What Kind of Knoxville Do We Want?

JCPenney

The last couple of days have been interesting on Stuck Inside of Knoxville. Sparking a discussion always feels like an achievement, but I could not have anticipated the reactions from so many readers to my most recent articles. The first day I learned not to jump to conclusions about downtown activity even if my conclusions are positive. There was more to the story with the Bacon and Company building and you, my readers, helped me understand some details and history which weren’t obvious at first.

I’ve lived in Knoxville for over thirty years and I’ve visited downtown regularly during most of that time. I’ve lived in the center city for over three years and written about it extensively, so I have a pretty focused view of what’s happening. Still, I’m learning and there is much I don’t know. I appreciate it when you enlighten me.

Yesterday’s article and discussion merited, I felt, a follow-up. I wrote the story of the resuscitation of the JCPenney building. Just a couple of years ago it seemed the building, which has been vacant for three decades, was destined to fall in upon itself before anyone would be able to save it. Covered for years with the words “New.Urban.Living.,” the promise shifted to mockery as the banner faded, ripped and was finally removed.

With the prospect that this long vacant space could soon become a mixed-use building including a bowling alley, large retail and significant corporate office accommodations,  it would seem likely that everyone who loves the city and its buildings would emit a collective cheer or at least a sigh of relief that another building hadn’t fallen victim to neglect. But when the name of the retailer became known much of the initial excitement diminished.

altar_d_state-photo

Altar’d State offers Christian clothing, books and accessories. The business started in Knoxville with the closing of Goody’s. Two former executives in the company, Brian Mason and Aaron Walters decided to fill a different niche which they felt was under served. While recent years have shown an explosion in church attendance for Praise Churches, they felt no one had marketed to this group in a significant way. They opened a store in Turkey Creek and currently around fifteen stores are scattered throughout the southeast and the company has plans to expand this by ten to fifteen stores a year going forward. While the corporate level does not employ large numbers at this time, they obviously believe they will have to expand management quickly to accommodate the exponential growth. They are confident enough to be interested in leasing all three floors of the former JCPenney building.

So, what’s the problem? Readers I’ve grown to respect expressed concerns and reservations. One suggested this particular retailer could be a “buzz kill for downtown diversity and socio-economic development.” He later added, “Frankly, I would have a problem with a big retail store downtown that shuts up tight on Sunday, contributes to de-secularization of the areas they occupy, and insidiously uses the location as a springboard for evangelical activities.” Several others generally agreed and expressed concern that, if it is like its Turkey Creek counter-part and closes on Sundays, for example, it would detract from the vibrancy we’ve tried to build downtown. “Not Cool” seemed to sum it up.

Last night I posted a link on my Facebook Page (friend me above, if you like) and a smaller discussion began. A couple of readers expressed similar skepticism to those from the original post, but then one person said, “Altar’d State is a cool store. It does sell more than clothing, they offer christian books, music, gifts, etc.”

So, let’s think this through and try to figure out what’s really bothering so many people. If we are willing to let this building lie dormant as opposed to having this retailer, then we must feel strongly about it. But what’s at the root of our opposition? Is this the kind of reaction that some evangelical Christians complain about when they claim there is a “war on Christianity” in this country? Would reactions be the same if this business sold Moslem or Buddhist items? Are we against religion in the center city?

There are a number of large mainline churches including Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal and Catholic, and significant numbers of downtown residents attend them. Add to that the two congregations which worship in the Square Room and the group which packs out the Bijou every Sunday morning and you’ve got quite a mass of congregants. Are we not comfortable with them?

And what of the businesses? Cafe Four/The Square Room is affiliated with the Knoxville Fellows, a religious group. Remedy Coffee started as a ministry and its congregation grew so rapidly they are the ones now utilizing the Bijou. A number of the merchants working downtown are active in their churches. So what are we saying? Do these people hurt our business environment?

Downtown, by most measures is more progressive than other sections of town or nearby areas. I’d hesitate to call us “liberal” because that’s a relative term and I doubt folks in truly liberal areas of the country would see us that way. We do sometimes vote for a Democrat and that make us out of step from others around us. But does this make us anti-religion? Are we so afraid of religious intolerance that we have become intolerant?

