Losing Home: Home Run or No-Hitter?

Jun 10, 2021

The view toward East Knoxville -- including Black neighborhoods such as the Bottom and Mountain View, destroyed during urban renewal -- from Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie’s office.

The prospect of a baseball park in a neighborhood taken from Black residents during urban renewal has raised both hopes and red flags in East Knoxville.

Tennessee Smokies owner Randy Boyd, who is also president of the University of Tennessee, has plans to build a multi-million dollar baseball stadium with a shopping and residential complex in the Old City. 

Boyd’s property was long the location of Lay’s Packing Company in the Black neighborhood of the Bottom. Lay’s escaped the destruction that ravaged most of that neighborhood during urban renewal 60 years ago. In the name of redevelopment, the federally-funded program wiped out generational wealth, contributing to today’s high Black poverty rate. 

Enkeshi El-Amin is a sociologist who studied urban renewal’s effect on Knoxville’s Black community. 

“Urban renewal never ends. It’s still happening,” said El-Amin, who founded a non-profit for Black creatives named after the Bottom. “We’re still seeing this neighborhood taken. Think about this new stadium and this development that’s happening in the same area -- and we’ve not dealt with the past, with violence against Black people. Black people continue to experience violence at the hands of the state, of the city, of the county government.”

On a single day last year,  Knoxville City Council voted unanimously to apologize for the damage caused by urban renewal -- and approved a new sports authority for the baseball park. 

Here’s the plan Boyd pitched: On land he donates, the city and county will borrow as much as $65 million to build the stadium. The sports authority can use sales taxes from the ballpark complex toward paying off this taxpayer debt. The state legislature chipped  in $13.5 million to reduce the loan amount.

For his part, Boyd has promised to piggyback an estimated $142 million in private investment for apartments, shops and restaurants to be built simultaneously around the stadium. The venue would also be used by Knoxville’s new pro soccer club and for community events. When it’s not booked, the stadium would be open to the public.

Steve Davis, president of GEM Community Development Group, speaks about the firm’s $1.6 million gift to support youth baseball leagues and upgrade an East Knoxville youth baseball park. Photo by Chrissy Keuper.

The project is being put together by GEM Community Development Group, which is named for a prominent Black movie theater torn down during urban renewal. GEM’s president and CEO is Steve Davis, a successful Black businessman and former University of Tennessee football player. 

Community commitments

In early May, GEM Development announced a series of commitments through partnerships with nonprofits and schools. It plans to hire “disadvantaged” contractors for at least 15 percent of the work, set up several training and apprenticeship programs, and establish an aviation career program for at-risk youth at Pellissippi State Community College. 

To benefit youth in East Knoxville, which has been devastated by teen gun deaths this year, GEM Development will also fund the expansion of youth baseball and softball there. Boyd said this is an important step to guiding kids into more healthy activities. 

GEM is donating $1 million for a minority contractor to fix up and expand the city’s Claude Walker Park, where Austin East students and community leagues play baseball. Games have been cancelled this year because other teams refused to play there.

The development company will also provide a “recurring operational investment” of around $500,000 to cover uniforms and equipment for youth baseball leagues. Boyd said this would boost the number of youth baseball teams in the neighborhood from 31 to 70 -- plus add 11 youth softball teams for the first time. Emerald Youth Foundation will manage these investments, which will benefit a list of youth sports organizations in East Knoxville, Mechanicsville and other neighborhoods.

Separately, Boyd’s nonprofit foundation is also contributing to some projects in East Knoxville, including a new playground for Green Magnet School and the Black history corridor being created by the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.

Beck, which preserves the local history of urban renewal, is involved in a committee to advise developers on incorporating the legacy of the Bottom and Negro League baseball into the stadium complex. The committee will be led by Beck president Renee Kesler. 

She welcomes the new opportunities the ballpark could bring to the thousands of families shoved out for redevelopment that mostly never happened. 

“You move all these people out, you displace, you uproot -- and you do nothing! Are you kidding me?” Kesler said. “What took you so long? If you were going to uproot us, at least let us see something and have a part of something.”

Kesler, a former banker, said this is a chance for local governments to prove they have learned from their mistakes. 

“We have an opportunity to do it right, and be inclusive of the people in the neighborhood, making sure they’re able to continue to stay in their homes, afford their homes, and then take advantage of the great economic development that comes when you put up things that drive tourism, that drive economic development, that drive that dollar turning over in your community,” Kesler said.

Eddie Wells and Robert Minter Jr., who grew up in the Bottom, say they are looking forward to more local ball games -- and jobs. 

“I can’t wait until they bring that ballpark back to Knoxville,” said Minter, a longtime local radio personality. “I think it’s going to be the best thing that’s going to happen to the east side of Knoxville, because there will be money to be made.”

