A Look (Way) Back at Downtown Businesses: Do They Last? Part One

Happy Envelope, Jackson Ave., Knoxville, 2015

I get major interest in articles discussing the closure of businesses. Are people upset? Drawn to tragedy? It’s hard to say, but they read. I also hear a lot of talk about how downtown businesses don’t last. It’s true that sometimes it does seem that the closures have clustered and we’re on a bad run. The balance is clear for anyone who has been around downtown for long: There are far more businesses than just a very few years ago.

Still, it begs the question: Are we doing worse than other places? Businesses are going to close, but do our close at a more rapid pace? Are we a cursed location or are we just typical? Small, local businesses have never been easy and, with the advent of online shopping, brick and mortar retail locations seem to be on-the-ropes.

According to an article on J.P. Morgan Chase’ website, the pattern is fairly consistent over the years in bad economies or good ones. Whether those numbers hold in the digital era, we’ll find out, but for now, we’ll assume. The article states that 1/3 of businesses close in the first two years and 1/2 are closed by the end of five years.

Harry’s, 100 Block, Knoxville, July 2011

I’ve written about downtown businesses for over nine years, so I’ve got a pretty good record (not perfect) of the downtown businesses which have opened during that period. I probably missed some. Some closed after I started writing, but opened before. I decided to look at the ones that opened since I started writing and see how our closure rate stacks up.

I started writing this blog in June of 2010. In the second half of that year, I noted seven businesses that opened: Aisle Nine, Morelock Music, John Black Photography, Happy Envelope, Just Ripe, Black Market and Organized Play. While none of those businesses are currently located downtown, two, or 29% remain open. That would be John Black Photography and Happy Envelope. At the nine year point, the projection would be for 35.5% to be open. That makes us slightly worse by comparison.

The next year (2011) business openings began the escalation to which we’ve become accustomed. Nineteen businesses opened. Of those, nine remain open. Closed: Harry’s, Blue Coast Burritto, Bella Luna, Crush, Crass Couture, 31 Bistro, Julie Apple Handbags, Mega Bus, 11 Cafe, Ace High Tattoo, The Quarry (at Marble City Brewing — which became Saw Works) and Swagger. Remember those? Still open: Union Avenue Books, Boyd’s Jig and Reel, Jackson Avenue Market, The Market at Union, Lululemon (moved west), Aveda, Peter Kern, Public House and Carleos.

Union Avenue Books, Post Expansion, 517 Union Avenue, Knoxville, October 2018

We probably weren’t quite ready for Harry’s and I miss Bella Luna a bit, but mostly don’t you think the best business ideas and execution survived? It’s a 47.3% survival rate after eight years. According to the chart, we should have a 38% survival, so we bested projections for that year and we have some great businesses to show for it.

In 2012, the rate of business openings continued to escalate in the downtown area, with twenty-five new businesses that I covered. Thirteen of the twenty five are still with us today. Gone: Shuck, Orange Leaf Yogurt, Corner Beer Pub, Rococo, Ebi Sushi, Pop Culture, Windows on the Park, Icon Ultra Lounge, Lil’ Vinnies, Downtown Rickshaw, Union Place and Sangrias.

Still kicking (though a couple are no longer downtown): Tupelo Honey, The Tree and Vine, Skye Bar, Suttree’s, Urban Outfitters, Buzz Nabors Dentistry, Pioneer House, Rick Terry Jewelry, Casual Pint, Nothing Too Fancy, Cru Bistro, River Sports Outfitters and Southland Properties. There is still a Shuck location out west, but I think it was there concurrently with the downtown location.

Paul and Terri, Tree and Vine, Knoxville, 2012


That’s a 52% survival rate after seven years. According to the chart on the website, the survival rate should be 40.5%, so we’ve bested those predictions considerably. 2012, in addition to restaurants, left us with a good core of necessary services and goods: clothing, a dentist and more.

2013 wasn’t as good a year for survival or for quantity. I count seventeen businesses that opened. Of those we still have six, or 35%. Predictions would have us retain over 43%, so we aren’t far off, but miss the mark. The ones that closed: Style of Civilization, Nostalgia on McCalla (it actually changed names, ownership and moved), Creativity Central, Peanut Shop, Coffee and Chocolate 2, Orange Leaf, Hot Bagel Company, Blutique, Coldstream Market, Gallery Nuance and The Knoxville Magazine.

Style of Civilization, 133 South Gay Street, Knoxville, March 2013

Those still open include Patricia Nash (though it moved out a bit), Knox Mason (though it is momentarily latent), Stock and Barrel, The Standard, Scruffy City Hall and Smoky Mountain Vintage Lumber. Again, we are left with some very good businesses.

So, looking at my first four years of writing, we have a better survival rate in two years and worse in two others. That’s about a wash, though looking at the differences each year, we come out slightly ahead. Sometimes it may be disappointing to be average, but the numbers seem to bear out that we aren’t in a business cataclysm, but rather we’re pretty close to historical periods.

Next week I’ll track more recent years. Have a great weekend, everybody.


  1. I think Shuck is “closed”, reopening as Harvest(?) under the same owners.

  2. I don’t think Windows on the Park is closed…

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Hard call. There is a new restaurant in the same spot. Closed/Opened or re-branded. Hard to say sometimes.

      • Yeah they have been trying to convert that into a fine dining restaurant for years. The Holiday Inn cooperation wont let them because thier arent enough dining options in the area in a certain price range. When that happens I would expect them to go that way.

  3. Tom and Kathy Ferguson says

    Thank you very much for this overview. Your article addresses the question my wife and have wondered with each visit, (about every 6 weeks for 21 years), namely, overall or longterm business success downtown and Old City. Definitely a “survival niche” aspect you’ve mentioned in other articles. As painful it is to observe closures the bright side we see is the ever changing number of options compared to just a few years ago. Some choices established comfort zones, others new adventures. But damn, we sure miss Sugar Mama’s.

  4. Chris Eaker says

    Wow, it’s amazing how quickly you forget about businesses. I don’t even remember 31 Bistro, 11 Cafe, Lil’ Vinnies, and Corner Beer Pub. Where were they?

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      31 Bistro was what La Costa became briefly under new ownership on Market Square. 11 Cafe was on the 100 block. Very short lived. Lil’Vinnies, Italian on Central in Old City, very short. Corner BP was where Balter is now.

  5. Urban Guy, thanks for putting things into context, backed by research. Good to hear Knoxville is beating the national odds on small business success!

  6. SignedClueless says

    What in tarnation was Harry’s? You wouldn’t have a clue from the photo (or I wouldn’t).

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Harry’s operated on the 100 block for a time in the old location of Harold’s. They were both delis, but Harry’s was not kosher, simply farm-to-table before that really caught on with the larger public.

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