If it opens as is being discussed, Altar’d State will face two bars and a liquor store directly across the street. It will be on the same block as a brewery and a cocktail lounge. That’s a pretty good mix of secular and religious it seems to me. And I’m not sure the audiences are mutually exclusive. Might we not have people who are able to express their faith in whatever manner and still buy their wine at Downtown Wine and Spirits and get a beer at Suttree’s?

JC Penny Building, Knoxville, 2012

So, what are we saying? That we only want people like us? That seems counter to our idea of downtown as one of the most tolerant areas in east Tennessee. We like to think of ourselves as open to a wide range of people and ideas and we don’t want that to change. So can we preserve that by judging these people before we know them? In a city just voted the most Bible-minded City in America it seems likely that downtown will be a mix, at best, of different beliefs.

I’m not saying that I want downtown to become a religious center for the county. I’ve expressed my displeasure at the amplified, hate-mongering on Market Square that passes for evangelism. I’ve been completely clear that I think the abortion activists exposing Urban Girl and other children to their graphic images are morally bankrupt. Still, I’ve never had my feelings hurt as I pass neighbors carrying their Bibles to the Square Room.

So, I’d love to hear your thoughts expressed in a respectful manner. This isn’t the comment section on Knoxnews, so let’s be nicer and a little less paranoid schizophrenic that some of those guys. What is the source of our discomfort with this retailer? Does this fit your vision of downtown? Is there room for diversity? Are we being hypocritical for not wanting this group because we support inclusiveness? What kind of Knoxville do you want?

Comments

  1. I stumbled across this old post just now. I can’t help to think of how downtown Knoxville really lost out by not having an Altar’d State store and/or headquarters downtown. The company really has evolved to be a retailer that is unique and growing, in a time when retail seems to be dying. Just look at their new West Town Mall store, their downtown Maryville headquarters, and their 100+ stores across the country. I know that heinsight is always 2020, but I think this could be the “one that got away”.

    • I agree with this post, this one got away. This company is now over 120 stores strong, have a very nice downtown Home Office and really do a lot for the City of Maryville. The company seems to be still growing strong and from everything I’ve read, are pretty much debt free. I Knoxville proper, they have two stores and a second office. In Maryville they have a three story building that can probably hold 500 or so employees. Not sure how many they have.

      They all the time have job postings for high level retail openings. Looking at their linked in, they have executives from Disney, Luxotica, Sears, Goodies, and other large companies….

      Man, look what we missed Christian or not

  2. I have a hard time articulating my opinion on this matter. I’ll probably do best with some numbering. Before I get started I’ll let you know I am a Christian, a downtown Knoxville lover, and an avid libertarian. I majored in retail at UT, and I am currently living in New York, but very much enjoy drinking beers & shooting a little moon at Jig & Reel when I’m home. I also am not a fan of many churches and do not like Altar’d State. On with it.

    1. After following this story in great anticipation since the whole “national retailer” hint was dropped a couple months ago, I am highly disappointed with the news that the national retailer is Altar’d State. (And not just because it meant no dream come true downtown Knoxville corporate retail job for myself…) I agree that Altar’d State is a regional chain at best. I also cannot fathom where 400 corporate level jobs will come from, or how Altar’d State will draw other retailers to downtown Knoxville. I feel like most of those things have already been discussed. But given everything I know about the company, 400 has got to be a joke.

    2. I do not feel Altar’d State will prove to be successful in this downtown location. Their merchandise mix is remarkably similar to that of Bliss (considering they opened after Bliss, bought so much of the same product, and turned it into a chain), except Bliss does a way better job at jewelry and home goods. I think (hope) regular downtowners interested in these stores’ offerings will show loyalty to Bliss. I also believe the new Urban Outfitters will prove to be a threat to a downtown location of Altar’d State, as many Knoxvillians have been waiting for a UO for so long, and they offer a much more edgy, youthful product, which I think the goers of downtown will be more interested in (as long as they aren’t anti-chain, but then they won’t be shopping at Altar’d State anyway.)

    3. I feel if we’re going to spend 400k tax dollars on the dilapidated building, we should be able to find a much more alluring and worthy candidate to take over the renovated building than Altar’d State. I also think since tax money is being used for this project, the public should have a say on if this is what they want their dollars to go toward. Of course that kind of scares me (Exhibit A: Stacey), but liberty is liberty is liberty.

