The time has come for the final sundown on Sundown in the City.
The free downtown concert series, one of Knoxville's most popular events, will not be returning for 2012.
"The reality is, it's like sending your baby away or something," said Ashley Capps, whose AC Entertainment has presented the event in some form since 1998.
"It's been a great run, and it's been really gratifying to see how it's grown and what it means to so many people, but the reality is that it's incompatible with how downtown Knoxville is now. It's become increasingly challenging to stage it properly, and it's no longer a good fit."
When Sundown began with a CD release show by the V-Roys on Market Square on Oct. 9, 1998, downtown Knoxville barely seemed alive after dark. That first event drew a crowd of 2,000.
A CD release show by RB Morris was similarly successful the following year.
In 2000, the event became a concert series, and by 2006, shows were drawing upwards of 12,000 people to Market Square and were a weekly event Thursdays from April through June.
Merchants saw business go up during the nights that Sundown was held and saw return business on nights that Sundown was not being held. Capps said that Sundown definitely had a role in the revitalization of downtown Knoxville.
"If nothing else, it sparked people's imagination about what downtown's potential was," said Capps in a call from Austin where he was attending the South by Southwest festival. "And it also served to introduce people to downtown for the first time. Those two factors together provided one of the sparks that led to the renaissance of downtown that we're experiencing now."
When Sundown began, few parents would've felt comfortable dropping their teens off downtown after dark. Now, with the opening of the Regal Riviera movie theater and thriving restaurants and businesses, it's common.
Over the past few years, patrons, merchants and downtown residents became critical of the crowd that spread out across the city during the Thursdays that Sundown in the City was held. Increasingly, Sundown patrons began to turn the event into less a concert on Market Square than a party that spread across downtown.
Capps said he and his staff had considered ending the event a few years ago, but instead decided to scale back. After reaching a peak of 25 shows in 2002, the series dropped the number of concerts over the next several years. Five shows were presented in 2011.
Presenting the series outside of Market Square had been considered. The event was held in the Old City in 2003 when Market Square was undergoing renovation. Capps said that there were challenges in presenting the event in the Old City, World's Fair Park or another location.
"I'm also pretty convinced that one of the qualities that made Sundown so special was the location in downtown Knoxville," he said. "There's a certain synergy and an experience there that's not going to be easy to replicate someplace else. Sometimes you have a choice to keep something on life support or turn your energies to doing something new and creative."
While Capps would not elaborate, he said AC Entertainment was looking at some new projects that would be held in downtown Knoxville.
"It was a tremendous success and it had a really great run and we're very proud of it," he said. "But it's now at a stage where it's best to just let it go. And it may open the door for someone else to do something creative on Market Square.
"At the same time, there's just naturally a lot of activity downtown now, and that's wonderful as well."
What's historically considered the first Sundown featured the V-Roys in October 1998 on Market Square.
In 2003, repair work on Market Square prompted the series to move to the Old City.
Headliners have included John Mayer in 2001, Steve Winwood in 2005 and Jonny Lang in 2011.
Little Feat drew an estimated 13,000 people in the 2006 opener, one of the largest single-attendance marks.
The season's bill shrank basically by half in 2010, a sign Sundown was on its way out.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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