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Johnson City’s downtown revitalization efforts find higher gear

Madison Mathews • Jun 11, 2012 at 9:38 AM

Momentum. That’s a word a lot of people are throwing around when it comes to talking about the current state of downtown Johnson City.

While the downtown area was once the center of activity for Washington County, that activity began to dwindle as development moved outward. But that’s an attitude that’s changing as more and more developments occur in the downtown area, signaling the onset of major revitalization.

The work being done by the city — mainly stemming from its massive $30 million flood mitigation plan — has led to some major development over the last several years, particularly along the Tipton Street area and the influx of other new businesses that have made their home in downtown Johnson City.

This forward momentum has been led by private investors who carry a strong, vested interest not only in the future development of downtown Johnson City but in its rich heritage and legacy.

Since 2012 began, there have been three major developments spring up in downtown — including an in-the-works sale and renovation of the historic CC&O Railroad Depot, which will be transformed into a restaurant and brewery; plans for a 27,000-square-foot apartment and retail complex on the corner of South Roan Street and State of Franklin Road and the renovation of one of the old buildings along Spring Street, which now houses a gourmet restaurant.

That’s encouraging news for the Washington County Economic Development Council, which recently unveiled a comprehensive downtown revitalization strategy aimed to generate private investment.

“We’re pretty encouraged by what we’re seeing and there’s a lot of interest being shown. Anytime you get that private investment to come and sort of pick the ball up is good news. We want to see more of that and have the private investment and businesses drive up traffic in the downtown area,” Council CEO Robert Reynolds said. “Investors need the basic demographics to make projects work, and especially in a downtown, they also need some level of confidence that the public sector and the community support is a consistent, businessfriendly approach to development.”

The groundwork is being laid for revitalization to happen, Reynolds said. Johnson City has the demographics to support downtown growth, particularly with East Tennessee State University located nearby. The small and medium-scale investments that have been made by private developers over the past couple of years have succeeded, and that’s all good news.

“During the same period, public-private projects such as University Edge apartments have moved forward, and several other helpful projects are in the works now — flood mitigation and Founders Park, as well as Northeast State Community College’s move downtown, are two of the best examples,” Reynolds said.

That kind of progress has spurred interest from outside developers to take a good look at what the downtown area has to offer and the potential that it holds, especially since the unveiling of the Economic Development Council’s revitalization plan last month.

The key elements of the downtown strategy include creating a permanent open-air farmers market adjacent to Founders Park, moving Hands On! Regional Museum from its current location to a new facility on Cherry Street, creating a greater ETSU presence downtown through the use of several cityowned buildings in the 300 block of East Main Street where Hands On! is currently located and creating green space with an outdoor amphitheater near the Johnson City Public Library between Millard and King streets.

“If all the stakeholders in downtown truly get behind the proposed redevelopment plan, and developers see a community that’s willing to take the necessary steps to make their projects economically viable, I think there is great potential for some very exciting private-sector growth downtown,” Reynolds said.

And that growth led by private investors, coupled with a partnership with the public sector, is integral in seeing change happen in the downtown area. The public-private partnership is a model that has been used by many cities across the country, including cities near Johnson City, such as Knoxville and Asheville, N.C., in order to act as a catalyst for future investment.

Johnson City’s Main Street Partners LLC, which is made up of former Wilson Pharmacy owner Guy Wilson, Summers-Taylor Inc. owner Rab Summers and Tim Jones, former Johnson City Press general manager, is the group behind the $2 millionplus, three-story, 25-unit apartment complex that is to be built on the corner of South Roan Street and State of Franklin Road.

Wilson and his partners have had a vested interest in downtown for years and they have already seen several other downtown apartment endeavors they own pay off.

“We’ve sort of been invested in downtown for several years, and we have those loft apartments that are currently across from the King (Centre) building. They’ve been 100 percent occupied, so we felt like we could justify adding some more in that older space that we weren’t able to do anything with it,” Wilson said.

The plan is to demolish the former Plasma Biological Services building, which Main Street Partners owns, to make way for the new structure. The planned building will include a rooftop deck, outdoor seating areas, an elevator, interior and exterior gardens and a space that could be used as a coffee shop.

Wilson said the project is a good investment, especially since there seems to be more interest in downtown from the private sector than ever before.

