General contractors, real estate developers, radio station owners, carpet cleaning company proprietors, newspaper publishers, restaurateurs: That only begins to identify the many hats that the Knott family in Tennessee has worn.
“We’ve been serial entrepreneurs all our lives,” says Trent Knott, the patriarch of the industrious family. He and his wife, Dana, tried to adapt to the corporate mold, but quickly determined that working for others wasn’t for them. So they returned to their hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee, and began charting their own course ever since. More recently, the Knotts donned another hat: family entertainment center (FEC) developers, owners, and operators.
Not ones to do things in a small way, the couple—along with their two adult children and son-in-law—opened the sprawling, 120,000-square-foot The City Forum in 2018–despite having no experience in the industry. Their tale mirrors many FEC owners: it’s a story rooted in grand ambition, perseverance, resourcefulness, and perhaps most of all, gumption.
Getting the “Call”
The Knotts founded the construction company Magnolia Builders in 1996. Dana earned her real estate license and helped market and sell the houses in the neighborhoods that Magnolia developed and built. Because of what they do, their antennae are tuned to potential real estate and investment opportunities. One building in particular, the Acme Boot distribution center, caught their attention.
Once hailed as the world’s largest boot maker, Acme left Clarksville in the late 1990s. In its wake, various tenants occupied the 328,000-square-foot building, but by 2006 they were all gone. The hulking edifice, one of the city’s largest, sat vacant for years.
“I felt we were called to this building,” Trent says, citing a bit of divine inspiration. He didn’t have a clue what he might do to fill the massive space; nonetheless, Trent felt compelled to act on impulse. “I thought, let’s make a stupid offer.”
One “stupid offer” later, the Knotts found themselves in possession of the 7-acre building. Then their entrepreneurial instincts kicked into gear.
One of Trent’s first ideas, he says, was to start a little flea market. Because the Knotts seem incapable of doing anything on a small scale, the idea morphed into Miss Lucille’s Marketplace, a 55,000-square-foot emporium that features 200 vendors selling a variety of items such as antiques, new clothing, painted furniture, and jewelry. Trent describes the marketplace as upscale–decidedly not a flea market–as well as a mixture of “American Pickers” and Pinterest. Opened in 2012, it was an immediate hit. The family wanted to introduce dining so the patrons of Miss Lucille’s would quit leaving to get something to eat. That led to Miss Lucille’s Café, which opened in 2013.
A Family Affair
Following in their parents’ footsteps, both Luci and Chase got their degrees in entrepreneurship and entered the family business. (The cafe, marketplace, and their daughter are namesakes of Trent and Dana’s four grandmothers, all of whom are named either Lucille or Lucy.) While in high school, Chase operated a portable kettle corn concession around the city. (Budding serial entrepreneurs, it seems, can never start developing their business acumen too soon.) The tasty treat gained a following and is now one of the featured products at Miss Lucille’s. Chase began working on a concept in college that later served as a blueprint for a business in the family’s building: Acme Athletics. Opened in 2016 and occupying 60,000 square feet, the facility offers youth and adult fitness classes along with training in sports such as baseball, soccer, and basketball.
With their businesses running, all under the umbrella of Project 2231 (the address of the Clarksville property is 2231 Madison Street), the Knotts still had an enormous amount of unused space in their cavernous building to fill. For reasons that he can’t quite explain, Trent got the notion to bring indoor go-karts to the mix. That began the family’s foray into the FEC business. The Knotts sensed a hunger among folks in the area–about 170,000 people live in the medium-sized city northwest of Nashville, Tennessee, with another 200,000 in the greater metropolitan region–for more things to do, and felt confident that they could help fill the need.
To get up to speed on go-karts and other attractions, the family embarked on a tour of successful FECs, including Malibu Jack’s in Louisville, Kentucky, and Scene 75, with locations throughout Ohio and near Chicago. They also made their way to IAAPA Expo where they got a crash course in the industry. It was at the Expo that the family connected with Doug Wilkinson, an architectural designer, who would help lay out and develop the look and feel for The City Forum.
“Doug listened to us and understood that we had a different take on what we wanted our FEC to look like,” Dana says.
When it comes to creating the aesthetic for The City Forum, Dana credits her daughter, Luci, with being the creative director and taking the lead in crafting the vision for the FEC. Using the bones of the former boot factory to their advantage, Dana describes The City Forum’s distinctive look as having a “cool vibe” as well as an “industrial, warehousy feel.” As an example, she says a shipping container was cut in half, and the pieces were hung on the wall to make it appear as if there are two shipping containers embedded in the building.
“We wanted to pioneer FECs,” explains Luci, who has an aversion to pattern carpet and the loud colors. Instead, The City Forum has bare floors and a color palette that incorporates white, black, and a hint of red along with plenty of wooden textures. “We’re trying to break the mold and move beyond traditional thinking,” she adds, noting that Wilkinson coined the phrase, “Design for the adult eye, and the kids will follow.”
About that shipping container adornment: Luci came up with the offbeat idea, and Trent, with his building construction background, helped procure it and oversaw cutting it in two, as well as mounting the pieces. It’s that kind of do-it-yourself know-how and spirit that has allowed the Knotts to make their budget go surprisingly far.
