The Historic Downtown Lenoir City Merchants Association, Lose Design representatives and Lenoir City Council gathered Nov. 6 at Roane State Community College to discuss a potential feature that could complement downtown’s new streetscapes.

The concept would be implemented on South A Street between Roane State Community College and Southern Bell events.

An “urban oasis” would take on the aesthetic of a condensed park, featuring greenery, industrial-style portals to create a “room” effect, a stage, a kiosk, an amphitheater-style outdoor classroom and benches.

The concept draws upon other Southern downtowns, like Winchester and the green space near the Chattanooga Choo Choo in downtown Chattanooga.

The idea branched out of a $15,000 Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development grant the city received three years ago that has since allowed the purchase of planters to “soften” downtown, Jack Qualls, Loudon County Economic Development Agency executive director, said.

“Just to kind of give a brief history of how we got to where we are today … the state has programs for a downtown or main street grant program that the city went after about three years ago,” Qualls said. “They ended up receiving some funds under the downtown program. Essentially what we start doing with those funds is looking at what makes sense for us to invest in downtown from trying to soften up some of the hardscape that’s going on with the all of the construction and the streetscape, so we looked at trying to create a space that we could soften some of these areas, and with that, we thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could take those pictures to the next level — we bought some benches and planters — we thought, ‘What if we created an urban oasis and that oasis could be a functioning area for not just the college but also for all of the citizens that would be coming downtown after hours even?’”

Qualls has since been working with Lose Design and East Tennessee Community Design Center for more in-depth advice. He emphasized the plans are conceptual since funds for the project are not in place.

“This is still fluid,” he said. “We don’t have the money yet to fund it, so that becomes a phased approach going into this. You do this first, this first, you take this out.”

Qualls believes the space could attract a wide demographic adjacent to Roane State.

“During the daytime, this is going to be a space that has multiple functions,” he said. “During the day, kids can go get a cup of coffee, come over here and do their homework out here on one of these benches in this cool little area. You’re just extending the college on even more. We’re creating a mini campus atmosphere. In the afternoons, it becomes a band area or just a venue somebody wants to grab some food and sit down and eat or bring their family. It becomes a location for that.”

The oasis could further the downtown’s revitalized look.

“Downtown’s got a lot of things going for it right now, and this is just another element that we’re trying to create,” Qualls said. “We’ve got the playground, we’ve got the splash pad coming. We’ve redone the entire road network up through here. It looks amazing. This is just another destination we’re trying to create for downtown.”

Parking an issue

Concern sparked over removing the current parking on South A Street with the new downtown addition. Mary Bright, merchants association president, asked if more parking would be available if the oasis is constructed.

“Parking’s really a perception thing, and this is why,” Qualls said. “Think about when you go to Walmart and you park nine spaces out at Walmart … when you walk nine spaces out at Walmart and you walk to the center of Walmart, you’ve already gone 600 feet. People don’t realize that because you’ve got to go in Walmart. Think about when you go inside Walmart. You’ve always got to go to the other side of Walmart. Parking is one of those perceptions. Everybody always wants to park in the front and the two biggest people that I usually see take up the first space are the employees of the businesses or the attorneys if they’re having court downtown. I think parking’s an education. It’s something that’s moving forward with the downtown and looking at growth, it’s an education process. I think it’s something that we all have to work on in order to educate our customers that are coming downtown where to park. It’s also educating our employees that they need to park in the back and give full respect to the customers.”

Amber Scott, city administrator, said the city has banners downtown that direct visitors to available parking and adding more banners could help.

Councilman Eddie Simpson said repaving the lot behind Roane State would free up more parking space.

Other downtowns face similar parking-based issues, Kathryn Baldwin, Lose Design office manager and senior planner, said.

“I think one thing that’s significant is downtowns are the new social place to go and creating a unique space that folks want to visit, the attention is given to some degree to the pedestrian because the pedestrian goes and it’s a destination area,” Baldwin said. “They park once, and then they go into several stores. Keep in mind that when you get them out and they’re out of their car, so is their wallet. If it’s a very comfortable space and they want to go and linger, you give them places to stop and get coffee, they shop, they go to an event. It gives you endless opportunities. Farmers markets, festivals, craft fairs, and this can be the focus on those areas. I think people will find a place to park. Asheville’s a great example. You look at the cities that have strong downtowns — Franklin, Tenn., Market Square, Asheville, N.C., — the idea that you have a parking issue is a great problem to have, but it’s also easy to solve.”

Baldwin pointed to other solutions, such as parking on the perimeter of downtown, dressing up alleyways or even directing traffic down detour routes for parking, which could promote businesses on side streets.

Funds still needed

Qualls said the oasis needs funds to take off. He is looking at collective approach for funding and maintenance of the space.

Daniel Boutte, Lose Design senior landscape architect, said the area would require surveying before a budget could be established.

Qualls said a possible way to raise money could be to utilize the Roane State Foundation for the oasis. Turning to the college could also be a way to showcase local art.

“We even talked about trying to have art in this area,” he said. “We don’t have any sculptures or anything like that in our community. There again, it’s luring people into our community to spend time. That’s the point we’re trying to make. We could partner with the university or the community college. Maybe they’ve got a sculpture program where we could have a rotating piece of art in this area. There’s tons of options.”

Next steps include bringing the concept before Lenoir City Council and business owners, putting a budget together and moving forward with fundraising to make a project a reality, Qualls said.

Simpson supported the downtown oasis.

“I don’t want to speak out of turn, but I think the city is taking a great step here to be able to do this that we want to partner with the businesses downtown,” he said. “ I think it’s going to take both (businesses and city government) to make it work. … I think it’s a good idea to have it downtown. You may even have square dances in the street. It could really be a drawing card for downtown.”

Boutte echoed Simpson’s support, drawing upon the downtown’s role in Lenoir City.

“This is the kind of space that we want to go visit,” Boutte said. “Even though Knoxville’s not even a huge hustle bustle, it still is compared to Lenoir City. To me, this is a real nice destination for a town of your size. That can be a real heart of the community.”