JFG Sign Atop the JFG Building, Jackson Avenue, Knoxville, May 2024
JFG Sign Atop the JFG Building, Jackson Avenue, Knoxville, May 2024

Just a bit over seven months ago the JFG sign on the south waterfront went missing. In the brief media storm, we learned that the property on which it formerly sat (Kerbella Temple property) had been sold. The new owners did not want the sign on site. We learned that it was not destroyed but was moved to a warehouse for storage while a new location would be determined.

It appears not much has changed. I reached out to Eric Vreeland with the City of Knoxville, and he reached out to Urban Design/Redevelopment Chief RJ Justice who said, “Riley Foods owns the old waterfront sign and has it in safekeeping until a new location is found. The sign needs repairs. The City, Riley Foods and Knox Heritage are all in agreement that the sign will grace the skyline somewhere near downtown once again, but the location hasn’t yet been determined. Nor have the repairs been started yet.”

In other words, it remains in limbo with no forward movement or at least none anyone is prepared to acknowledge. Where rumor or simple hopefulness, I’ve heard more than one person around town suggesting that a stadium or near-stadium location might be something in the offing. I’ve not heard any official confirmation that is being considered, though it seems like a cool possibility. I’d also heard conversations referencing the Kern’s location, which would keep the sign in south Knoxville.

In the meantime, there’s another JFG sign that could use a lot of near-term attention. The sign that graces the top of the JFG building in the Old City scarcely lights up at this point and I’ve learned that the problem involves far more than light bulbs. It also involves multiple parties in a complex ownership situation and that probably doesn’t help expedite repairs.

JFG Sign in 2012

I reached out to Jeff Gamble, Sr. Engr. Mgr. for Reily Foods Co. , the company that owns the rights to JFG Coffee and its branding. He directed me to speak to the owners of the building, Thomas Boyd and Will Sims, which I did.

I learned from the two that while they own the building, Reily Foods pays a small amount intended mostly to offset the energy usage from having the sign lighted. Who precisely bears responsibility for maintenance and repairs is up for interpretation.

While it may appear from a distance that the sign needs to have light bulbs replaced, the truth is much worse. The sign has deteriorated significantly and would need a large amount of work to make it completely functional. The lighting system is outdated, wiring has rotted, and some of the sockets are rusted beyond use. It would take a similar repair effort to the one the other sign underwent years ago, and the lighting would need to be updated to LED lights, similar to the work done on the Tennessee Theatre blade several years back.

Also at issue is the location of the sign. Repairs could almost certainly not be completed on the roof, so the sign would need to be removed, adding to the complication and expense. Removal could further damage the sign and with the city’s more recent sign ordinances, special approval may be needed to place it back on the rooftop. Thomas guessed that removal, restoration, and return of the sign could cost upwards of $100,000 to $200,000. Hardly a lightbulb.

It seems all the parties are interested in seeing preservation of the sign(s), but short of developing and executing an action plan, the sign may soon deteriorate beyond the point of being salvaged. Both Reily Foods and Thomas Boyd and Will Sims expressed support for making the sign viable. I understand (though not directly) that Rob Allen of Allen Signs would like to help. Perhaps the City of Knoxville could help via grants or using its power to bring the parties to a resolution?

JFG Sign, Labor Day in the City, Knoxville, September 2012
JFG Sign Being Dismantled, Knoxville, October 2023 (Photo by Heather Ryerson)

I spoke to Christine Cloninger, Executive Director of Knox Heritage, who said their organization would absolutely be interested in helping make something happen, though their funding options are limited. They were a part of the solution for saving the south Knoxville sign when it was repaired years ago. They had a project called Save Our Signs a few years back and it looks like that might make a return, though the grants were capped at $5,000.

Maybe a portion could be covered by each of the interested parties above and supported by a community fund-raising effort. Besides the Tennessee Theatre sign is there a more loved sign in the city? I can’t think of one. The bottom line is that we may be months away from a point of no return and the sign will be lost if no one steps up to make it happen. Who will step up?