What Kind of Knoxville Do We Want?


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 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?

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