“It’s gaining momentum, and I mean just in the last year. It’s just been a whole lot of it and a lot of things have happened,” he said. “We’re sort of crossing new tracks, so to speak, with some of these new ideas we’re talking about with the university and the Hands On! museum change and the apartments across from the train tracks.”

“At the same time, we feel like in looking at some of these other areas like Asheville that have rebuilt their downtowns, we think there’s potential there and it seems to be on the rise since the Northeast State project is a reality now and the city’s doing an awful lot of improvements,” he said.

One of the biggest encouragements to investors like Wilson and his partners has been the concentrated efforts of the local economic development entities, such as the Economic Development Council and the Johnson City Development Authority. Through their hard work, a lot of investment has been made in downtown that has contributed to its growth, and that will only continue as people in both the private and public sectors work together.

That’s a partnership that Sevierville attorney and entrepreneur Joe Baker sees as a positive step in moving forward with a major transformation of the downtown area.

Baker is behind one of the most recent downtown developments in his pending purchase of the historic CC&O Railroad Depot, which the JCDA agreed to sell for $5,000. His plans include turning the old depot into a locally themed restaurant and brewery, following the successhe’sseenwithhisGatlinburgbased Ole Smoky Distillery business.

“Being involved in the community over the last year, I saw a great energy around the downtown area that I think would benefit from development there. With the university bringing in a new crop of students every year and the good group of businesses in the Washington County area, there’s a big population that needs to be served and could benefit from a strong and vibrant downtown community,” Baker said.

“The private investors are going to help turn it around while the city works with them. I think if everybody works together, there’s going to be a common goal that’s reached. And that’s really the only way that goal is going to be accomplished,” he said.

The depot sale is still in the works, but Baker said the deal should be closed in the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, he said he’s in discussion with two restaurant groups about a possible partnership, both of which would be “exciting” for the area.

“I think there’s a lot of unique opportunities there at the depot to take something that was once a benefit to the community and create something special,” he said.

Seeing the sale of the depot take place and the plan for the new downtown apartment complex gave Steve Sonneberger, owner of The Battery, located at 601 Spring St., more confidence the downtown area is on its way back up.

“There’s a lot of activity (downtown) and activity just breeds more activity. That’s got to be a good thing. The projects that are going on with the apartments and the depot and us … that’s all good stuff. It’s just a good vibe downtown,” he said.

Sonneberger purchased the Spring Street building in 2004. It has gone through several changes before he finally decided on opening a gourmet restaurant in the old building.

“We just really couldn’t find a good fit over the long term and we decided to do The Battery and offer something unique. … We’re happy with our product and the downtown is coming back. It’s been through the cycle with the downturn, but it’s a good feel down here now. It’s coming back and we’re excited,” he said.

“I think the powers that be at the city are finally at a posture where they’re ready to make something happen and they’re here to help,” he said.

While The Battery has only been open since March, Sonneberger said there are plans to expand its offerings by creating an entertainment venue on the space’s second floor and opening a rooftop bar.

“Johnson City will never be Asheville. We can’t be Asheville. We don’t have the infrastructure. We don’t have the parking facilities. We don’t have the hotels downtown. But we can be Johnson City, and it can be as good as it can possibly be,” Sonneberger said.

The recent activity downtown and the city’s progress on leveling buildings for its flood mitigation plans mean Johnson City is being positioned to see aspects of the Economic Development Council’s plan come to fruition.

That’s a sigh of relief from those who operate in the downtown area every day.

“I think the current state of downtown is better than it was when I moved here six years ago,” Hands On! Executive Director Ginna Kennedy said. “I see improvements being made all the time and I think there are a lot of negative perceptions of downtown that aren’t necessarily true. I think the potential is huge and the plan that has been unveiled is a really good overall plan for making downtown what it ought to be.”

Hands On! has been a staple of the downtown area for 25 years. It’s a place that has seen the ups and downs as the area has tried to make a comeback. With the plan seeing the move of the Hands On! to Cherry Street, Kennedy said it’s an exciting time for the museum, as it has outgrown the current facility.

While the museum’s officials have been talking about a move for a long time, Kennedy said this is the first time where everything seems to be lined up for a possible move that could take place within the next five years. With all of the pieces of the puzzle being laid out, it’s just a matter of time, money and having the support of the city and community in order to see downtown grow.

“It’s about the economic development of Johnson City. It’s about the economic development of the county and the community as a whole, and I think that’s where that momentum is really to take off when people recognize it,” she said.

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