Is Knoxville the “Boulder of the East?”

Vista from the Trail to Laurel Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Summer 2014
Vista from the Trail to Laurel Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Summer 2014

I’ve heard about Boulder, Colorado since sometime in the 1970s. In the 1960s it became a gathering point for some members of the counter-culture and I had friends who moved there a few years later. They were the first people who told me I would love it there. A pretty long list of people have told me that since, though I’ve never made it to the city.

That’s why it caught my eye last week when a Denver Life article used the headline, “Knoxville, Tennessee: The “Boulder of the East.” It turns out whomever visited or at least wrote about Knoxville talked to Kim Bumpas of Visit Knoxville who is quoted in the article as saying she often hears the sentiment from visitors. Still, it must have resonated to some degree with the writer who used it in the caption.

The article points out that Frontier Airlines flies directly from Denver to Knoxville and that our city would make a good long-weekend getaway. So what were the features that someone who lives so close to the actual Bouler highlight? They said any vacation spot they’d highlight must have, “An outdoor playground, delicious eats and equally great microbrews. Oh, and add to that a cool cultural scene.”

Eastern Side of Market Square, 400 Block of Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2015
Eastern Side of Market Square, 400 Block of Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2015

As an overview, they noted a, “burgeoning culinary scene . . . (and)  Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness boasts 1,000 forested acres with 40 miles of multi-use trails for hikers, bikers and runners just outside of downtown. Museums, live music and a gorgeous theater with a Hollywood backstory” all seemed to catch their attention.

Specifically, on the food front they mentioned Stock and Barrel and Bar Marley as well as the “steadily growing,” craft beer scene. The Blue Plate Special and the Tennessee Theatre were highlighted, and they noted other similarities, “Like Boulder, Knoxville is a college town, home to the University of Tennessee; has a pedestrian mall, Market Square, that’s reminiscent of Pearl Street; and is fitness-oriented.”

What followed were a list of suggestions of how to spend three days in our city. These included exploring the Tennessee River and they specifically mentioned Billy Lush Board Shop with its paddleboards, while also suggesting the unique experience of paddleboarding in a local quarry.They suggested a Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine cocktail at Windows on the Park. Also on the itinerary, catch a show at the Tennessee Theatre and visit the Knoxville Zoo, as well as zipline and explore Ijams Nature Center.

Inuksuit at Ijams, Big Ears, Knoxville, 2016
Inuksuit at Ijams, Big Ears, Knoxville, 2016

And, of course, there’s the beer. Noting that we’ll have sixteen to eighteen breweries by the end of the year, they suggested taking a ride on Knox Brew Tours and gave a shout-out to Pretentious Glass. They suggested a little out-of-town trip to Oak Ridge and the American Museum of Science and Energy, as well as catching a Blue Plate Special performance at WDVX, while enjoying a “savory smoked salmon crepe from The French Market Creperie.”

They also mentioned a familiar icon, stating, “One of the first things you’ll notice in Knoxville is the sparkly gold Sunsphere along the city’s skyscape. Almost resembling a disco ball, the hexagonal Sunsphere served as a symbol of the 1982 World’s Fair held in Knoxville.” They suggested, “Take in a panoramic view of the city, the Great Smoky Mountains and the Tennessee River by making dinner reservations at Primo Ristorante Italiano, located on the fifth floor of the structure.”

Those are pretty cool things to do during a visit. One might quibble around the edges and make other suggestions, but to someone who’d never been here, that list would make for a pretty good impression, I suspect. But the question still remains: Are we at all like Boulder, Colorado?

Cyclists Spotted Just Before and After Meeting, Knoxville, April 2015
Cyclists Spotted Just Before and After Meeting, Knoxville, April 2015

Politically liberal Boulder would, no doubt, be to the left of Knoxville, though both cities are likely to the left of their respective states in general. Events like the “Naked Pumpkin Run,” and the thousands who celebrated 4/20 with massive celebrations of marijuana before it was legal are hard to imagine in Knoxville.

Similarities do abound, however. Boulder is known for its outdoor recreation and is surrounded by reserves, parks and opportunities for rock climbing. We are certainly pursuing a similar vibe with our commitment to the Urban Wilderness and greenways throughout the city. If there are connections, this may be the strongest. Second to that would likely be the similarities between our town center – Market Square – and their town Center, Pearl Street.

But the list of accolades won by Boulder is daunting (From Wikipedia):

  • The 10 Happiest Cities – # 1 –[53]
  • Top Brainiest Cities – No. 1 –[54]
  • Ten Best Cities for the Next Decade – 4th – Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine[55]
  • Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index – No. 1 – USA Today[56]
  • Best Cities to Raise an Outdoor Kid – No. 1 – Backpacker Magazine[57]
  • America’s Top 25 Towns to Live Well – No. 1 –[58]
  • Top 10 Healthiest Cities to Live and Retire – No. 6 – AARP magazine[59]
  • Top 10 Cities for Artists – No. 8 – Business Week[60]
  • Lesser-Known LGBT Family-Friendly Cities – No. 1 –[61]
  • America’s Foodiest Town – No. 1 – Bon Appetit magazine[62]
  • Queerest Cities in America 2015 — No. 10 —[63]
Fred Eaglesmith Traveling Steam Show, WDVX Blue Plate Special, Knoxville, January 2016
Fred Eaglesmith Traveling Steam Show, WDVX Blue Plate Special, Knoxville, January 2016 ranked Boulder as the fifth best place in the country to live in 2015. In explaining why it ranks so highly, the online journal noted the high level of recreational facilities and the forward-thinking policies that help make the city vibrant and resilient. They’ve also become a foodie mecca, have a strong craft beer scene and a mature and still-growing tech industry. Their support of biking and other alternative transportation also boosts them in the ranking.

It’s an impressive list. Do we measure up? Are we closing the gap where we fall short? We’re certainly closing it in terms of breweries and our culinary climate continues to improve. We are extremely pet-friendly which is also true for Boulder. Our efforts in alternative transportation falls significantly short of theirs, which makes sense given it’s been a point of emphasis for them for decades and only more recently is that the case in Knoxville.

In a lot of respects, it would seem we have a long way to go to be considered similar to Boulder, but then we have our own advantages and charm. I don’t know how you measure friendliness and warmth, but surely we’d be competitive with any city on that front. I like to think our climate may also be a bit kinder, though maybe not, if you like to snow ski.

View of Market Square from TVA Plaza, Knoxville, May 2016
View of Market Square from TVA Plaza, Knoxville, May 2016

So, maybe the analogy doesn’t hold up completely. I’m not sure it needs to. We’ve got an up-and-coming city with many things to offer and more on the way. Knoxville is a better city than it was just a few short years ago and there is no evidence that we’ve hit our limit. What do you think? I’m sure a number of you have been to Boulder. Is there a similarity? Is it a place we’d like to emulate?

Still, all this talk of Boulder has given me the itch to go there. And realizing Frontier sells reasonably-priced direct-flight tickets only ads to the draw. Maybe I’ll visit that city and report back what I find. Maybe I’ll proclaim them the “Knoxville of the West!”