But others, like Umoja Abdul-Ahad, remain skeptical.

“There’s a lot of people in the African American community who rally around the baseball stadium as they had rallied around urban renewal,” he said. “We got absolutely nothing!” 

He said he has read promises of new jobs, but those claims are vague. “Well, what kind of jobs?” he asked. “How many jobs? How do you know we’re going to get the jobs? It’s the same language that was said (before). So people have to wake up and just stop being foolish.”

Abdul-Ahad wondered how many minority contractors had been hired for the demolition and site preparation underway at the old Lay’s site. Boyd said all that work has been done by one contractor, who is not a minority. (He said there were only two bidders.)

Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie, who represents East Knoxville on City Council, said she can’t vote for stadium funding unless the developers make their commitments binding through a “community benefits agreement.” She said the sports authority should monitor compliance with it.

McKenzie also wants a cap on the city’s spending for the stadium -- regardless of cost overruns. “We have to have some contingencies in place, and we have to have some things that are in writing,” she said. “The city is going to have a plan to repay this money with the bonding. What does that look like long-term? Does that look like a tax increase? We’ve not had one here in the city or the county for quite some time now.”

McKenzie said the city must be prepared to shell out for expanding its police presence in the Old City if the ballpark is built. She warned that the stadium will draw not only more tourists but more crime that caters to them, like drugs and sex trafficking. The city is already paying police officers around $10,000 less than surrounding counties that are hiring, she said.

Like McKenzie, local activists and at least one other city council member (Amelia Parker) have been pushing for a community benefits agreement. 

The former Lays’ Packing Company site has been demolished, and contractors have been preparing it for a stadium project that will be the future home of the Tennessee Smokies.

A coalition of Nashville community and labor groups negotiated one for Nissan Stadium a few years ago. The developer there agreed to build affordable and workforce housing and an affordable child care center in the complex; to pay stadium workers at least $15.50 an hour; and to include small retail spaces at reduced-rate rent to local entrepreneurs. 

Boyd said local city and county mayors have told him they don’t need a community benefits agreement, and he agrees.

“When somebody talks about a community benefits agreement, I always say, ‘First off, who are we contracting with? And second, what else is it you think that we should do?’” Body said. “And if there’s something else that we’re missing, I’d love to hear about it.”

In an emailed statement, the city confirmed it doesn’t seek a community benefits agreement. "We've said from Day 1 that the public benefit has to far outweigh the public cost in investing in a publicly-owned stadium, and it looks like that will indeed be the case," Deputy to the Mayor Stephanie Welch said. “Mr. Boyd has already proactively entered into formal agreements with impactful and proven community organizations, such as the Knox Area Urban League. The City agrees with his approach."

Boyd argues that it would be cheaper and easier for him to keep the Smokies in Sevier County, where they play now. “Nobody’s making this investment for economic reasons,” he said.

“We don’t want to be stupid, and we don’t want to lose money, but everybody is invested because they want to make a difference in the community. And it is going to be transformative for East Knoxville... but also for all of Knox County,” he said. “We’ve really done everything that we imagine that one can do.”

However, the Knoxville stadium proposal doesn’t include wage commitments, workforce housing or reduced-rate retail space as Nashville’s did. However, GEM Development plans to work with the Knoxville Area Urban League to help Black entrepreneurs pitch ideas for stadium business ventures. And it’s offering reduced rent to the local Black-owned restaurant Jackie’s Dream, which is currently in a smaller space across from Fulton High School.

“We will be able to triple her business,” Boyd said. “That’s the kind of example of where we see we can make the biggest impact -- not in having somebody that does the masonry, which is a six-month job, but somebody that creates a business to be there for decades to come.”

Public Housing/Baseball Housing: Smokeyville

McKenzie said she’d like the residential portion of the stadium development to include some workforce-priced housing. 

“I want people of different income levels to be able to experience that if they want to,” she said. “I would like to see where that conversation leads.” 

But Boyd said the roughly 500 apartments or condos in the stadium complex will rent at market rates. Instead, the neighborhood income mix will be provided by the new Austin Homes public housing project being rebuilt nearby, he said.

In fact, many East Knoxville residents voiced suspicion about these two projects happening at once, and wondered if Austin Homes will really serve low-income residents any more. 

One of Knoxville’s earliest public housing projects, it was home to many Black families driven out of the surrounding neighborhoods by urban renewal. The old apartment blocks were recently torn down by Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation, which manages both public housing and many downtown redevelopment projects.

