Things are looking up for downtown JC — really

Robert Houk • Jun 4, 2012 at 8:59 AM

It was good to see all the people in downtown Johnson City this weekend for the Blue Plum Festival. The crowds remind me of a photo of the area taken in the late 1920s. That’s when downtown Johnson City was known as “Little Chicago.”

Yes, JC was a decadent little place then with crime, vice and booze. Take heed, residents of Erwin, the same might be said of your blessed little town if voters approve liquor by the drink.

But let me return to my point. Things are looking up for downtown Johnson City. Yes, I know, you have heard that before. This time, I believe it might be true.

I also know I’ve shared this story before, but I think it is one that needs repeating. I was assigned by this newspaper to cover the first (and last) Pumpkin Festival in downtown Johnson City in the late 1980s. I arrived to the epicenter of the festival near Fountain Square to find a few pumpkins, some hot cider and a face painter waiting for little canvases.

That was it.

There were no throngs of people eager to sip hot cider. Nobody showed up to carve the pumpkins, and the face painter had no choice but to pack up her gear and go home. It was another setback for those who dreamed of the downtown returning to its glory days.

Johnson City’s reputation as Little Chicago came to an end in the late 1950s. The decline of the downtown area, along with the end of passenger rail, put an end to Little Chicago. That is, until Johnson City became the first municipality in the region to pass liquor by the drink in the early 1980s.

The last eight years have brought the most improvements downtown Johnson City has seen since the 1960s. And most would not have come had the city’s voters not approved liquor by the drink. The renovation of the King Building, the redevelopment of the old Unaka National Bank building and the improvements on Tipton Street are visible signs that things are indeed happening downtown.

And while encouraging talk was the most municipal leaders were willing to give downtown redevelopment in the past, the last few years has seen the city actively pursue measures to implement a tax increment financing district, address flooding problems and create new green spaces in the area. Even so, the recession has certainly made it even more of a struggle for businesses downtown.

It’s been disheartening to see a number of my favorite downtown restaurants (Russo’s and Chew-Chew Cafe come to mind) close in recent years. On the other hand, those buildings have not remained vacant for very long. New eateries are now thriving in those same spots.

Downtown still needs to see more diversity when it comes to the types of businesses it is home to. A restaurant that serves breakfast would be nice, as well as a vintage clothing or consignment store.

Students at East Tennessee State University often bring up a hip clothing store when I ask them what they would like to see in the downtown. Students also say they would like to see a dollar movie theater and more specialty retail stores. Are there any entrepreneurs out there ready to meet their needs?

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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