In 1982, the “scruffy little city” did it. Despite some near-death experiences, what is billed by some as the last successful world’s fair to date was held in Knoxville from May to October that year.
It was a loud, colorful and often bizarre mix of events and cultures, and brought global attention and more than 11 million visitors to East Tennessee and the state.
Along the way, it generated Knoxville’s downtown redevelopment, set high expectations for more, got enmeshed in a bank scandal and, in its afterlife, was featured on an episode of “The Simpsons.”
On its 40th anniversary, tourism officials, history buffs and others are dusting off and exhibiting memorabilia, recalling the fair’s sometimes bumpy life, refurbishing the Sunsphere, its iconic skyline addition, as a visitor draw and continuing education site. They’re also offering up thoughts on the event’s successes and failures as an impetus to boost Knoxville’s visibility as a tourist and business destination.
Reflecting its geographic proximity to Oak Ridge National Laboratories and the Tennessee Valley Authority’s headquarters, the fair’s theme was “energy turns the world,” an offshoot of its official title, the Knoxville International Energy Expo (KIEE).
Its home was a 70-acre, disused railroad depot gulch between Henley Street and the Fort Sanders neighborhood and running from the L&N Station (then under renovation and on its way to housing a Ruby Tuesday’s) to the Tennessee River. Making it happen was no overnight affair, given that local politics were no more a hotbed of comity then as they are now.
Strange bedfellows, dance partners
From napkin-back concept to execution and opening, the fair’s birth stretched over two mayoral administrations and several iterations of the Knoxville City Council. As with any multimillion-dollar spend, much of which would be backed by the local government, the cheerleaders were joined by plenty of detractors railing at what they saw as a boondoggle.
Getting everyone going in the same direction was a complicated affair, says former Mayor Randy Tyree, who served in office from 1976-1983. Tyree, and who credits his predecessor (and successor) Kyle Testerman alongside well-known local business leaders with strategic early development efforts.
“My real involvement began when I won the mayorship in 1975, even though I’d been in some of the KIEE meetings,” Tyree recalls. “The idea for the exposition, which had come from a trip the Downtown Knoxville Association took to Washington State (where Seattle had hosted the Century 21 Exposition in 1962 – aka the Seattle World’s fair – resulting in the iconic Space Needle, and Spokane had its World’s Fair in 1974) was on my desk when I walked in the door.
“Mayor Testerman had appointed Jake Butcher (founder and president of United American Bank – more on that later) and Jim Haslam (founder and then chairman of Pilot Oil) to do a feasibility study. It was a little bit of a campaign issue, but nobody but a few people thought we’d actually get away with pulling off a world’s fair.”
The backing of three presidential administrations, from Gerald Ford through Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan, who attended the fair’s opening and dedicated the U.S. Pavilion, was instrumental in keeping the ball rolling, Tyree points out.
“They were the gift that kept on giving, because federal engagement, along with the sense of community that was building, kept us from getting discouraged,” he says. “Carter was instrumental in helping us with some grants, and Reagan also was very supportive.”
The investments were substantial. The federal government pitched in an estimated $44 million, while the state of Tennessee added $3 million. Knoxville approved almost $12 million in bonds. All that was happening while publicity surrounding the venture was less than stellar.
“We had a lot of people making fun of us and calling us names, and we still got it done. I got ticked off pretty often at the doubting Thomases, of which there were many,” Tyree acknowledges.
Tyree was not alone in his ire, and the citizenry rallied around the fair effort following a Wall Street Journal article in 1980 that famously delivered the “scruffy little city” moniker. Still, many detractors held perches on the city council, where they served as fiscal scolds and pushed for a referendum.
Tyree, who at that time had a tiebreaking vote as mayor, helped quell that particular rebellion.
“We knew that the odds were not good that the people would pass a referendum supporting the fair, as it was still very much in the concept stage and all they were hearing was how much it was going to cost,” he says. “The timing was just not right.”