    4. This is all opinion, but I find Altar’d State to be a very confused company. Their mission does not seem to match their product. I think the track they started off on was something that made sense, but they realized that it didn’t make dollars, so they’ve veered into a strange and scary fashiony, religiousy territory. Maybe I just find that odd because of 1 Peter 3:3-4, “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious,” this is of course a verse most Christians fail to adhere to….I for one am always braiding my hair, but I think you become more responsible (or something?) when you start selling things in the name of God. I for one would never want to take on that liability, and maybe that’s the real root of my disdain for Altar’d State. I will make my sins in representation of myself alone, with everything being due to my inadequacies.

    5. What happened to Eleven? And that store was actually pretty cool.

    6. I do want the building to be cleaned up and thriving. If Altar’d State is the LAST resort, I’ll take it, but every cell in me believes it is not. I mean heck for 400 grand we might as well get some brilliant young innovative minds together to come up with something way more unique and interest generating.

    I don’t think I’m done, but there’s that.

  3. First time here, via Tupelo Honey’s FB post and what great discussion thread. Very positive (and unusual these days) to see varying viewpoints discussed in a civil manner. Great one liners too, from “This isn’t the comment section of the KnoxNews” all the way to Ian’s L Ron Hubbard themed bowling alley.

    I’m a “recovering Baptist” but don’t have a problem with the store at that location or their religious affiliation. If there is a big enough portion of the public that will shop there and support it, then I’m fine with tax incentives just like any other store might get. If they aren’t a true “fit” for the area, the market will sort that out at the cash register. Personally, I’ll skip it.

    Great blog, glad I’m found it.

  4. KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

    I’ll hit the last several at once:
    MK – I agree they do not seem like a powerhouse and they did work for Goody’s, though I’m not sure these two had anything to do with its demise. They seem pretty confident.

    Pres. Pub – A similar question had been asked earlier. Clearly “Christian” is treated differently in this culture because it is the majority culture.

    Ian: Agree on all points. I’m glad you are weighing in.

    A+ News Source Conglomerate Group: I’m hoping you didn’t just call other people in this conversation “ignorant,” “highly opinionated” and “pathetic” and suggest that our conversation is pointless. If you think people are making much ado about nothing, there are nice ways to say it. You may even question whether there is some liberal hypocrisy, but again, you can say that nicely. There are, perhaps, bigger issues, but I don’t know that that makes this one unimportant and I don’t think I heard very many people suggesting this would “ruin Knoxville.” You may be used to making sarcastic, attacking comments elsewhere, but you might notice after forty comments, yours is the first such statement in this conversation. I’d like to continue posting your comments, but you’ll need to be nicer.

  5. A+ News Source Conglomerate Group says

    Attention: There has been a breakthrough in this story!

    Sources have indicated a rising epidemic in Knoxville’s downtown area! Multiple sources have reported elevated ignorance levels beyond normal. What’s even more frightening is how highly opinionated the victims become about inconsequential matters.

    What is so liberal and progressive about restricting downtown development because of a religious or political preference? Unless you come to downtown seeking a confrontation with a religious group, it is highly doubtful you will ever be confronted in an uncomfortable way. Downtown is booming right now, but there are so many bigger issues with our town. It’s pathetic if this is going to ruin Knoxville for you.

  6. Well, first off, I don’t think downtown Knoxvillians are particularly enthusiastic about giving that money to a Christian company. Trepidation seems to have the upper hand on enthusiasm here.
    But as to your question – Hindu or Buddhist, yeah, I bet so. That’d be very ‘hip.’ Probably Muslim, too, although the rest of the city would be marching down Gay St. with torches & pitchforks. Mormons would probably be greeted with indifference. And I’d like to think everyone would freak the eff out over the JC Penney building being turned into a Scientology center. Those cats are uber-creepy and not at all fun (although an L. Ron Hubbard-themed bowling alley would be a unique destination attraction).

  7. What about the underlying question here: would Downtown Knoxvillians be just as enthusiastic to give $400,000 in tax dollars to a developer wishing to bring a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, or Scientology religious corporation in a prominently positioned building on our busiest Downtown street?

  8. I just wanted to point out that they used to run Goody’s which has filed for bankruptcy and maybe has a handful of stores left across the country. So…their business success record isn’t awesome…maybe this one will do better? 400 jobs is a big promise and a handful of stores isn’t a “retail powerhouse.” I also don’t know what a retail powerhouse in their market is. If we can get the headquarters downtown and they actually bring 400 jobs it is kinda cool to say they are located on Gay Street!

