Does downtown need a dedicated business recruiter? Lack of new retailers is a real threat, some say

Someone who wakes up every day thinking about how to get more retail businesses to locate in downtown Knoxville. That’s what some folks think we need.

CBID board member Jennifer Holder, left, chair Patrick Hunt, and Chamber staffer Randy Vineyard at recent meeting

CBID board member Jennifer Holder, left, chair Patrick Hunt, and Chamber staffer Randy Vineyard at recent meeting

The other school of thought, though, is more like, “If we build it, they will come.” Don’t spend money on a dedicated recruiter, but rather spend money making downtown even better – by adding public restrooms, more trash cans, improved sidewalks – and retail businesses will relocate downtown on their own. “Give downtown a ‘wow’ factor,” is how banker Matt Synowiez put it earlier this month

The board of directors of the Central Business Improvement District (CBID), of which Synowiez is treasurer, met earlier this month in an all-afternoon facilitated session to try to hash out this major issue. They basically decided not to recommend hiring a recruiter at the moment, but rather to put the issue in the “parking lot” as something to perhaps be considered later.

This is an attitude that frustrates some ardent downtown boosters. Developer David Dewhirst points to a number of studies funded over the past 10 years or so that said downtown needs more non-restaurant retail establishments. One study said downtown is not getting its “share of wallet” because there simply are not enough retail shops where people can spend their money. Dewhirst is sick of seeing money spent on studies like this. “I don’t want someone to study it. I want someone to DO it!” he says with a note of exasperation. (Dewhirst, a former CBID board member, attended the CBID meeting but, as a current non-board member, he was not allowed to speak during the facilitated session.)

Jeffrey Nash at CBID board meeting

Jeffrey Nash at CBID board meeting

Others close to the situation agree with  him. “If what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked, why don’t we try doing something else? We haven’t tried hiring someone specifically dedicated to attracting retailers. Let’s try it,” said another non-board member in attendance.

Downtown developer and CBID board member Jeffrey Nash says he wants to be sure that CBID money is not spent on activities the city is supposed to be providing anyway. “Public restrooms and trash pick-up are what the city is supposed to do,” he said, noting public restrooms at Volunteer Landing and World’s Fair Park which were paid for by the city. He warned fellow board members that if retailers are not recruited to fill the ground floors of empty downtown buildings, “you will literally dry up the development you’ve seen over the last few years.”

Realtor, lawyer and CBID board member Robyn Askew said she is opposed to hiring a Realtor specifically to market downtown because there are a number of local Realtors who already specialize in downtown properties. Her suggestion: create an incentive pool of money and tell all local Realtors that if they bring a retailer downtown, they will get an extra two percent commission from that fund. “Just incentivize the people who are already out there,” Askew suggested. “Don’t hire someone else. We really don’t have enough money to do that. But we can sweeten the pot for everyone who is out there trying to do it.”

Melissa Everette is a downtown resident and CBID board member who is opposed to hiring a recruiter. Here’s her reasoning: “I don’t want to use one person’s money to help market another person’s empty retail space,” she said.

CBID board chair Patrick Hunt listens as Randy Vineyard makes a point

CBID board chair Patrick Hunt listens as Randy Vineyard makes a point

She’s talking specifically about how the CBID is funded. All downtown property owners are assessed 32 cents per every $100 of assessed property value, which is added to their property taxes. The CBID board then decides how to spend that money. It’s been spent on a wide range of things from facade improvement grants to marketing and underwriting programs such as the ice skating rink and various performances. The Tennessee Shines concerts at the Bijou Theatre every month received a $100,000 grant, for instance. This fiscal year, the CBID is expected to bring in about $500,000.

The CBID was created in 1993 to undertake programs and services that government is unable to provide, according to its official Web site. Its core mission is to “enhance downtown’s existing assets and bring more people to downtown Knoxville to work, shop, live and play.” The CBID ensures the downtown area is “constantly renewed and improved, so that it continues to be an asset to future generations,” it says. The special assessment district covers more than 400 city blocks within one square mile and encompasses the core downtown area extending from the Old City to Volunteer Landing and 11th Street to Hall of Fame Drive.

