Commission calls for task force to develop trail

Gary B. Gray • Mar 21, 2013 at 10:19 PM

City commissioners did take action Thursday to initiate movement on the Johnson City Rails-to-Trails Project, but the forward motion could be described as “baby steps” at best.

As is the case with many projects, it’s a matter of money and the city doesn’t have it.

“It’s obvious from the master plan that the full $5.2 million build-out is probably something we won’t do,” said Mayor Jeff Banyas.

The statement came about two weeks after Durham, N.C.-based Alta/Greenways delivered a master plan for East Tennessee’s first rails-to-trails project, which will serve as a guide for the successful completion of a 10-mile pedestrian-friendly path from Johnson City to Elizabethton — maybe.

“I see this as a private-public venture,” he continued. “I want to see if we can develop a task force, perhaps a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group.”

Commissioner Jane Myron seemed surprised that the long-heralded project did not draw more discussion and told Banyas how much public interest there is regarding the project.

“This is something I think everyone wants to see come to fruition, but I see the private sector getting active in this,” he said.

“I agree,” said Commissioner Phil Carriger. “I think a lot of good things can come out of this, but we need to have the folks in Elizabethton and Carter County involved.”

The Carter County mayor and Elizabethton City Council members were on hand at the company’s presentation about two weeks ago, and they gave every indication they were willing to work with Johnson City to make the project work.

Banyas explained that it would take quite a bit of time, effort and money to do the entire 10-mile project. He then suggested that a task force be formed, and commissioners moved on to the next agenda item.

Such a small amount of discussion on a subject that drew a 96 percent positive response from one citizen survey made it fairly obvious the 10-mile stretch of land on which the unused lines run from Alabama and Legion streets and end near the State Line Drive-In in Elizabethton will not be transformed any time soon.

There was no indication of who would serve on the task force or when it might be formed.

The city began talking about the possibility in 2006 and started communicating with Genesee & Wyoming, East Tennessee Railway’s parent company, about one year later. In 2011, the company agreed to Johnson City’s $600,000 offer.

The company still has possession of the easement until June, when it will be officially turned over to the city.

Commissioners also unanimously approved a request from the Public Works Department to demolish the former SunTrust building. The city-owned building at 106 W. King St. has not been occupied for several years, and administrators with Hands On! Regional Museum have targeted this site as their future home.

Public Works Director Phil Pindzola said the building has become unsuitable for occupancy. He also said it would cost nearly $100,000 to repair the structure and that no one has expressed in leasing it.

“It’s become a greater liability by the day, and we think we could do the demolition with in-house crews,” said City Manager Pete Peterson.

Pindzola told commissioners it would cost about $30,000 to demolish the building.

In 2011, city and county development authorities announced a comprehensive plan of action for revitalization of downtown Johnson City that listed Hands On! as “a revitalization success story to build on” and a “key stakeholder” in future revitalization with the museum’s relocation being one part of that plan.

The museum currently is located at 315 E. Main St.

East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland has expressed interest in expanding the schools’ reach into to the downtown area. A few ideas have been tossed around, including using the building as the home of ETSU’s Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies program, with the hopes of rekindling the famous “Johnson City Sessions” through weekly performances.

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