  9. Of course I’ve spoken about this and I’m more bummed that our fixation is on retail, not on space that makes stuff (and the act of creation encompasses several types of businesses). If you look at recessionary periods, the trade gap actually closes because we import *less* but start making *more* (fewer net imports). That’s the sort of thing that builds a strong downtown that can weather the whims of the economy.

    That said, I’m intrigued to see what they want to do and know that nothing lasts forever. I’d rather a local business renovate the space than someone out of town who will cut and run at the first downturn.

    I have to giggle at the “Apple Store” example… of course everyone uses Apple as an example. Yet so very few have any real idea as to why the company (and its retail stores) do so well. Almost every business person I’ve spoken to who tends to follow more business than the company itself (my day job), thinks it’s just marketing and supply chain management…

    Anyway, I’ve learned that it’s more important that the space be rehabilitated and used than sit there doing nothing, so I say more power to them. There’s still plenty of space downtown for me to change the world from Knoxville 😉

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Victor, I hate that I missed your presentation the other night at Remedy. I would have loved to be there and I’m interested in learning more about your ideas.

  10. KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

    Well put, John and I understand your perspective. I share some of your concern and I’m not sure making money in the name of God is the best way to go in any case. I appreciate the compliment on the discussion. I just happen to have attracted the brightest, most thoughtful readership on the Internet. And Shaft, my goodness, man, get to Tupelo Honey for some pecan pie or to Boyd’s for some Sticky Toffee Pudding. We got pie! Who knows, maybe they’ll serve pie in the coffee shop at Altar’d State.

  11. I just wish to God there was a place to find a piece of pie downtown.

  12. UrbanGuy, I also wanted to commend you on putting together the most accepting, intellectual, tolerant, and insightful group of commenters that I have yet seen on the internets. Bravo!

  13. I posted last night, UrbanGuy, voicing my knee-jerk reaction to the news that Altr’d State is the prospective tenant. I do have to agree with TSkib (two posts up) that the vacant, crumbling building is worse for the city (you know that’s my passion). However, my reaction is based on a couple of things. As Art has put so well, there is something deliberately inciting about branding your company a specifically “Christian store”. Now I don’t believe that the grant decision should have anything to do with the religious affiliation of the store, however, my personal reaction is based on the religious branding. I have to wonder if there would be more uproar if the store was branded “Islamic Stores” or “Atheist Emporium” what have you. Even Chik-Fil-A doesn’t refer to itself as “Christian Cafe”. If what many are saying is true and their clothing is hip and mainstream, why the need to call the store a Christian store. What’s wrong with just “store”. That little extra branding puts the store over the top for me.

    I am speaking solely for myself and my own personal reaction to the news. I do not feel welcome in stores that brand themselves according to any particular set of religious values. By proclaiming “Christian Store”, the store is marketing itself as part of a specific group and to those who are part of that group. If I’m not part of that group, I feel excluded. So my reaction is a personal issue. If they can make a go of it, be successful, and not proselytize and judge me for frequenting Sut’s, so be it. It’s just “not cool” that I won’t likely check the place out.

    • I agree with you, John.

      For decades now, we’ve been fighting the stigma of SOUTH = BIBLE BELT (and all that that implies), and something like this feels like a step backwards. Why can’t they remove the label? It’s almost like businesses that choose this label expect to be snubbed, or they wouldn’t be so in-your-face about it. Instant exclusion at the door, in a sense.

  14. KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

    I’d have to agree with TSkib that crumbling buildings are more scary than Christian retailers. And, well, GK, I guess that’s the American way, right?

  15. All businesses should have a shot at success because if they can provide a product or service that people want, more power to them. I’m personally not religious, so I’d never shop there, but if there’s a market, best of luck to them. And if not, time will tell.

  16. I’m sure that a seriously dilapidated building is more dangerous to a city than the possible “hidden agendas” of the potential tenants. If they become a problem, then I’ll worry about it. In the mean time, we still have Stacey Campfield to worry about.

  17. KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

    Hey Everybody, I’lll jump in, again. First, I love Ian’s comment above. Great attitude. Randy, I’ll sheepishly admit I enjoy a bit of the “liberal oasis” feel sometimes. It’s one reason I love San Francisco, New York City and Paris. I feel like I can breathe. Living in the ultra-conservative south as a liberal gets really hard sometimes. Not in a persecutory sense, but I just grow weary. That said, you are right, it should be – and will be a mix. Let’s not kid ourselves, we live in Tennessee. Brandon, I really appreciate your contribution. If an out male who tends to react negatively to Christian things can look at their merchandise and come away with a positive view, that says something about how extreme they might or might not be.