The board of directors is supposed to focus on four principal areas: development, marketing and events, security and parking/transportation.

I predict this is a discussion that will become even more intense in 2010.

Filed under: Downtown, Events, Historic preservation, Knoxville, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Does downtown need a dedicated business recruiter? Lack of new retailers is a real threat, some say

  1. Jennifer Holder, on December 31st, 2009 at 3:09 pm said:

    As always, excellent reporting, Cynthia! As someone who has been walking the streets of downtown Knoxville for the last 16 years (yes, that sounds pretty bad!), here are my suspicions on what potential retailers see when they come downtown:

    1) real or perceived lack of parking. We have far too many all day parkers in our garages (Market Square in particular) to facilitate easy shopping access in the middle of the day. Where I work, tenants are limited on the number of garage spaces they receive in order (on most days) to provide ample access for patrons of the tenant businesses (bank, lawyers, PR firms, etc.). Just try to park in our central core garages mid-day and see what you find.

    2) aesthetically unpleasing and sometimes frightening visual cues including graffiti, crumbled sidewalks, trash (both loose and bagged) on sidewalks and streets, port-a-potties anytime an event of any scale is planned (i.e., frequently), pan handlers (although this seems to be decreasing to me), and glass from broken car windows. And most importantly, we still have dilapidated buildings that need to be brought up to standard.

    I don’t recall personally needing to access a public restroom but I can totally understand the need to have them for downtown’s visitors not patronizing a business that provides restrooms.

    I really like the concept that was discussed a number of years back of creating an information center complete with restrooms like is in Times Square. It could be a friendly welcome center that provided the information that visitors need and that those of us who are so close to downtown already know and can slip and assume others know as well. I’d love to put a First Tennessee ATM in such a center because I get a ton of requests from friends and acquaintances to put one on or near the Square.

    Of course I would never support the CBID spending our property owners’ assessments on things that the City of Knoxville would otherwise fund, but in the times of shrinking budgets, things like sidewalks seem to be on a slower maintenance schedule, and not only in the CBID. On my longer jogs through 4th and Gill, Parkridge, Old North, and Mechanicsville, I see similar levels of disrepair.

    Just my two cents. Thanks for bringing so much interest in downtown through the Blue Streak, Mox!

  2. Cynthia Moxley, on December 31st, 2009 at 3:14 pm said:

    Wow, those area excellent points, Jennifer. And, as always, you take a good picture!

  3. Justin Cazana, on December 31st, 2009 at 3:56 pm said:

    First of all, for full disclosure, I work in commercial real estate and help manage/lease/develop properties in downtown and throughout Knoxville.

    While I was not at the meeting (and hence could have missed some details) it does not seem appropriate to spend CBID dollars to hire a recruiter to fill empty spaces. There are people that do this for a living, they are called real estate brokers (and typically they don’t get paid until tenants are signed).

    There are some building owners who actively recruit new tenants, spend their money renovating the space, and help promote downtown.

    Then there are owners (not only downtown) that have owned their buildings for decades, don’t want to put the money into recruiting a business, hiring a broker or renovating their property. They want someone else to do it, or let a tenant fall in their lap.

    In essence, taxpayers/CBID funds would be paying for a recruiter for inactive owners, while other owners are already spending to get tenants?

    Everyday real estate brokers in Knoxville talk about office and retail spaces. When Commercial & Investment Properties signs a tenant we pay the broker and renovate the space. How would people react if we got tax money, or a tax deferment, to put a 2,000sft office tenant into Century Park (an office development off Pellissippi Pkwy)? I can understand enticements for a 100,000sft tenant that would bring in thousands of jobs; but most of the downtown retail that would go downtown would be small stores that would be hiring 5-10 people.

    Some of the ideas the CBID are proposing will help build downtown, something that is vital to helping Knoxville grow as a city. But a downtown recruiter should be at the bottom of the list.

  4. Patrick, on December 31st, 2009 at 4:12 pm said:


    Thanks for staying for so much of our meeting, and for this thoughtful post.

    Our mission, to “enhance existing assets” ultimately means to increase property values. It is the property owners, after all, who created the CBID and whose money funds our activities. The best possible way to enhance property values is to fill those properties with tenants who can afford to pay market rent. Therefore, it makes sense that our top strategic priority is business recruitment and retention.

