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The Maker City: How Many Little Bangs Equal a Big Bang? 

Knoxville has always had a creative and entrepreneurial spirit. It’s also a reasonably inexpensive place to live. A college town. A city with “potential”. It also turns out to be the great place to be a Maker.

Chyna Brackeen, with Attack Monkey Productions and part of the recent 2019 Maker Summit summarized, “When I moved to Knoxville from Denver 23 years ago, I didn’t expect to stay very long. Downtown was a ghost town, and the most exciting business openings were new chain restaurants and big box stores in the suburbs. Knoxville today is wildly different: a vibrant, interesting and progressive community where artists, entrepreneurs and makers can not only survive, but thrive and become part of the fabric of the city.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, people pointed to restaurants and entrepreneurs who got their start in Knoxville as examples of local entrepreneurship – Ruby Tuesday’s and Dave Thomas, who began at the now closed Regas restaurant and went on to create the Wendy’s restaurant chain.

At the same time the Old City was seeing some reinvestment that housed a quirky, upscale restaurant called Annie’s where you could sit out on the patio and imagine you were in a big city while listening to first rate jazz music.

Though the Knoxville History Project’s Jack Neely could go back further, providing context for earlier entrepreneurs, let’s just start with Knoxville’s modern day chapter.

The model of moving to a larger city to explore and expand your creativity was broken in the late 20th and early 21st century with creative people that just didn’t want to leave a great town.

At that time, Knoxville’s leadership wanted the “big bang” such as a planetarium or a major attraction. But let’s explore our “little bangs” over the last 20-30 years.

Continuing on with the late 80s and 90s, Whittle Communications came and went and left in its wake a lot of creative people that found Knoxville a good place to call home. HGTV and Scripps began to grow. Yee Haw Industries, Magpies, Tomato Head, WDVX, Dega Catering were creating some noise, getting on people’s radar. Lots of creative people were just doing their thing, but began to get noticed nationally and internationally.

Bang, bang, bang.

It was conventional wisdom that if you were creative and bright that you had to leave Knoxville to “make it”.
A model disrupter of this theory was Ashley Capps, founder of AC Entertainment. A music promoter based in Knoxville, as opposed to Los Angeles, New York, or even Nashville was a long shot, but one that succeeded.


The Market Square Farmers Market, began over 15 years ago by a determined Charlotte Tolley and a team of volunteers, provided an incubator for food makers and crafts. Several of these have morphed into brick and mortar stores – Cruze Dairy, Three Bears Coffee, Good Golly Tamale, to name a few.

Bang, bang, bang.

People began to throw around words and phrases like “authentic” and celebrate our uniqueness. In 2008, the New York Times said that Knoxville was like Austin “without the hype.” We had a river, green space, and a local music scene that was home to a lot of professionals and set a high bar for amateurs.

The Market Square Farmers Market also provided a regular outlet for makers, a more encompassing term than crafts. Nanci Solomon, owner of the retail store rala, said people that were coming to the farmers market and expressed interest in having an outlet throughout the year to buy (and sell) locally made crafts. Rala, an acronym for regional and local artists, was born out of this idea.

Solomon has been around since the early days of downtown, opening the consignment store Reruns in 1986. She’s seen what investment has done for downtown and knows what it takes for a small business to survive and flourish.

When Solomon was getting started with Rala, she worked with the website Etsy, which was trying out a wholesale platform. Rala became a beta tester and representatives visited Knoxville to meet makers and hear about their needs. One thing led to another and Knoxville was one of a handful of cities chosen to attend the Etsy Maker Cities Summit in Brooklyn, New York in 2016.

Along with Joy O’Shell, at the time with the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, and David Harmon, of Native Maps, Solomon was part of the trifecta representation that Etsy wanted at the Summit.

It became clear to Solomon, and the maker community, the importance of having representatives from the City, a business, and a maker all attend together. Each representative brought a different perspective to the conversation. “Once we understood everyone, we could collaborate,” shared Solomon in a recent conversation.

On Sept. 8, 2019, Knoxville hosted its fourth Maker Summit. To see a summary of the Maker Summit by Alan Sims at Inside of Knoxville, read here.


The Maker City year around effort, part of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, enters its fourth year of operation in 2019 with over 200 businesses included in its directory. To learn more about the Maker City movement, visit here.

The role of local government has been a key part of this partnership for businesses from the beginning – supporting the Knoxville Entrepreneurship Center, creating a business outreach coordinator position, the Façade Grant program, and creating investments in commercial corridors such as Central St. and the South Waterfront to name a few.

Is this Maker City a passing fad, or is it here to stay?

According to Brackeen, “The relatively low cost of living, abundance of creatives living here, and support from our community and government have resulted in an environment where creative small businesses are encouraged and nurtured. As a music industry professional, my colleagues in Nashville used to ask me why in the world I stayed in Knoxville - now, they tell me they’re jealous that they don’t live here themselves.”

As a result of risk takers and just plain stubborn people too numerous to name – in the arts, historic preservation, and development - Knoxville is an interesting and vibrant city. It still has plenty of room to grow, which was reflected by the 300 plus people who came together on Sunday, Sept. 8 at the Maker Summit.


Posted by fmcanally On 09 September, 2019 at 4:39 PM