  18. jennifer c says

    Several things:
    1. The censorship during Big Ears at Square Room was the band Matmos and their projected film, that, if I recall correctly, had some close-up male nudity. I was offended at the time, in defense of the band, and considered their decision dumb, but it’s similar to the ‘censorship’ we experience daily on TV, print ads, etc.
    2. Though religious, Cafe 4 is open on Sundays, which I’ve always been impressed with.
    3. I have a friend who attended the church at the Square Room when she lived in town. She’s a bellydancer and they let her present a sort of interpretive dance to the congregation that was based on scripture somehow. I got the impression that it’s a pretty cool church with open-minded people.
    4. I have that same impression about the 5th Avenue/Emory Place church, which has a rock band. A couple of the members that I know are young artists and musicians, i.e. cool people.
    5. From what I’ve seen on Altar’d State’s website, the clothing is rather edgy, with gothic-looking crosses, for example, similar to what a metal band might use.
    6. There are very few buildings left downtown that have facades conducive to retail. And I think that’s the real beef here, because those three storefronts together represent a chunk of real estate that makes it seem as if a full 25% of our downtown retail is ‘religious’. Despite my own contempt of McChurches with congregations of thousands (usually baptist), I don’t have hard feelings towards these modern variations, or ‘hipster churches’. I think Altar’d State would treat the space well and be good neighbors to the businesses around them.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      All good points. I’ve not considered that there are very few remaining spots conducive to retail. I’ll have to walk the streets and think about that one. Thanks for chiming in.

  19. I just looked at the website. The fashions seem trendy, hip and very young. I think this reinforces my newest idea. It almost seems similar to Urban Outfitters and women may even cross shop both places. I’m feeling better.

    As an out, proud gay male, my knee jerk reaction to Christian things is negative. I know its bad to be that way, but it’s how I am. I am trying to work on it and have made some progress. This store may help me with my progress.

  20. Ok…so I have been thinking about this topic off and on for the past day and a half. Ever since it was announced I have been pondering it. I love downtown. I love how it’s going and the momentum is has been gaining. I am just concerned and want it to continue.

    I have been trying to remain positive. I agree completely with Art. 100%. However, I am trying my best to be as positive as possible. With that being said, here is my latest idea….

    Maybe there isnt a grand plan/scheme with this business. Maybe since, as someone mentioned before, it’s a mainstream kind of Christian store they want to be near younger people. Undoubtedly, young people in general are going towards more urban areas. This is especially true with UT nearby. Perhaps they thought it might be a good business choice to be located in an area that is popular with younger people? Again, trying to be positive here.

  21. Good goobly. Some people are acting like Altar’d State is going to take over downtown and confiscate everyone’s beer or something.
    I think it’d be awesome if they set up in the JC Penney building. First, that building really needs *something* in there. Second, for a “Christian store,” they look fairly mainstream. Third, they’re a LOCAL COMPANY. I’ve plenty of hand-wringing about Urban Outfitters invading Knoxville at the expense of homegrown merchants, so that should mean something. And fourth, they’d add to the core funkiness of downtown Knoxville. I don’t think a first-time visitor is going to go home saying “Dude! Knoxville has an Urban Outfitters!,” but I can see someone saying “Dude! Downtown Knoxville has this THREE-STORY CHRISTIAN DEPARTMENT STORE with a BOWLING ALLEY in the basement right across the street from this crazy place called J’s Mega Mart and a high-gravity-beer bar! And it’s all on, I kid you not, GAY STREET.”
    I’m pretty left-wing. Not religious at all. But the kind of downtown Knoxville I want has plenty of room for an Altar’d State, I think.

    • I’m with you Ian! You cannot have community without people, all kinds of people, and people need jobs. I am no more in favor of a liberal oasis than I am a conservative fiefdom. We all need to experience diversity and talk to others unlike ourselves. That can be uncomfortable irrespective of your politics and ideology. Concerns about suppression of diversity are legitimate, but I don’t think there is a conspiracy lurking behind what could be a simple business decision. Perhaps the retailer wants to support a vibrant downtown just like we do…

    • This is exactly how I feel about it, I just couldn’t put it into words as well as Ian.

