Is Our City “Vibrant?” What Determines Vibrancy?

Devan Jones and the Uptown Stomp, Boyd's Jig and Reel, Knoxville, December 2016
Devan Jones and the Uptown Stomp, Boyd’s Jig and Reel, Knoxville, December 2016

I was struck by a comment by reader, Gail Mitchell in the recent article about the Kress Building. Here’s a portion of what she said:

In the 16 yrs of living in Knoxville I’m eternally grateful as to how much our lovely city has come back to life. When we left our home in MD we had access everything cosmopolitan. Shopping, theatre, any number of museums, live music venues, coffee shops, amazing restaurants, and spectacular farm markets, as well as nearby big city life in NYC and DC. When my hubbys job moved us here, I admit I cried for a few years for the lack of any of the above. Then the economic bust hit. That certainly didn’t help.

These last 10 years have been spectacular in watching the growth and development of our beautiful city. The fact that we now have so many farmers markets to choose from on any given day is fantastic. Watching our area grow into such a beautiful, active mini-metropolis with determined, kind people who really care about making our city better has been awesome. I am eternally grateful to be able to have seen such amazing positive changes in the growth and development of our city. I can’t think of a better place to have raised our son.

There’s a lot going on in those few words, but the over-arching point is that the Knoxville of less than 20 years ago was missing many of the cosmopolitan amenities to which people are attracted and much has changed in the subsequent years. On one hand, she notes the amenities that were missing and are now plentiful, like music, coffee, good food, theatres and museums. On the other, she notes that this is all knit together by “determined, kind people who really care about making our city better . . .” That’s a heady combo.

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Big Ears, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2018
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Big Ears, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, March 2018

It’s not so much that we’ve arrived, as much as that we’ve engaged the journey in a meaningful way. We’ve identified, not only amenities that we want, but  a style of life that is inter-connected, relational and real. For many of us, that means living, working and/or playing in a walkable, safe area.

So, what makes a city “vibrant?” Quint Studer, whose 2018 book, Building a Vibrant Community: How Citizen Powered Change is Reshaping America, takes on that topic. In a podcast from last year he boils the answer to the question down to this: “A place where talent wants to stay, talent that left wants to return, and talent that never lived there wants to be.”

But how do we accomplish that? He insists that downtown revitalization is the first and necessary step because that’s what the young talent wants, saying if the young talent wanted more corn fields, he’d be out planting corn. The city’s future health depends on attracting and keeping talent.

Production of “Violet,” Clarence Brown Theatre, Knoxville, August 2016

He takes on a couple of topics that relate to some of the discussions we’ve recently held in our city. He suggests that consensus on what to do going forward is always going to be elusive and that about a quarter of the population is going to oppose any initiative. His remedy? Listen, acknowledge and move forward: you’ll never please everybody.

He also talks about the magic bullet approach and whether big initiatives, or more specifically, attractions, make sense. He used children’s museums as an example. With any such initiative, he suggests that getting it built, either through philanthropy or government funding is the easy part. The longer question is can the project sustain itself without outside funds over the long haul.

Hola Festival, Market Square, Knoxville, September 2018

Click here for a fifty-minute podcast with Mr. Studer, if you’d like to hear more.

As we get ready to host visitors from 48 states and over twenty countries, will we seem vibrant? Will they return to their states and countries with a vision of the Knoxville we love? Those who have attended Big Ears for several years will see new restaurants, businesses and buildings. They’ll find a welcoming, friendly city. I hope they would agree that its a vibrant place to which they’d like to return.