“Austin Homes looks like it’s being built for white young people who want to move out of the suburbs or whatever, and be downtown near a (supposed) baseball stadium,” said Abdul-Ahad. He said the high quality of the building materials seems to confirm to him that the apartments and townhouses being built there aren’t for low-income Black people.

But Ben Bentley, CEO of KCDC, said Austin Homes will actually have 309 more low-income units than the 129 in the original complex. There will be three tiers of income eligibility, but the highest earners would top out at 80 percent of the area’s median income. None will rent at market rates, he said.

Bentley said former Austin Homes residents were moved to other public housing complexes, but will have first dibs on the new units once they’re ready. (That’s required under the project’s financing.) The first phase of construction is slated for completion in November, but buildout is estimated to take until 2023.

“The replacement of the 129 units is, I think, the most meaningful thing we can do to show that we’re committed to our current residents,” Bentley said.“ And I think the way that we engage on the front end is also important to that -- to say, ‘We’re creating a plan, but we’re creating a plan with the residents that live there currently,’ so that when they come back to the site, it’s a place that they can be happy.”

Unlike during the housing upheaval of urban renewal, Austin Homes residents were involved in redevelopment plans from the beginning. During the planning process in 2019, KCDC held about 10 public meetings, including six just for residents or stakeholders. 

The new complex will be laid out very differently as a result. For instance, residents told KCDC they felt Austin Homes had been buried “down in a hole” after Summit Hill Drive was raised high above the complex during construction of James White Parkway. The new Austin Homes will be partially on street level with Summit Hill and will connect more directly with the Old City, First Creek, and eventually Caswell and Morningside Parks, Bentley said.

Juanita Cannon, who lived in Austin Homes as a child and is past chairman of Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation board, still has questions about the ballpark’s effect on the public housing project.

“That’s one thing that kind of raises an eyebrow,” she said.  “OK, you took the Old City, and now you’re in the Jackson area for the ballpark. And who’s going to purchase, lease, or be subsidized in these 430-some homes that will be right in the back door of the ball stadium? What does that look like as far as parking, accessibility, noise level and environmental issues?” 

Rendering courtesy of Boyd Sports
Credit https://www.grandslamknox.com/

Boyd said the ballpark development will benefit Austin Homes by providing nearby services like restaurants, banks, and hopefully even a grocery store. He also plans to build a dog park between the stadium apartments and Austin Homes. He envisions the entire area will function as a single mixed-income neighborhood. He’s ready for it: Boyd said he has already trademarked the name “Smokeyville,” on the model of “Wrigleyville” in Chicago.

Still, he said that isn’t the ballpark’s biggest benefit.

“The most important thing in making a house affordable is a job, and we’re putting in 3,000 jobs within walking distance of the homes,” Boyd said. “I think that’s the biggest contribution of this development to Austin Homes is giving jobs within walkable distance.”

That job number includes construction work. Boyd said he can’t yet predict how many permanent jobs there will be.

Gentrification?

Another question is whether the ballpark or other city redevelopment east of downtown will drive gentrification in the neighborhoods where most Black families moved after urban renewal. 

A few years ago, a debate about an expanded historic overlay district in the eastside neighborhood of Parkridge became racially charged. Longtime Black residents voiced concern that its requirements -- with mandated fees for exterior repairs, for example -- would make it too expensive to maintain their homes, pressuring them to leave.

McKenzie said she doesn’t think the ballpark will worsen the gentrification that is already happening in Parkridge, particularly as property values shoot up county-wide.  

East Knoxville residents like Anne McGinnis and Linda Freeman complain bitterly about being approached constantly by real estate speculators in the last few years. Freeman’s brick home, which is about a century old, has an original ice box built into the kitchen wall and other historic touches. 

McGinnis said she gets weekly phone calls and letters in her mailbox offering to buy her home as-is. “To me it’s insulting, like I don’t deserve to live here,” she said -- the same way she felt about urban renewal. “It’s just disheartening, like it’s happening again: I’m being made to move.”

Urban geographer James Fraser and a Vanderbilt University student saw this as a pervasive problem when they studied home sales in North Nashville. Fraser said that low-income residents often carry a lot of debt, for reasons ranging from health care bills to job loss or helping family members. It can be hard to resist an offer to sell the house for cash that would pay it all off.

“It’s not the answer, and that money goes pretty quickly,” he said. But meanwhile, the buyer makes a bundle on flipping the property: In Fraser’s North Nashville study, real estate speculators made a return on investment of more than 59 percent within 18 months.

“When we interviewed people about selling their homes, when we looked at the assessor records, when we looked at what community leaders had to say: It was unequivocally considered a bad practice -- predatory -- and something where developers were buying up whole blocks of areas and redeveloping block by block, like reverse block-busting,” Fraser said. (Block-busting was a term used for Black families moving into a white neighborhood to desegregate it block by block.)

