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Weekend edition April 21, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Revitalizing Downtown Maryville is a top priority

Why the push today? It’s all about the economic vitality and future of the community.

There’s a major effort underway to revitalize Downtown Maryville as a vibrant cultural and economic center that serves as a gathering place for both the community and the many visitors that are attracted to the region.

The initiative is led by the Maryville Downtown Association (MDA) with support from the city, Blount Partnership, Maryville College, and, most important, downtown investors, developers, and business owners. In other words, it is enabled in part by the government but fueled by the private sector which most people would agree is the correct recipe for long-term success.

In the first article in a two-part series, we discuss the impetus for the grand vision with Christy McDonald Slavick, Chair of the MDA Board of Directors and Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives for Maryville College. The second article in the series will outline bold plans by one developer named James Tomiczek.

“Since Midland Shopping Center was built, downtown has not been a priority,” Slavick told us. That strip mall was a phased development, which began in 1967, and it took retail from downtown Maryville to the City of Alcoa. The local department stores – Proffitt’s and JCPenney – eventually migrated to the new retail center of Blount County and with it, the reasons to come to the former bustling retail downtown.

Slavick credits Doug and Teresa Horn, Bob Hirche, and Ray and Ashley Schwartz with being the sparkplugs several years ago for what might now be described as a movement on steroids. The Horns relocated their company – Quality Financial Concepts – from Dallas, TX to Downtown Maryville more than two decades ago. That building is reportedly the first constructed downtown immediately after the Civil War. Later, the couple bought the now 100-year-old former Blount National Bank Building, renovated it, and renamed the second tallest building in downtown the Preservation Plaza. The Horns were also Co-Founders of MDA.

Hirche is a former President of MDA and has located his business named ICMAS Inc. just two blocks off Broadway, the main downtown street. The city’s popular Foothills Milling Company, which is my wife’s favorite area restaurant, is owned by the Schwartzs. Other developments that have helped spur interest in moving the downtown area forward include other popular destinations like the Vienna Coffee House, Broadway Social and its Sky View at Broadway Social event venue, and one of its newest restaurants – Bella.

MDA defines its geographic focus as encompassing an area roughly bounded by Olympia Drive and the Blount County Library to the north, a little beyond Washington Street to the east, Lamar Alexander Parkway to the south and southwest to include the Maryville Municipal Building, and West Harper Avenue and McCammon Avenue to the west.

Why the push today? It’s all about the economic vitality and future of the community.

Slavick talks about “a really specific downtown lifestyle vibe.” It’s everything from students at nearby Maryville College to businesses considering or already deciding to relocate to the county. Whether it is the students the college is trying to attract or the talent that local businesses want to attract and retain, leaders decided several years ago that they needed to be proactive if they wanted to be successful in those endeavors.

“We lacked a true vision until the past few years,” Slavick said. Legendary Knoxville developer David Dewhirst helped provide a key direction for the group. “You need to get people living downtown for businesses to come,” he said, noting the role that his company – Dewhirst Properties – played in bringing residents to Downtown Knoxville and the resulting restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, and retail businesses that followed. (EDITOR’S NOTE: If you are not familiar with his efforts, we spotlighted them in this two-part series from 2015. Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here.)

Slavick says her involvement in the downtown initiatives came soon after Bryan Coker became the College’s 12th President on July 1, 2020, and asked a fundamental question: “We’re a college town; why are we not more connected?”

The MDA, which is proposing to change the “A” in its name from “association” to “alliance,” has been accredited as a “Main Street America” community and has outlined some aggressive goals over the next three years. It has expanded the board, is hiring an Executive Director, plans to open an office, wants to have 90 percent of the downtown buildings occupied by operating businesses, and has an annual operating budget of $225,000.

As the 11-member Board works to bring that vision to reality, its efforts are greatly enhanced by the commitment of two residents turned developers.

NEXT: Plans from one key developer.

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