“We don’t need a general contractor,” Trent notes. “I’m the general contractor.”
“We put in a lot of sweat equity,” Dana adds.
The directive to appeal to adults as well as children extends to the attractions themselves. For example, the all-electric go-karts, which were provided by Amusement Products out of Chattanooga, Tennessee, include family, intermediate, and faster models. That way, adults, teens, and young kids can all enjoy racing on the FEC’s 840-foot-long track.
As another example, Luci wanted to create huge, bold checkered flags to hang on the 32-foot-high walls surrounding the go-karts. Using some extra corrugated plastic, Trent had it cut into strips and fashioned the 3-D flags in-house. For that matter, when the family was quoted $90,000 to install the track, it opted to tackle the project instead.
For their indoor 18-hole mini-golf, Luci and Dana handled the research and design and oversaw the landscaping. Foregoing fluorescent or black lights, they hung string lights and installed artificial trees to make it look like an outdoor course.
Staffing and Growing the Vision
Luci’s husband, Jon, has adopted the family’s entrepreneurial credo and is also a partner in Project 2231. His focus is on the arcade along with the other attractions at The City Forum. Jon also tends to the company’s operations and technology needs and helps oversee the marketing along with Chase. He notes that all the businesses within the building have non-family members who serve as general managers and associate managers. The family also hired a CFO and two operations officers for Project 2231.
“We want to be the dumbest ones in the group,” notes Trent, adding they welcome the executives’ expertise. With 255 total employees across the company’s many businesses, “it takes a village–and a family–to run this,” he says.
According to Jon, the arcade has emerged as the star of The City Forum and accounts for at least half of the FEC’s business. Player One Amusement Group provides the games. Starting with 60 cabinets, the arcade space has grown considerably to accommodate 90 units. The family assumed that big, flashy games would be the most popular and generate the most revenue.
“We quickly learned that redemption games were massive,” Jon says. “They perform better than all other games combined.” He shifted to more crane games, coin pushers, and other merchandisers.
Rounding out the FEC are bumper cars, bowling, laser tag, and an eight-seat Triotech XD Dark Ride along with Triotech’s Interactive Storm VR coin-op simulator. Occupying 4,600 square feet and spread across two levels, The City Forum’s laser tag arena is outfitted with Laserforce equipment and recently upgraded to the supplier’s new Gen8 system. It includes interactive devices and screens that are part of the vendor’s “Living Arena” line of accessories. Jon says plans are in place to add video as well as more interactive features to the laser tag arena. “One of our best decisions was going with Laserforce,” he adds. “I think they are the best at what they do.”
It was the Laserforce folks who urged the Knotts to consider handmade pizza when they were planning the menu for the FEC’s counter-service restaurant, The Streatery. In fact, Laserforce’s founder and CEO, Len Kelly, shared his own pizza recipe, which the Knotts adapted for its food concession. Other items include chicken wings, churros, and giant pretzels. Most of the same fare is also available at Pints & Pins, the pub inside the FEC’s 10-lane bowling center.
Guests seeking more substantial fare could head over to Dock 17, a 200-seat, full-service restaurant that is adjacent to The City Forum. Opened in 2021, it includes an outdoor patio and features “burgers, brews, and brunch,” according to Dana. “The City Forum is a great place to hang out and wait for your table,” she says. The customers flow in the other direction as well. “One business feeds the other.”
As the Knotts were forging ahead with their ambitious plans to develop The City Forum, they were acutely aware that they had no experience with FECs. While they had dealt with the public before through their other businesses, they were not used to the masses of people who wanted to experience their new facility. They admit to opening day jitters.
“We had a line out the door. There were people everywhere,” Dana says. “I was so scared.”
“I tell people I’m going to write a book, and one of the chapters will be ‘Crying in the Closet,’ ” adds Trent. “That‘s what I felt like doing when we first opened. But we made it!”
Despite everything being indoors, The City Forum has not suffered too much due to the pandemic. During the two-month period it was closed in the spring of 2020, the Knotts kept everyone on their payroll. About three weeks after the FEC reopened, it was back to full capacity.
“We actually had a good year in 2020, even missing a couple of months,” says Dana.
So what will the serial entrepreneur family do for its next act now that the 328,000-square-foot Project 2231 is largely built out? The Knotts still have some wiggle room. They will be moving their cafe to a former event center in the complex, thereby tripling its space. A tenant is planning to leave in 2023 which will free up another 55,000 square feet.
They are also repurposing a smaller 7,000-square-foot former event center within The City Forum and plan to open Varsity Pins early in 2023. Designed for adults 21 and older, it will feature a retro ’50s and ’60s atmosphere and include 10 lanes of duckpin bowling, a full bar, a taco truck, and interactive games such as basketball shooting and foosball.
“If we’re not changing, we’re dying,” Trent says, true to fashion. “We don’t want people to get bored with us.”
The Knotts consider Varsity Pins, which they refer to as a “social barcade,” to be a test pilot. Once it is up and running and they can tweak it and gauge its success, they may want to duplicate it and develop similar lounges in smaller markets. If there was a hunger for FEC-style fun in Clarksville, they figure, folks are looking for things to do in smaller communities as well. And the enterprising family will only be too happy to take the reins of their next project and help fill the need.