“Urban renewal is not something that’s in the past. It set up the current stage of gentrification,” said Fraser, who is writing a book about housing justice called “The Making of the Precarious City.” He called gentrification in the U.S. “another form of colonization.”

“It is taking property and land from groups that were forced into certain parts of cities, and claiming it’s just natural that we redevelop it, and forgetting all the history -- like this kind of amnesia,” he said. That includes forgetting that these (now-desirable) neighborhoods emerged because of racism, he said.

East Knoxville residents have criticized the city for not offering more incentives toward commercial investment in the area. But the city’s recent efforts to improve streetscapes there -- as it has on the South riverfront and Cumberland Avenue -- received mixed reviews. 

Last year the city finished a $7 million overhaul of the layout, lighting, landscaping and signage on a six-block stretch of Magnolia Avenue near downtown. The goal was to attract new business and investment down this gateway into East Knoxville, where existing buildings have a high vacancy rate. 

Minter said Magnolia was bustling with businesses until white flight from the neighborhood caused many to shutter.

Bob Booker, a Knoxville historian who grew up in the Bottom, said the streetscape improvement was a good first step to turning this around. 

“I’m delighted to see what they’ve done with Magnolia. It looks good to me,” he said. “I’m also delighted that it put a lot of people to work. I also think that’s going to be the case if we get the new baseball stadium.”

But others expressed fear that the Magnolia project was a first step to “redeveloping” the neighborhood on the model of urban renewal: without Black residents. For example, consultants who designed the new greener, more walkable corridor shared concept drawings in which all the pedestrians were white. 

“These things get represented as race-neutral and that’s not the case,” said El-Amin. “The Magnolia Avenue drawings didn’t show black people. People are not stupid.”

Others complained that it’s not the look of the street that keeps East Knoxville residents from opening businesses there: It’s a lack of available low-interest loans.

Minter said the jury is still out on whether the Magnolia Avenue improvements helped the neighborhood. “It’s still a space that is not well-received by white America,” he said. “We don’t like to talk about it, but facts is facts. Most of the businesses on Magnolia that have been there for a while are struggling.”

Kesler acknowledged that gentrification is among the problems that redevelopment has created over the years.

“We know about red-lining, we know about moving people out of their neighborhoods, we know about increasing property values to seniors and low-income families can no longer afford them, we know about slapping historic overlays on things and people can’t afford to keep the house at that standard, we know about people who rent a house in that community and then get evicted so that the next person can now sell it and “turn” that community,” she said. 

“We know about all those things, so let’s do better. Let’s make sure there’s room for those people who already live there to maintain their standard of living, and be able to be a participant in the development that happens.”

Looking ahead

The baseball stadium project still needs final approval from the city and county. That probably won’t come until later this summer, after an independent economic impact study is done. But Boyd said his goal is still to break ground this fall.

Although Boyd expressed hope about the positive momentum, “It doesn’t feel like a done deal to me at all,” he said. 

He used a baseball analogy: “It’s the top of the eighth, and you’re ahead 3 to 2, and you’ve got a great pitcher coming up. Yep, things feel good,” he said. “But anything can go wrong, so we’re certainly not assuming anything.”

McKenzie said many of her constituents would like to see millions spent on reducing poverty and violence in East Knoxville instead of on a stadium. In fact, she wrote an “African American Equity Resolution” last year which committed Knoxville to hunt grants to address some of those problems. (It was the same resolution that apologized for urban renewal.)  

But she said stopping the ballpark may be unrealistic. 

“My one vote is not going to make or break this deal,” McKenzie said. “At this point I just want to make sure that I advocate and I get the best possible advantages for my community and for my district. There’s a lot of people that are going to get rich and make a lot of money off this development, and I want to make sure that it’s people from the community.”

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Archival photos and supportive historical content provided for these stories were courtesy of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, the only state-designated repository for Black history and culture in East Tennessee. Beck is proud to collaborate with WUOT to educate the public on stories of Urban Renewal's impact on Knoxville's Black community. If you are interested in in sharing your own experiences through an oral history or donating materials to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, please feel free to contact them at 865-524-8461 or visit  www.beckcenter.net for more information on how you can help their collection grow. 

Funding for "Losing Home: Black Neighborhoods and Urban Renewal" came from the East Tennessee Foundation's "Hope in Action" Fund. The fund was established in 2018 to support programs that protect populations most likely to face discrimination or programs that nurture hope and equality in our culture. In 2020, ETF activated this fund to award grants to nonprofit organizations addressing racism and injustice in our region.

All episodes in the Losing Home series can be found here.