400 Block Merchants Respond to Changes in Promenade Garage

Eastern Side of the 400 Block of South Gay Street, Knoxville, February 2021
Eastern Side of the 400 Block of South Gay Street, Knoxville, February 2021

A few weeks ago, I wrote about changes to the Promenade Garage. The Knoxville Utilities Board, which owns the garage, recently changed management from the Public Building Authority to Premier Parking. Ending its agreement with the city, KUB determined to end its free night and weekend agreement. The garage now charges $5 for the first two hours or $7 beyond two hours. Other downtown garages continue to be free nights and weekends.

The 400 block of South Gay Street, which is the block backed by the Promenade Garage,  likely has the largest  number of businesses of any block in the city, and includes Mast General Store, Babalu, Maple Hall, the Art Market Gallery, Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain, Kilwins, Black Horse Pub and Brewery, Downtown Grill and Brewery, Status Dough and Covenant Health Convenient Care, along with law offices, architecture offices and more. The western side of the block includes Downtown Wine, Suttree’s, Harrogate’s Lounge, Sky Bar, Pioneer House, Bliss, Cruze Farm and additional realty, accounting and other offices.

Some of the merchants are not pleased with the decision and, particularly, the timing of the decision. Noting the difficult year they’ve just survived, a group sent a letter to KUB, expressing their concerns:

Dear KUB Executive Team,
Last year presented a plethora of challenges for businesses and individuals to overcome. From
vendor/supply level issues to being able to keep employees safe as COVID-19 infection rates continued
to soar, the businesses in the 400 block of Gay Street have invested thought, time, and money in efforts
to remain viable.
Most of the businesses in the 400 block are hospitality and entertainment based – one of the hardest hit
sectors with lockdowns, people working from home, and limited occupancy regulations. Many of these
restrictions are continuing for the safety of patrons, employees, and the community at large. We all
understand that, but some recent developments with the Promenade Parking Deck are posing another
threat to the precarious state of our businesses.
The recent change to make the Promenade Deck paid parking not only during the day but also at night
and on weekends was a surprise to us. Our businesses were not given notice to prepare for additional
expenses or for the reaction of customers when they get tickets, or worse yet, booted. Our staff
members are frazzled already with the challenges of enforcing mask mandates among customers, who
can become belligerent, the constant cleaning and sanitizing, and the underlying worry about their
health. Adding one more thing for people to be upset about seems cruel.
Some businesses along the street have fared better than others, but that doesn’t mean that they are
profitable. Many are figuring out ways to just hang on until business picks up – they know they have a
good idea and customers enjoy their food, shopping, or experience, but the people walking through the
doors are just not at the level that is needed to make business plans work. The additional expense for
the businesses or their employees to bear in this time of uncertainty only magnifies the uncertainty for
all. The success of each business relies, at least in some part, on the success of all businesses.
We are also concerned about the messaging from the City of Knoxville. After years of communicating
that parking in the downtown area is free on nights and weekends, it will be a difficult message to
deliver when that is still true in the other areas with the exception of the Promenade.
It is a difficult time for all involved, including the City of Knoxville. We hope that the decision to change
the policy at the Promenade Parking Deck will be reconsidered because of its far-reaching impacts and
the difficulty in managing the messaging about parking in the downtown area.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Natalea Cummings, General Manager Mast General Store, natalea@mastgeneralstore.com
Ryan Sheley, General Manager Maple Hall/Babalu, ryan@maplehallknox.com
Jessica, General Manager Blackhorse Pub, jessica@blackhorsebrews.com
Tiffany Roberts, General Manager Kilwins, knoxville@kilwins.com
Caleb Selby, Pharmacist The Phoenix Pharmacyc, aleb@thephoenixpharmacy.com
Mark Harrison, General Manager Downtown Grill and Brewery, mark@downtownbrewery.com
Promenade Garage, State Street, Knoxville, January 2021
Gabriel Bolas replied for KUB:

Thank you for sharing your concerns regarding the Promenade Garage.

KUB agreed 15 years ago to allow the City to operate the garage so that it could subsidize free parking on nights and weekends. Since that time, the City has invested $14 million to add 870 new parking spaces to the State Street garage, as well as a pedestrian walkway to Gay Street. That additional parking is the equivalent of 3 Promenade garages. With the ample supply of subsidized parking now available we began planning more than a year ago to transition away from the City agreement.

We have worked with our parking operator, Premier, to be sure that the transition is as smooth as possible, including advanced communication from the Public Building Authority and Premier to current monthly parkers and neighboring businesses, and ample signage in the garage to assist customers, including notices about the new parking rates weeks prior to the transition. The new frictionless parking system will make it easy for customers to pay without stopping to interact with an attendant or pay at a kiosk. Premier has had staff on site at night and on the weekends to assist customers and they report that customers have been understanding of the change.

During the month of February, Premier is only issuing warning tickets during the nights and weekends to allow customers to adjust to the new system without a penalty. After that, enforcement will be through citations; Premier will not use boots in this lot. And for those who desire free parking, it is readily available at the State Street garage just a few steps away. I would expect your loyal customers will take advantage of the option that suits them best.

Thank you,

Gabriel Bolas

Jeff Robinson from Black Horse Brewing sent a reply for the group, expressing their dissatisfaction with the answer and noting they have now contacted the mayor. He pointed out that nothing in the KUB response acknowledged COVID-19 and the impact it has had on the businesses, with a loss of business, limitations on operations, loss of daytime workforce, and loss of events. He concluded, “I really can’t believe other local citizens would inflict another obstacle on members of their community if they had all the facts and had given consideration to the timing of this change relative to Covid.”

It is unclear if any further consideration will be given by KUB. When I contacted them, they referred me to their response posted above. It is also unclear that the city can do anything regarding a privately owned garage.

The businesses do want the public to know that they do not control the garage or have any power to make or change decisions regarding it. Nearby State Street Garage remains free nights and weekends, as do other garages around downtown.

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