A standing room only crowd of about 60 Unicoi residents, including many who own homes adjacent to Buffalo Valley, waited through the board’s monthly meeting agenda for a chance to address their concerns about the sale.
Michael Balluff, who owns an indoor soccer complex adjacent to the golf course, proposed constructing five athletic fields for tournament play, a walking trail and possibly a splash pad on the lower half of the course that lies in a floodplain and a land trust for the upper section that would not be developed but opened to neighborhood residents for recreational purposes.
Balluff’s proposal drew criticism from several Buffalo Valley property owners who said they do not want the athletic fields, frequent tournaments or the parking area they will require in their backyards.
Balluff apologized for the incomplete manner in which his proposal was presented to the community in April when an engineering study requested by Johnson City for his previous proposal for public and private partnership for the development was presented to city commissioners.
Baulfuff said when the City Commission rejected that proposal, he was never allowed the opportunity to publicly discuss his plans in greater detail.
He told the Buffalo Valley residents Monday he would not go forward with the development if they are opposed, but also noted the economic impact of the project is about $8 million annually. “Your hotels and your restaurants will be full,” he said.
Mayor Johnny Lynch and other of members of the board expressed a preference for the property continuing as golf course to maintain the residents’ property values, although none expressed interest in the town operating the course.
Alderman Roger Cooper and Vice Mayor Doug Hopson both expressed support for contracting with an independent firm with expertise in golf course management if the committee recommends the town submit an offer for purchase.
Lynch noted the importance and the urgency of the committee’s work, saying the members will have to work fast to gather information and form a recommendation for the board prior to Johnson City’s Feb. 7 deadline for submitting proposals. Lynch also noted the loss of the golf course will impact not only the adjacent property owners but the entire county through the decline in property values and county property tax assessments.
The committee members include Cooper, Hopson, Alderman Jeff Linville and approximately nine town residents who own property on and away from golf course.
In other business on Monday, the board voted unanimously to hire Dustin Thompson, a financial analyst for the city of Johnson City, as the town’s new top administrator.
Pending a background check, Thompson will replace former Town Recorder Micheal Housewright, who left the position last fall to take a job as city manager in his home community.
Thompson said he will be working out a notice with Johnson City and ready to begin work in Unicoi in two weeks.
The board also voted Monday to implement a resident scholarship program at the town’s new Mountain Harvest Kitchen that will allow up to 10 non-commercial food producers to use the kitchen for canning and other food processing at no cost.
The scholarship program will be funded through the transfer of $2,500 in unused nonprofit contributions already included in the town budget. The funds will cover the mandatory $80 orientation fee required of all kitchen users, and the kitchen’s $25 hourly use rate for up to 10 noncommercial food processors who live in town.
Kitchen committee member Margaret Lewis said the committee will submit the same scholarship proposal to the governing boards of Erwin and Unicoi County so their residents may use the kitchen at no cost as well.
Cooper, who last month told the board the kitchen fees are too expensive for the Unicoi residents he has talked to, called the scholarships a good plan.
Cooper said while he wants the kitchen to succeed, a financial statement presented to the board on Monday shows the town spent approximately $57,000 on salaries and utilities and only generated about $600 in user fees in its first quarter.
Lynch repeated his past response that the kitchen’s purpose is to create new businesses and economic development and not to earn a profit.
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