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Johnson City Planning Commission moves forward with renaming King St. in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

Zach Vance • Updated Oct 11, 2017 at 11:24 PM

With heads hung low and eyes filled with doubt, those who first advocated for a Johnson City street to be renamed in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. left Tuesday evening’s Johnson City Regional Planning Commission unsatisfied with the result.

By an 8-0 vote, the Planning Commission recommended renaming King Street to honor the civil rights leader, but did so without the support of the local NAACP chapter and much of the local African-American community.

The motion to rename King Street actually entailed a “package deal,” which meant King Commons Park would also be renamed, a statue would be placed to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and an interstate sign would promote the renamed street.

“Only a street renaming and walking away from this would be a slap in the face of the NAACP and anybody else wishing to commemorate, honor and celebrate Dr. King. That's specifically why we haven't done it that way,” Planning Commission Chairman Timothy Zajonc said before the vote.

“I understand the fear and the concern and the distrust there, but that's not what this option represents. This option takes advantage of the rebirth of a community that's happening right now that's substantially backed by your City Commission.”

If approved by the City Commission, Zajonc said the task force that nominated the street by a 4-3 vote in September would remain intact and would continue brainstorming ways to improve the corridor.

But those extra assurances weren’t enough for Teretha Akins, who told the commission she’d been trying to get a city street renamed after King for 20 years.

Yearning for a more prominent street, Akins and nearly a dozen others asked the Planning Commission to table its King Street recommendation during a public comment session held before the vote.

“(King Street) is not a well-traveled street, it's not a visible street and a lot of people don't even know where it is,” Angelo Newman Jr., told the commission.

“I'm recommending you table this and reconsider it so we can regroup and more people can get involved in it and more community members get involved in it and have some input in it.”

Ralph Davis, president of the Johnson City/Washington County NAACP, wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting, but he was one of the task force members who voted against the King Street recommendation.

“It’s obvious to us that the people in the community are not happy with this choice,” Davis said.

“It seems like some want to make this an NAACP matter, and it’s not. It’s a community matter. Always has been and always will be. We were just the instrument to try to get the ball rolling.”

On Aug. 31, the task force allowed the public to choose one of three streets: King Street, Legion Street or University Parkway. After two hours of input, city staff gathered all the written comment and it appeared University Parkway garnered the most support.

Shortly after the public input, Development Services Director Angie Carrier stated the city’s Geographic Information Systems Division and 911 officials strongly discouraged changing University Parkway’s name due to public safety concerns, in addition to the approximately 200 addresses it would affect.

Back to Tuesday’s meeting, Dan Bolten, owner of Quantum Leap, said his business, located along King Street, would be adversely impacted by the name change, and also described the street as having a “crime issue.”

“I've heard this option we're advocating for ... described as ugly, complicated (and) it’s now been associated with crime, inequality (and) segregation and even called a 'black thing.’ I don't think any of that could be, frankly, farther from the truth for what it is or what it can be or what it should be,” Zajonc said.

Other board members touted the uniqueness of having a whole corridor designated to honor King and his accomplishments.

City resident Vincent Dial directly asked the board, “Is this the best Johnson City has to offer?”

Admitting his dissension on the topic, Commissioner Jeff Benedict responded, “I don't know if its the best option from everybody's perspective, but it may be the only option. Vince, you asked if this was the best option. I'm afraid it might be.”

The City Commission will make the final decision on renaming King Street during its November meeting.

Email Zach Vance at zvance@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP.

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