And, is often the case in politics, naysayers become supporters when a project succeeds, leading to a memory Tyree is not overly fond of.
“The ‘chicken dance’ was a popular thing at the time, and some council members attempted it at one of the buildings we rehabbed, which had become a beer hall,” he says. “That was … a sight.”
Sunsphere rises – again
Other sights abounded, including one that still is on the scene today. Every grand exposition or world’s fair needs a focal point. Think Seattle and the Space Needle.
Knoxville got the Sunsphere, which people still love – or love to hate – 40 years later.
Now a part of every skyline-oriented photo and immortalized in an episode of “The Simpsons,” the Sunsphere has cycled through a few lives, gone dark for several years and recently reopened as a museum attraction operated by Visit Knoxville.
“We knew we couldn’t recreate the World’s Fair for the anniversary, but we wanted to do some commemorative events between May and October, and we definitely wanted to get the Sunsphere reopened,” says Kim Bumpas, Visit Knoxville president, of the newly reopened structure.
“It was hugely popular during the fair and has remained so. Since reopening it in February, we’ve had more than 10,000 visitors come through, representing all 50 states and eight countries. We are going to enhance, preserve and expand the fair experience through the Sunsphere over time so that it remains a destination in and of itself.”
Tourism officials began working in the idle building during the COVID-19 pandemic, renovating the observation deck and resetting the various levels as office, event and banquet spaces. Now, visitors can stroll around to take in the views, see new exhibits about the fair and get in some retail therapy with fair-themed items.
At $5, free for those 12 and younger, Bumpas says the renovated Sunsphere is an affordable experience and gives the structure the life it was meant to have post-fair.
It’s one of only three world’s fair towers still standing in America, joining those in Seattle and San Antonio.
“People can learn about the fair, take in the amazing view and just experience the building,” she says. “The Sunsphere was never meant to shut down after the fair, and so we’re really happy that it now has multiple uses and is a destination again.”
Rooms to grow
Many of those visitors are tourists. Whether in town for a convention or other business travel, or purely to see the sights, they have places to stay thanks to one fair legacy that proponents got right: The value of creating more downtown hotel rooms.
“We had one hotel, the Hyatt Regency, which was over by the Knoxville Civic Auditorium and Coliseum,” Tyree recalls. “Right away, we got three big new hotels downtown for the fair, and I’ve lost track of the number of smaller ones and mom-and-pop operations that opened, many of which are still around. That has made a huge difference in attracting visitors to the city.”
Those rooms came online following more than a decade of difficulty luring in tourists and business travelers.
“The World’s Fair is a draw for some visitors,” Bumpas adds. “People who visit the sites of fairs and other large events want to see where it was. And as we go into the 40th anniversary, we are seeing more people come – some who attended the fair and have great memories, some who are just hearing about it.”
Travelers stay in the hotels built for the fair, some now under different names, but the room count remains the same. They also stay in new properties that have been developed in the ensuring decades. All those rooms allow for destination marketing campaigns that weren’t even a dream pre-1982.
“There was the Hyatt, and that was about it,” Bumpas says. “Then suddenly we had hotels downtown, and the ability for room blocks. Then the (Knoxville Convention Center) opened, and we had more tools. Starting with the fair, Knoxville had rooms and meeting space, and that was the catalyst that led to the next level of growth.”
“Three big new downtown hotels were built in anticipation of the fair, and it’s funny to remember, when I was a reporter in the 1990s, there was a lot of anxiety about whether the city could keep them in business,” says Jack Neely, executive director of the Knoxville History Project.
“They were reportedly never full except for football home-game weekends, and there are just about eight of those per year. City leaders were quietly anticipating a day when one or more of them would have to be torn down.
“It’s astonishing to consider that today there are six or seven new additional big hotels downtown, some of them in historic buildings, like the old 1919 Farragut Hotel, and developers are talking about building still more.