  22. KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

    Welcome, Steve, and I agree on your vision for downtown. I also, of course, love the discussion. Hello Patrick. I also wonder if there might not have been a better alternative in some ways. The developer called this a “national chain,” but they are at most a small regional chain from what I can tell. He also talked about them being a company which will attract other businesses, which makes me wonder, “which ones?” He mentioned Apple stores, etc, but I’m having a hard time seeing that. As for “what are Christian clothes and accesories?,” I’m thinking crosses and other religious jewelry, tshirts with a Christian theme and Christian books – but I’ve never been in the store, so I’m just guessing.

    • Exactly! I thought the same thing the first time I read who the tenet was on Josh Flory’s blog. I thought to myself, “This isnt a national chain.” I also thought this business is unlikely to attract many businesses, and if it does they would be something similar.

      The hype the developer has used to talk up the retailer is just in hopes of getting the money I’d bet.

  23. Also, what exactly are Christian clothes and accessories?

  24. Its not that I am opposed to a christian clothing store, I just feel that such a prime space could be used better.

  25. steve google says

    What little I have read of the overall comments, I think the good thing in this discussion is that there IS discussion and there IS passion behind it. So first of all I’m grateful that we have so many people that are passionate and concerned about downtown Knoxville and its development/growth/success. As one of those concerned passionate Knoxvillians, my issue lies more in the usage of buildings downtown. So I think as long as this usage of the JCPenny building some how adds to the life/growth of downtown, then that would overall be positive. I do, however, empathize with the concern of the “fit” of this new tenant. I think growing/developing the downtown requires vision, and that vision has a specific theme or style or culture, however you want label it. The issue with Altar’d states may be best summarized in whether or not it fits in individual’s “vision” of downtown, and I think that is really the way to express the concern. What I would like to see is the downtown continuing to grow and not only be more of a destination, but have more people LIVING downtown and an overall growing community of downtwon. That’s my vision.

  26. KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

    I can’t possibly respond to everyone in depth because my boss seems to expect that I do a bit of work along throughout the day, but I want you to know I’m seeing what you are saying and I appreciate the conversation. Thanks Art, Brandon, Sean and Mr. T. I actually agree with everything being said – including Art, to a degree. I’m nervous about this. When Art mentions the censorship in Cafe Four and throws in the music group that has landed nearby, it does sound more ominous. I don’t want downtown to become just another conservative, evangelical, judgemental space. Still, I’m more optimistic than Art that different types of people might be able to comfortably coexist. Stacey Campfield isn’t welcome everywhere and Cafe Four is conservative in their art choices (and won’t sell “alcohol,” though beer and wine are OK. We have other options if we don’t like that. I know I felt a little suspicious when I first went to Cafe Four, knowing their background, but now I never think about it. And I have to say they don’t censor the Square Room that I can tell and it’s one of my favorite venues. This business is different though, in that it is upfront selling a theology. No one else is really doing that as far as I can tell, so I feel Art on that part of it.

    • During one of the BIgEars (the 2nd year, I think), the Square Room turned away an act that they deemed “unacceptable to their values.” AC had to scramble at the last minute to find another space. I understand that the Square Room makes it clear to bookings that they must comply with their value standards.

      Just exactly WHY does Altar’d State WANT to be downtown? 1) Do they have a commitment to Urbanism? No, they generally locate their stores in suburban strip malls. 2) Is Gay Street a cheaper alternative for them? Clearly not. 3) Do they have a commitment to secular tolerance? Obviously not if you research the company in detail. 4) Do they hope that they will draw crowds of “Christian shoppers” to downtown–crowds that will inevitable be intolerant of secular businesses like bars, restaurants, and other retailers that don’t trade on religion or pretend to be Christian? That, UrbanGuy, is what frightens me…a lot.

      • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

        I clearly see what you are saying. I also agree that I don’t want downtown to become an evangelical hotbed of any sort. I would hope that this Knoxville company wants to locate downtown because they feel their business will do well there and their employees (who may or may not share their perspectives) will enjoy working in the city. I also see crosses, for example, around the necks of people in various bars around town, so it’s certainly possible that the customers aren’t as mutually exclusive as it might seem at first blush. I did not know that the Square Room controled the artists performing there. I’d love to know what the limits are as I’ve heard all manner of potentially censorable material from the stage. They’ve hosted openly gay artists on a number of occasions. I do share some of your concerns, I just hope you are wrong about the insideous nature of the business. If people want a place to buy a cross an a tshirt with a Christian logo, but don’t interfere with people who make other choices, then perhaps getting the building redeveloped is the most important consideration. I could, clearly, be wrong.