    I’m not certain that many board members–myself included–believe we need to hire a Realtor or broker. But I believe that a majority of the board reached consensus that all of the other activities we identified related to recruitment and retention–creating and maintaining an information clearinghouse for doing business downtown, identifying ideal types of businesses and specific target companies, creating and implementing a marketing and promotional campaign designed to attract businesses to downtown, etc.–are worthwhile endeavors. Personally, I believe that we need a full-time staff member (current or new) focused almost exclusively on all of these broader business recruitment and retention activities, and that person’s job is not to compete with but support, complement, and enhance brokers’ abilities to bring new businesses downtown.

    The downtown story is complicated: rents can be higher than suburban space, parking is available but not free, etc. But there are both tangible and intangible benefits to locating a business downtown like proximity to government offices, synergy with other businesses, cultural amenities, etc. Someone has to be focused on really telling the downtown story in the most clear, consistent, and compelling fashion possible. I’d argue that there is no better entity than CBID to tell this story.

    I also don’t believe we should necessarily forgo any of our other current or contemplated programs. Rather, I’d argue that they should be evaluated through the dual lens of increasing property values and recruiting/retaining businesses to our center city. If viewed through this lens, things like event sponsorships, cooperative consumer marketing, and various development incentive programs may very well make great sense, as would support for certain less glamorous projects.

    Most importantly, we need to at least examine all of these issues in great detail and make an educated decision on how to move forward. If we come out of this process choosing to do exactly as we’ve done in the recent past, so be it. But it won’t be because we didn’t seriously consider alternatives or evaluate our effectiveness.

    Thanks again, and sorry in advance to all for the length of this post! Happy New Year!

    Patrick Hunt, Chairman
    CBID Management Corporation

    (and big fan of the blue streak!)

  5. Eric Smith, on December 31st, 2009 at 5:06 pm said:

    I spend a lot of time downtown despite living in West Knoxville and can say with conviction that the parking issue introduced by Jennifer, whether real or perceived, is much discussed by many people I know who would otherwise venture downtown. For me, finding parking is not usually a problem, rather it’s the cost of said parking. I enjoy dining downtown for lunch but to pay $5 for a 35-40 minute lunch on top of the lunch kills it for me. If I can’t find free street parking, I go elsewhere. And when there are special evening events, at the Tennessee and Bijou Theatres for example, some of the more convenient parking lots raise their rates to $10.00. I know there are some free parking garages but again, the perception is: too expensive/troublesome to make the effort. Just a few thoughts.

  6. Robert Parker, on December 31st, 2009 at 8:36 pm said:

    As great as the resurgence of downtown Knoxville is, there is a logic missing in creating a thriving center city, namely some kind of food market, as well as affordable housing.

    I’ve lived away from Knoxville for the better part of my life and have been very lucky to have lived in the nations largest metropolises; New York City, a genuine city, and Los Angeles, a city more like Knoxville composed of suburban outposts akin to villages. The great thing about NYC was that you didn’t need a car, the worst thing about LA was, you had to have a car. Unless you lived and worked in a small self contained town like Santa Monica where I lived.

    The last year I lived there, I only put 4,000 miles on my car because I used my bike for most everything, even food shopping, as these facilities were congruent with a pedestrian pattern of urban design.

    Knoxville’s lost potencial is, in my opinion, due to a lack of creativity in accord to elements of a thriving urban landscape. Ms. Holder’s points are well made, and the idea of an open welcome center with facilities is great. However, while some of the elements she finds displeasing do have merit, they are details of every big American city in modernity that are still able draw visitors from around the globe despite them. Why? Because of the energy and vitality that those cities foster. If Knoxville had a burgeoning creative class in residence downtown, people would find places to park to have access to it.

    A Giant Leap of Faith

    For downtown Knoxville to grow, it will take a visionary who loves this area, and who has the resources to make an investment in the city that will provide affordable housing, and pedestrian access to necessities. Without circular patterns of pedestrian access, home to work, to meeting ones needs, downtown Knoxville will never materialize into the vibrant city so many vaingloriously claim to wish for.

