Old City Performing Arts Center Announced

Rendering of the Old City Performing Arts Center (Courtesy Smee and Busby)

Rendering of the Old City Performing Arts Center (Courtesy Smee and Busby)

It’s funny how things eventually converge. I first mentioned the Cor-Tenn Company in an article about businesses we tend to overlook. They eventually moved from their location at 111 State Street and the building has sat empty for several months. I first mentioned River and Rail Theatre Company on the occasion of their debut production in 2016. Now River and Rail Theatre Company is prepared to announce its intentions to open the Old City Performing Arts Center at the former Cor-Tenn location. The new venue will serve their productions, as well as many other performing arts events.

Joshua, the Founding Artistic Director of the company, said he was in the offices of Robin Easter (who has been a big supporter) last fall when he learned Cor-Tenn would be moving. He walked around the corner from her office and talked to co-owner Gary Reeves and asked if they would sell the building. Gary responded by asking what he would do with it.

Future Home of Old City Performing Arts Center, 111 State Street, Knoxville, April 2018

Future Home of Old City Performing Arts Center, 111 State Street, Knoxville, April 2018

Future Home of Old City Performing Arts Center, 111 State Street, Knoxville, April 2018

That began a series of talks about possible uses in addition to being the home for performances of River and Rail Theatre. Everyone acknowledged that the building could not sit idle between productions. Various ideas were floated, but eventually a shared vision emerged: downtown needed a performance venue with seating in the range of the low hundreds. Joshua talked to people involved in that arena, from Laurens Tullock to Liza Zenni and Chyna Brackeen, and they all agreed.

Joshua said that since the founding of River and Rail, they’d always imagined owning their own building and opening it up for other arts groups to use. “We want to be about this city, hence the name of our company.” River and Rail references the natural and man-made boundaries of downtown Knoxville.

Future Home of Old City Performing Arts Center, 111 State Street, Knoxville, April 2018

Future Home of Old City Performing Arts Center, 111 State Street, Knoxville, April 2018

He says the group is very committed to downtown Knoxville and wants to present a venue that brings together, “the full diversity of the community.” He mentioned the fact that River and Rail has been committed to giving a portion of its tickets to non-profits to bring in people who would not otherwise see a professional production. To date, they have given away 2,000 seats through groups like KARM, Emerald Youth and Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

Once the vision for the space was developed and presented to Gary, the River and Rail board said the company could not afford to purchase the space. Gary was presented with a lease-to-own option and he agreed, strongly wanting to see something different that supports downtown, the Old City and the arts.

What followed was six months of negotiations and investigations of the site. Smee and Busby were hired for a feasibility study. At first they considered partnering with another group to co-lease and use the space, but ultimately, they decided the best course was to lease-to-own the space themselves and offer it to other groups for use. So, after twenty years at the location, Cor-Tenn moved out and an eighteen month lease was signed on March 15, with an option to extend.

Future Home of Old City Performing Arts Center, 111 State Street, Knoxville, April 2018

The first phase in the start-up will be a fundraising effort. Assistance is being given to the group by the Alliance for Better Nonprofits and Chyna Brakeen will be project manager and consultant for the capitol campaign. Chris Hill, Marketing Director for the company will guide the efforts internally.

The building itself is already zoned correctly for a theatre, so no zoning issues stand in the way. The current vision calls for a black box theatre concept, which means the internal parts will be moveable in order to provide maximum flexibility for events. Portions of the building will be utilized for performance and for rehearsal. Rehearsal space is a real need for many groups in the city.

There will also be a retail component, though precisely how that is structured, is still under discussion. Joshua said that the current vision is for a grab-and-go food retail space with alcohol sales. It would be in the front of the building on State Street and would, during events, serve as concessions.

Joshua reference his experience with the Signature Theatre in New York City on 42nd Street between 8th and 9th. After Hurricane Sandy it became a hub for various theatre groups operating with no electricity, and hence no wi-fi. They allowed all groups to gather at their theatre, which did have power, so they could all get back to their business as quickly as possible. It fostered a sense of community among the small theaters that he’d like to see fostered at the Old City Performing Arts Center.