  27. I’ve just recently found this blog and I’m impressed that so many folks take this kind of time to discuss/promote/encourage/whatever-else what it means to have a successful downtown neighborhood in Knoxville.

    As far as this retailer goes, I can’t see a meaningful downside. Sure, it looks like they’ll be closed on Sundays. But this isn’t a resort, it’s an actual town. In most cities I’ve been to, it’s the major national brands (that we seem fairly averse to for our own downtown) that you can count on to be open on Sundays. It’s only in places like Downtown Disney that you can really count on every shop being open on the weekend. The diversity that creates an interesting fabric necessarily means that some places can’t pull off a seven-day workweek for all sorts of reasons, be they faith-based or simply because it’s a true mom-and-pop shop that just doesn’t value working yourself to death.

    On the other hand, this is a really big retail site compared to many of the smaller shops downtown, and having such a big place closed on a weekend day could be bad. (But could we count on the several small shops being hoped for as an alternative to stay open?)

    I even see two sides to the “400 corporate jobs” they’re hoping for. On one, lots of people heading downtown every week day has to be good for the general bottom line. Surely some of them would just move there. That would be even better. On the other side, is an evangelical corporate base going to be much help to Suttree’s or Sapphire? Will they wander down to Boyd’s Jig and Reel or be part of the customer base that drives someone to replace Patrick Sullivan’s?

    I don’t claim to know any specifics of how this will play out, but I can’t help but think that if Altar’d State is what finally gets that building to be something other than a huge, terribly-placed eyesore in the middle of Gay Street, then more power to them.

  28. Well I was typing a comment to yesterdays post that echoed much of what everyone else is saying here, including you Urbanguy, but I accidentally closed the wrong window and lost it. Our city is accepting of many things, I don’t see people up in arms during pride month, and that’s certainly one of those topics were most fall on one side of the fence or the other, much like religion. I see no reason we can’t welcome in a retailer that has christian roots, and I don’t see how it could negatively impact city development that is already well in motion. The possibility of putting a large number of jobs in a building that has been unused for that long really seems like a win win situation to me. It just seems odd to me that this business is being singled out, and as you already pointed out there are numerous others with similar ties.

  29. First let me say that I live in Fourth & Gill, spend tons of time downtown, and proudly consider myself to be very liberal. I also consider downtown to be a pretty liberal place and the rest of the city to be varying shades of moderate to conservative; and I am proud that such different viewpoints coexist happily in Knoxville. Regardless of how nasty the comments section of News Sentinel stories can get, in my experience Knoxville is a place that respects and supports different opinions.

    I think it’s great that Altar’d State is considering moving it’s corporate offices to Gay Street and opening a retail location! Will I spend a lot of time shopping there? Probably not… and I can say the same thing about Urban Outfitters. Downtown is about diversity on all levels; types of people, types of businesses, business hours, types of food, types of events, etc. For perspective, this store will fill 3 storefronts on 1 block of 1 street in the entirety of downtown. I expect that some of the new people they attract will also explore many of the small retailers in the area and come to love downtown as much as I do.

  30. KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

    Thank you, Randy, Chloe, Greg and Sara. I couldn’t say it better. I’ll agree with Sara that I’m a little nervous. I have a difficult time articulating it, but as a progressive I do enjoy being with others of like mind and that’s not always easy to find in the south, in Tennessee or in the larger city. I guess some of us have felt this is our little island where we don’t fear being accosted for Obama stickers, etc. I can’t imagine that will change. Interestingly, if we’re worried about where funding goes, we might look at Urban Outfitters which, despite their sometimes edgy products, is owned by an ultra-conservative who gives large amounts of money to very conservative causes. Ironic, isn’t it? Complicated issues, indeed.