    There is an inertia within the halls of power here that I find peculiar; so many of the current downtown parking lots were cleared of their tenants with a promise that they would be redeveloped. I would think if these were binding contracts that the city would have some power to enforce the owners into a fight or flight situation and confiscate these properties to sell to investors will to make good on the promise made by the current idle owners. I’m not for confiscating private property due to eminent domain rights, but in this situation, these parking lot owners have not respected the contracts that were written for the permits to demolish the original buildings. To move forward, they must make good on their word. If these properties were forced back on to the market, perhaps they would attract a buyer with vision and capital to provide some missing vertebra to the spine of our city.

    The last thing this city/county needs is more bureaucracy. I believe the problem of attracting new businesses is the problem of not having enough downtown residents to keep them consistently profitable. By creating a steady environment where residents have access to full service pedestrian living, the types attracted to an urban living situation will create the vibrancy needed to attract and sustain what most people desire in a central urban city. The Grotto’s food shopping experience did not qualify as an actual or practical food purchasing option as valiant as their attempt was. Having a food shopping outlet downtown will also attract university students who usually add to the congestion of the Sequoia Hills thruway. Young people make a city lively, artistic people make a city exciting, the energy of a consortium of all types able to live in a small contained area make a city.

    While driving through downtown one evening last week I saw a young man managing several bags of groceries. My passion about the need for a downtown market compelled me to pull over and ask him where he’s shopped and if he would like to have access to a store downtown, he said, “hell yeah”.

  7. Allyn Purvis Schwartz, on January 1st, 2010 at 12:37 pm said:

    As a Knoxvillian who has observed the revitalization of Downtown, I have a real interest in seeing it keep the progress going. With more locally owned retail stores, like downtown Asheville, I see it becoming a bigger tourist attraction. With the renewal of the Holiday Inn, our appeal to more convention and meeting planners will increase. The ambiance of a Downtown filled with unique shops, and more art galleries, etc. will make more and more people want to visit. That said, I don’t know if a dedicated business recruiter is the answer, but aiding small businesses get started is definitely a need. The fact that our downtown area is so small makes it even more appealing for walking to each shop.

    I am becoming more and more proud of this great city!

  8. Annette Winston, on January 4th, 2010 at 11:45 am said:


    I have to echo what Jennifer Holder is saying about the all day parkers at Market Square garage. A few weeks ago, I had CLE training that began at 8 a.m., so I decided to arrive downtown at 7 a.m. so that I could have breakfast at Pete’s and read the new issue of Metro Pulse. I drove straight to the Market Square garage, because a dollar an hour is a good deal, no matter where you are. I was stunned that at 7 a.m., I had to drive almost to the top of the garage to find a space. Where is the parking for shoppers?! I thought much of that garage would be dedicated to those of us who come in and out of downtown a couple of times a week. Apparently, I am wrong about that! The CBID needs to make sure the efforts they are making toward affordable parking are actually being respected. Obviously, if Market Square garage is full by 7:15, there is little or no $1/hour parking for shoppers and restaurant patrons!

  9. John Dominic Barbarino, on January 4th, 2010 at 12:44 pm said:

    Yee Haw is a perfect example of a creative business perfect for downtown, and actually started downtown. Though, they are in kiosks in Manhattan to build up their business? Good for them, but a little bit of a reality check for Knoxville. A vital authentic retail scene would be great for downtown. What happened to the jewellers, the shoe stores, the specialty shops? Some are sprouting, but these times require LOTS OF SALES. What would be good to for downtown are original vendors and tradespeople like Yee Haw, thus allowing for it to be a destination visit and not just a convenience outlet. The internet and other avenues like trade shows can help keep those businesses in the green while keeping the home fires burning downtown.

  10. Kim Henry, on January 5th, 2010 at 2:18 pm said:

    Great report Cynthia. I think we have come a long way towards becoming the vibrant Downtown that everyone wants. New businesses (interesting and different, non-restaurant businesses) are opening or expanding – even on the 100 Block, despite it being a massive construction zone.

    While I think it would be great to have a grocery Downtown,I would be more interested in a pharmacy/convenience type store (unfortunately, most of those would be chains). I like the idea that Robyn mentioned of providing an incentive to existing realtors.

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