Future Home of Old City Performing Arts Center, 111 State Street, Knoxville, April 2018

Future Home of Old City Performing Arts Center, 111 State Street, Knoxville, April 2018

He’s planning to open it to all performing arts, imagining everything from theatre productions to dance, opera and music. It resolves an issue that many groups have when searching for a place to do a two-to-three week run: many venues can only offer single nights with no consecutive availability. The current design calls for as many as 450 seats, depending on the configuration.

And you can help. So far, eleven Old City merchants have agreed to donate a portion of proceeds on May 10 to the project in an effort called “PAC the Old City,” and they hope the number will grow to about twenty. You can check here soon to see a full list of participating merchants. That same day, from 5:00 PM to 9:00 PM, 111 State Street will be open for you check the space out for yourself.  Connect with them on Twitter and Instagram @OldCityPAC. A Facebook page will be coming soon. You can also donate directly to the effort here.


  1. Jeannette says

    This block of State Street is actually more of an alley, inaccessible to eastern traffic on Summit Hill. When Jackson at Gay is closed, this will be a circus.

    • Try being positive. This is a good thing.

      • I park in Dewhirst too, and there’s not that much traffic in and out. There is plenty of nearby parking for this venue. This is a terrific development for Old City.

    • Union Avenue is just as narrow, and retail and restaurants thrive there. And a portion of it is only one way. Venues and restaurants on Market Square are inaccessible by vehicle at all. And I could list dozens of cities with theatres or performance venues in roads that are just as, if not even more, narrow than this one.

      I’m really surprised that your first reaction is one of such negativity, and simply due to how narrow the street is?

  2. Jeannette is correct – not to mention all the traffic entering and exiting the Dewhirst Garage directly next to the venue. It will be a circus, that parking lot is a mess (not to mention paid parking only) with all the dips, bumps and craters. And the only way out is the alley to Jackson (which two cars can barely pass through depending on how the cars next to the JFG building are parked) or the open area next to the Daniel. You can go out on Summit Hill but you can only turn right. They had better hope their audience only arrives on foot.

    • Chris King says

      Fortunately there is a huge parking lot for the Old City two blocks away! None of us would think twice of parking and walking a few blocks to a theater if we’re in New York or Chicago. You’ve got to think urban and not expect to be able to park right in front of where you’re going. Knoxville is starting to act like a real city, and Old City PAC is evidence of that.

      • Preach. Knoxville has more downtown (or downtown adjacent) parking than any other city I’ve driven in. We have a massive (and largely empty) free lot across from Public House and a huge free lot by Barley’s. Both are within a 3-5 minute walk of the theater. There is street parking on the bridge within 2 minutes. And there are a host of garages which are free on nights and weekends within 5-6 minutes.

        • I was about to be extremely snarky, but I think they’re just referring to the traffic that will go through that area once the road is closed. Not the lack of parking.

    • VERY little traffic out of that garage, where I park. Plenty of parking near to theatre. Knoxvillians not used to urban living, but getting there. This will be an amazing addition to our community!!

  3. How would parking and walking a block and a half be any different than what you have to do with any of the other theatre venues in downtown, campus or other city-based theatre venue? There’s also Uber.

    • Angela Hill says

      The other theaters in Knoxville are too large and out of price range for small productions and performance groups. Knoxville very badly needs a small to medium venue for these kinds of performances.

      • Angela Hill says

        I just realized I may have misunderstood your comment. Were you replying to another comment about parking?

  4. Sabrina Straub says

    I’d like to give a shoutout to Theater Knoxville Downtown – all volunteer actors who do a fab job, and it’s only $15. Something our community should definitely support as well.

  5. Leland Wykoff says

    Good news. The City of Knoxville should assist with funding the capital campaign and project.

    With the public money being shoveled to multiple hotel projects, condos, facade improvements, and river front development the City seems flush with cash and support for just such a public good.

    Mayor Rogero should be delighted by the opportunity to render significant financial support to the cultural landscape of the core and heart of Knoxville.

    • I sense sarcasm. Oh well. All these projects only improve our city and make more people want to visit and live here.

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