Three suitors now courting long ignored Millennium property

Nathan Baker • Apr 20, 2017 at 11:31 PM

For a property that seemed unsellable for years, Lot 8 sure has a lot of potential buyers.

Situated on State of Franklin Road across from East Tennessee State University and between Ruby Tuesday and Regions Bank, the 2.3-acre plot has been under negotiation a handful of times, but its lack of direct access to State of Franklin has always spoiled any proposed deal.

On Thursday, however, three different prospective buyers presented their plans for the land to the Johnson City Public Building Authority, the entity that owns it. PBA Chairman Jon Smith said interest in the land seemed to be “one of those feast or famine things” before its Development Committee members sat down to hear the plentiful proposals.

Tony Vella, part owner of Cootie Brown’s restaurant, wants to expand his chain to include a near-campus location, and he thinks Lot 8 is the perfect spot.

“The first three rules in running a restaurant is location, location, location,” Vella told the Public Building Authority board members in his pitch for the land. “Lot 8 is the location, and it has been for years.”

Vella proposed a $2 million investment to build a 5,200-square-foot restaurant. Another building with room for two stories and up to 11,000 square feet for retail or offices will be built at the rear of the property on the other side of Brush Creek.

Working with Realtor Brenda Clarke and Rex Parris and Steve Scheu of Time & Pay, Vella said the entire project is owner financed and the restaurant alone should generate between $2.2 million and $2.5 million in sales.

On the conceptual plan, Architect Ken Ross set aside a portion of the parking lot, with 109 spaces, to include a permanent area for tailgating when the ETSU Bucs play football in the stadium taking shape on the nearby campus.

Ross said the developers wouldn’t mind having a curb cut for direct access to the restaurant from State of Franklin, but could make do using the right of way at the rear of the property, through Ruby Tuesday’s parking lot to Harris Drive.

The architect said initial conversations with the city seemed to indicate officials are open to the idea of putting in the driveways, but they haven’t been in the past. It’s a sticking point that sank most of the deals with previous developers.

Vella said a traffic light set to be put in at Harris Drive once ETSU finishes building a fine and performing arts center down the street should make it easier and safer for patrons to access the parking lot. That light probably won’t be installed until 2019 or 2020.

The other restaurant offering, Purple Cow, would be an expansion of a Kingsport mainstay, if PBA leaders approve of the owners’ proposal.

Steve Trent, the managing shareholder in law firm Baker Donelson’s Johnson City office, and his wife, Carol, bought the decades old drive-thru restaurant in Kingsport last year.

The Johnson City restaurant on Lot 8 would copy it, he said, with a 1,000-square-foot drive-around restaurant and no seating.

The affordable food at Purple Cow, including hot dogs, hamburgers, spaghetti, steak and chicken dinners, should appeal to cash-strapped college students and faculty and staff at the university, Trent said.

“We think this is the most perfect spot anywhere within 100 miles to put one,” he said. “I would have been back here presenting to you a long time ago if I’d known it was available again.”

The third option, though not a restaurant, was touted as the best option for the land and the community by John Speropulos of Mitch Cox Companies, presenting a plan for the Johnson City/Washington County Chamber of Commerce’s headquarters.

Speropulos said the Chamber’s 40-year-old building near City Hall is showing its age, and the business organization needs a new headquarters where it can showcase the community’s education and cultural riches to prospective business owners.

“I think we need the Chamber on this site, that’s what I think makes more sense than just a restaurant,” he said. “For everyone this makes more sense.”

Searching for a new headquarters, the Chamber launched a fundraising campaign and bought the century-old Model Mill in 2008 for $400,000.

Chamber leaders say the economic downturn negatively struck the business organization and potential partners in the project shortly thereafter, and the mill revitalization project could not come to fruition.

Last July, Rab and Grant Summers bought the mill from the Chamber for $570,000 to install the corporate headquarters of paving and construction company Summers-Taylor Inc.

Chamber President and CEO Gary Mabrey originally said the organization was in talks to build the Chamber’s headquarters in an outparcel at the mill site, but said Thursday the building there was moving too slow for the Chamber’s board.

The Public Building Authority, which owned most of the land along the stretch of State of Franklin across from the college, keeps the money from land sales to help pay for the Millennium Centre’s operations.

The authority listed Lot 8 at $450,000, a figure the prospective owners were willing to pay Thursday.

The PBA would also receive one percent of the retail sales taxes collected from future business activity on the land, which may incentivize the board to move toward one of the restaurants, but Mabrey and Speropulos urged them to consider the economic impact of the Chamber’s activity, which they said pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy each year.

The PBA board’s Development Committee heard the proposals Thursday, but the full board won’t choose one of them to pursue until at least its meeting on April 26.

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