Scott West, the man behind an eclectic family of downtown restaurants and bars, sees a bright future for Market Square — quite literally.
Just imagine a “glowing fantasy land of glittering lights floating above romantic table seating in the center of Market Square,” he told Knox News in a text message.
It sounds a lot like the clinking of glasses on the rooftops of his Preservation Pub and Scruffy City Hall, which have remained closed for months due to COVID-19.
As West deals with the short-term pros and cons of bringing his employees back to work, he’s working toward a far bigger vision for Market Square’s future: one that includes permanent seating and rules that allow open containers of alcohol throughout.
Knoxville’s temporary pandemic rules allowing seating in the middle of the square give him hope.
Focused on the future
Short-term actions taken by government to help businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic have inspired conversations about long-term change.
Last month, local restaurant owners took government’s willingness to temporarily allow to-go alcohol as an opportunity to push for a repeal of the burdening liquor by the drink tax.
And now, a new Knoxville city permit temporarily allowing food and beer service in certain public spaces has inspired new conversations about what should be allowed in Market Square.
A temporary, fenced-in seating area recently was installed on Market Square for nearby businesses to use with a permit. West said he approves of the city’s actions allowing this to happen, and it’s a step in the right direction toward his vision.
But he won’t being using the space right away.
West still is monitoring the state of COVID-19, the needs of his staff and his bank account “to prevent our own financial demise.”
But he’s also keeping a close eye on what happens with the new city permits. Five permit applications had been submitted as of Aug. 7, city spokesman Eric Vreeland said, but Tomato Head was the only one of those businesses currently open.
“There’s a fair amount of capacity, but it is a finite resource, and the city wanted to get the businesses that are able to (use the space immediately) — we wanted to get those first,” Vreeland said.
West said he was responsible for submitting the other applications, which have not been approved. Although his businesses are not open, he wants to claim his spot.
“But if the city needs us to open now in order to utilize those allotted spaces then we will do so,” he said. “If the city does not require we be open to save our allotments for table seating on the Square then we will stay closed for the maximum safety of our staff and customers for the time being.”
Beer allowed on the Square … for now
While West’s businesses serve food, there certainly is a big focus on alcohol in his bars. Until Tuesday, only food was going to be allowed in temporary dining areas.
West was happy to see the Knoxville Beer Board request to city council that beer be allowed in those areas. The item passed with a unanimous vote at Tuesday night’s council meeting.
“Not allowing alcohol on Market Square, in an attempt to maintain social distancing guidelines, would functionally do the exact opposite, in that a person desiring a slice of pizza and a beer will not forgo drinking the beer to sit in the safer environment of Market Square,” he said.
They likely would go inside for a drink, where the risk of spreading COVID-19 is higher, he said.
Again, according to West, the city’s recent decisions are a movement in the right direction.
“I certainly believe that the people of Knoxville and our visitors from out of town would greatly benefit from a long-term solution wherein Market Square’s table seating and open container laws are both re-imagined,” he said.
West said those tables easily could be moved for special events in Market Square, which are allowed to serve alcohol with a special permit.
“Imagine twilight on a weekday night. It would be magical, something everyone would appreciate and enjoy,” he said.
Festival district allows beer with permit
The city approved a Downtown Festival District in February that includes Market Square, Market Street and a section of South Gay Street from Clinch Avenue to Cumberland Avenue. The graffiti alley in Market Square and the section of Union Avenue connecting Market Square and Gay Street also are included.
Old City and the Market Square “mall” already were covered by city code to allow alcohol sales with special permits prior to the Downtown Festival District, which simply expanded where alcohol is allowed.
Beer Board Chairman and Knoxville Councilman Andrew Roberto said in February only four active downtown events would be impacted by the district: Dogwood Arts Festival, HoLa Festival, Rossini Festival and the St. Patrick’s Day parade and events.
Allowing alcohol in Market Square just a few times each year is far less of a commitment from the city compared to West’s long-term vision of Market Square as an open container haven.
But the city has gone back and forth on laws involving alcohol in public spaces over the years.
Alcohol laws change over time
In 1980, according to a News Sentinel article, it was “legal to sit on the front steps of City Hall sipping gin and tonic, or to loll in the shade at Sequoyah Hills Park quaffing a bottle of wine.”
Beer, however, was not allowed.
“I guess there is a different standard for wine drinkers and whiskey drinkers than there is for beer drinkers,” former city law director Jon Roach said at the time.
Those standards changed over time. The 1984 Knoxville City Council voted to allow beer in public spaces, except Chilhowee Park and the Knoxville Zoo, only to rescind its amendment two weeks later.
West believes a new open container law for Market Square could generate substantial tax revenue and help offset losses that happened while businesses were shut down due to COVID-19.
“I think society in general understands that when you leave any of the many thousands of restaurants and bars in America that you can’t just carry your drink to your car, get in and drive home,” West said.
West said signs at the end of Market Square could set boundaries, and people could be trusted to understand open container laws still would apply elsewhere.
What about public safety?
Roberto said changing where alcohol is allowed would require a change in law. Alcohol currently is not allowed in public places, which includes Market Square.
Roberto told Knox News he’s “not saying it’s not something to look into,” but it’s also not something he’s heard any discussions about.
Any change certainly would be met with public safety concerns, he said. Once someone leaves a restaurant with a beer, the drink potentially could be handed off to someone underage.
“Sometimes, having some oversight in a particular area is a more helpful thing when you’re thinking about public safety,” Roberto said.
The future of outdoor dining
As far as the temporary seating goes, the special permit would expire at the same time as the city’s emergency declaration.
The city’s immediate focus with the temporary seating is to help restaurants “that are in trouble right now,” Roberto said.
“Depending on how well it’s used and how it works out, you could certainly consider something like that (long-term),” he said. “We do some of these things now and they’re very successful and people really like them.”
As of Tuesday, The Tomato Head was the only restaurant using the new temporary space in Market Square. Not Watson’s also was approved for a permit, Vreeland said.
Any restaurant in city limits can apply for a permit to extend seating into public spaces.