“A Boston music critic recently told me that Knoxville’s hotel rates during the Big Ears Festival were higher than the average in Manhattan.“
The fallout that followed
It’s easy to take the 2022 view of downtown Knoxville from a convention and visitor’s standpoint and see the fair’s many positives in terms of needed infrastructure. What also bears examination are the missteps that followed the event, some of which derailed the best use of the site for decades.
Atop that list would be the catastrophic failure of United American Bank in February 1983. The bank’s collapse and Butcher’s ensuing legal troubles got the city a lot of press it didn’t want and deprived post-fair development efforts of a major backer.
Butcher, a major figure in Tennessee politics in the 1970s and 80s, was convicted of bank fraud and imprisoned 1985-92.
It was, at the time, the fourth-largest commercial bank failure in the country.
The city also saw a change in leadership when Tyree and Testerman had a rematch, with Testerman reclaiming his old job in 1984. Charges also were leveled that the city had not done enough planning to assist those who would be out of a job – and a source of revenue via visitors – when the event ended.
“We were moving forward when the bank failed, and then the administration changed, and so going into 1984 everyone was just in survival mode,” Tyree says. “Very few communities could have withstood the negative impact of the bank failure, and so it’s to the credit of the leadership that came in that we kept on making any kind of progress at all.”
Things didn’t improve quickly. Downtown residential and commercial development was stagnant for more than a decade. A Butcher building sat unfinished for years. The old Riviera Theatre, which preservationists hoped would see a revival, was instead torn down.
And the fair site itself sat idle for years as a dozen or so renovation proposals were made and forgotten.
The city itself also lost more than 5% of its population in the 1980s, which created its own set of problems around municipal revenues and spending.
Yet Knoxville persisted, scruffily or otherwise.
Slowly, downtown began to reenergize itself. Part of that process came not from urban development up front, but from a citizenry that had rediscovered the pleasures of being in the urban center and demanded destinations.
As Neely puts it, the fair “got Knoxvillians in the habit of coming downtown for fun, especially at night, and festivals and other events seemed much better attended after the fair than before.”
That led, he says, to Knoxville’s first preservationist-era commercial development: The Old City.
“It was a dream in the 1970s, and some developers were working on it, but most people had never heard about it until a few months after the fair, when Annie Delisle, a former singer and dancer from England, and former wife of Cormac McCarthy, opened Annie’s, a continental restaurant that developed a jazz reputation.
“Annie had worked as a sort of public greeter at the fair, though the Old City was not really adjacent to the fair, it was another part of downtown’s low-lying railroad district, and it’s not hard to make the case that the fair’s momentum carried over into the new Old City, which otherwise seemed to emerge out of nowhere.”
Neely says downtown also flourished from the rise of Whittle Communications, which made its headquarters there and grew very rapidly in the mid to late 1980s. During its heyday, the company brought in hundreds of affluent young urban creatives, editors and art directors, mostly single, who wanted to live and work downtown and were willing to spend to enjoy that lifestyle.
“All that was completely unrelated (to post-fair development plans) except that I have spoken to a few Whittlites who moved here from big cities, who said they first heard of Knoxville because of the World’s Fair,” Neely adds. “Whittle crashed in 1994, but while it was roaring kept several cool restaurants and nightclubs in business and perhaps raised our standard for concerts.”
Looking back, the World’s Fair was a huge roll of the dice compared to attempting more traditional destination marketing venues such as a stadium or convention center. Tyree says it was worth it.
“The public and private sector were making huge investments in this, and even though Knoxville hadn’t felt the impact of the recession in the early 1980s thanks to low unemployment and a low crime rate, we went all in on this.
“There were a lot of positives that came out of it, many of which never really got a lot of attention, such as the elimination of ‘malfunction junction,’ on the interstate near downtown.”
That happened thanks to $200 million from the Tennessee Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, which invested heavily in Interstate 40, 640 and other improvements.
“But I would say hotels, and the ability to house people for large events, was a very big win that has continued to help the city grow over these last 40 years,” Tyree adds.