    • Art Wagner says

      I am highly supportive of the JCP building being renovated with assistance, and have said so continually. However, I have a real problem with the developer’s potential tenant, Altar’d State, in downtown Knoxville for the reason that it may imply a disturbing trend. Companies (like ChicFilA and Altar’d State) that openly trumpet their religious affiliation and trade on specific religious beliefs to make a profit, put them in a different category than a company in some other niche, such as outdoor enthusiasts, kitchenware suppliers, furniture, or food retailers. Almost all religious belief is, by default, judgmental and intolerant of others. Some of this intolerance is innocuous like religious pamphlets left on a coffee shop table, but a lot of it is insidiously destructive of personal freedom of lifestyle, symbolically if nothing else.

      The revitalization of downtown so far has been a mix of real joy and occasional sadness, but the growth has been organic and diverse. However, with the arrival of Cafe4/Square Room and their censoring of artistic content in their venue; Remedy Coffee and their affiliation; the announced Christian music group arrival on Fifth; and with the potential Altar’d State, diversity in downtown seems to being in danger of being slowly, but perceptively, covered up with religiously driven companies who will inevitably seek to evangelize. There are a lot of purely secular companies out there–why are religious oriented companies making their move on downtown?

      I have been comforted, up till now, that downtown has been a secular and progressive oasis in a larger area that isn’t. It will be a shame if that is lost because we didn’t see the “handwriting on the wall.”

      • It’s almost like downtown is our “‘sanctuary”‘ if you will. It’s open minded, fairly liberal, and progressive. (Just as Urban Guy pointed out.) I feel like with the addition of this store it feels less like those things. I would hate for the store to begin a trend towards evangelism around the area. If I encountered it I would stop going downtown altogether.

  31. Vibrant, successful business downtown is the goal, right? I think filling 3 floors of a vacant building is amazing and ambitious. Personally, I want to see more openings & less mourning over losses (I’m still mad about Harry’s closing). My issue is that I need to do further research on what Altar’d State stands for. I get nervous that hard core Christian companies might be funding or supporting organizations that are against basic human rights (gay marriage, IMO). Where do those dollars go? Personally, I would be very upset if 3 floors of Chick FilA went up. But then again, those are my family values and are not shared with the Knoxville collective.
    I think the opening of Altar’d State is going to cause eye rolling and grumbling among my circle of people. Which is unfortunate. But I also think it’s only because we are nervous. We don’t want to be feel like we don’t belong in our downtown. Like someone might wag a finger at me if they see the Obama sticker on my car. But then again, Altar’d State shouldn’t feel like they don’t belong downtown either.
    Bottom line (for me) is….Altar’d State, you make me nervous. But bring it! Show us what you can do, be successful and prove me wrong.

  32. I have no problem with the retailer. It’s a semi-free country, and I don’t believe they would hurt downtown in any way. More power to entrepreneurs who are willing to take risks and build a growing company. As far as the incentives are concerned the business occupying the building isn’t really relative to the discussion because the money goes to the building’s developer, not the retailer.

  33. I agree with Randy’s comment. This is a well-written post, UrbanGuy. Bringing up the street preachers did make me cringe. No one wants someone screaming outside their house, nor to be bullied into “faith.” I just don’t think that is where downtown is headed with the addition of Alter’d State. I don’t attend church. I’ve never been in the store. I have absolutely no idea what they would put in their windows. The website seems pretty inspiring though. Its a locally-based business that sells a philosophy. Isn’t that what most businesses downtown really do? Mast General sells an appreciation for outdoor living and history. The Art Market sells the creative visions of multiple artists. Several businesses sells a commercial notion of what’s cool and trendy. Think about the addition of Urban Outfitters – it clearly sells the notion of edgy youth with at least some items produced for sheer shock value (I don’t know how edgy any mass marketer could really be – but that’s a whole different story). The point is that I don’t feel uncomfortable when I go into these businesses. I don’t feel uncomfortable going into Remedy or Cafe 4 either. Don’t forget the downtown Y has roots in faith. I certainly don’t feel uncomfortable there. While this COULD be a conspiracy with Chicfila to change Gay Street into a church state, I’m skeptical of that notion. I think it is a local business that deserves an opportunity. It has a track record of proven sales performance. Isn’t that a valuable thing to bring downtown? I can handle the influx of Christians that will be spilling out of its doors. However, if they decide to bring back Sundown with all those rowdy drunk youngsters, well, no one wants that kind of downtown (that is a joke, btw).

  34. I just don’t see any downside to having a rapidly growing business renovate and occupy this important downtown site. I am not a particularly religious person, but It seems hypocritical to me to oppose intolerance toward alternative lifestyles yet exclude people of faith.

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