bars.
In 1994, Gay Street was a ghost town and Market Square was mostly a collection of empty and blighted buildings. In 1994, Gay Street was a ghost town and Market Square was mostly a collection of empty and blighted buildings.
David Dewhirst bought the Emporium in 1994 and with help from an out of state bank and the city, turned it into a productive property.  It would be a model for others to follow. David Dewhirst bought the Emporium in 1994 and with help from an out of state bank and the city, turned it into a productive property. It would be a model for others to follow.
Downtown is not ignored anymore, and Dewhirst and others say there is much more to come. Downtown is not ignored anymore, and Dewhirst and others say there is much more to come.
By GENE PATTERSON
6 News Anchor/Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - Knoxville's downtown revival has surprised people. For years, the city's core lay empty and blighted as leaders tried to figure out a way to change it.

Many thought what was needed was a silver bullet - a big development that would jump start growth. It turns out a silver bullet wasn't needed, but a downtown pub and a free concert were.
 
Tens of thousands of people could be seen milling the streets of Downtown Knoxville during the recent Rossini Festival, eating and drinking in area restaurants and bars.

It's a common sight these days even without a festival. Downtown Knoxville is back.

"What I say to anybody who hasn't been down here, who has an image from 20 years ago [is] come take a look. The good thing is for young people, the downtown is the cool place to go," said deputy to the mayor Bill Lyons.
 
It wasn't so cool in 1994, a year Lyons describes as a low point for downtown Knoxville. Gay Street was a ghost town and Market Square was mostly a collection of empty and blighted buildings.

However, it was also the year the Smoky Mountain Brewing Company opened its doors in the old Woodruff's Furniture Building on Gay Street.

The original owners lasted only two years, but the pub, under different names, continues.  Today it's the Downtown Grill and Brewery.
 
"It gave people a place to go," said Jesse Mayshark.

Mayshark, the city's director of communications, was a reporter in 1994 and spent a lot of time in the Brew Pub meeting people and listening.
    
"It really gave a focal point to some energy that was out there, but was sort of dispersed. And it gave everyone a place to gather around," he said.

During the mid 1990's, much of that gathering would focus on opposition to two projects: a development known as Renaissance Knoxville, a festive retail and residential mix development, and later a downtown justice center, which was brought down because of heavy local opposition.

"What a number of us tried to articulate at the time was that we already have the necessary ingredients down here. We didn't have to create this big new fancy thing to draw people down here. There are already a lot of people who want to be down here because of the urban fabric because of historic buildings. those draws were already in place," said David Dewhirst.

Dewhirst was willing to put his money on that belief.  He bought the Emporium in 1994 and with help from an out of state bank and the city, turned it into a productive property.  It would be a model for others to follow.
     
However, there was still a perception problem among city leaders and the general public. Urban pioneers may like it downtown, but why would anybody else go?

That question was answered in 1998 when a group known as the V-Roys staged a free concert in Market Square. It was attended by several hundred people. Two years later it would spawn the Sundown in the City series, drawing thousands to downtown.

What Sundown in the City showed was that once you gave people a reason they would come downtown and not only that, they would say, 'Wow, look at this place. Look at these buildings. Why isn't someone doing anything with them?' Those kinds of activities really helped raise the awareness locally of what was sitting right in their midst and was being ignored," said Mayshark.

Downtown is not ignored anymore, and Dewhirst and others say there is much more to come.

"We've come a long way, but we're just scratching the surface," he said. "We've got a lot going on and a lot more will be going on in the near future."

One of the signs of downtown revitalization has been the increase in property values. Since 1993, property in the city's core has roughly doubled.

Loft apartments formerly went for about $95 dollars per square foot, but today the price is between $215 and $235 per square foot.

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