Masengill’s Specialty Store owner Ambers Wilson remembers when downtown Johnson City was a bustling hub of activity.
“It was busy. Stores were lined up on both sides of the street. There weren’t any empty buildings that I could recall,” he said.
Shoppers spent day and night downtown, taking in the different types of shops and forms of entertainment the downtown area once offered.
Wilson has been involved with Masengill’s — downtown Johnson City’s longest-running business — for 54 years. The business was founded in 1916 by John Masengill and carried men and women’s clothing. In 1959, Wilson and his father-in-law purchased the shop and later expanded the South Roan Street store to three floors, carrying a wide array of dresses, suits, jewelry and wedding gowns.
Wilson recalled the three-story building once being the home of offices and several other businesses before it was converted.
That was all before many downtown businesses moved to north Johnson City, particularly in the area surrounding the mall. It was during that time when Wilson began noticing a decline in the downtown area.
Wilson said it was the store’s reputation that kept the business going through the decades, and the store is beginning to reap those benefits as downtown Johnson City is making a comeback.
“Interestingly enough, anybody who closed down here and went to the mall, they’re not here anymore,” Wilson said.
By the 1990s, downtown Johnson City was a mere shadow of its former self. Despite it being a place that most people avoided, that didn’t stop business owners from seeing the potential that downtown had.
“There’s less traffic but we still maintain our figures pretty good. It has been a while since it was big retail like it once was,” he said.
Masengill’s was one of the few stores that stayed downtown, opting to grow the business in an area that was seeing less people venture downtown.
Masengill’s isn’t the only business that has stayed committed to downtown over the years. Businesses such as Mel’s Stamps and Coins, Nelson Fine Art Center, Atlantis, Campbell’s Morrell Music, Main Street Antiques & Mercantile, Numan’s Cafe & Sports Bar, Hands On! Regional Museum, Atomik Comics, Beeson, Lusk & Street, Peanut’s Mecca Lounge, Mid City Grill, SPC Manufacturing, The Charles, Louis Shoe Shop and Tennessee Flag Co. have called downtown Johnson City home for quite some time.
After first opening Atlantis, 242 E. Main St., in Boones Creek in 1989, owner Kay McClain eventually brought the store to the downtown area in 1997.
Despite downtown’s many faults at the time, McClain said she was attracted to the area because of its potential to be the type of place that fostered specialty stores like Atlantis.
“I had great hopes for downtown, and I really like downtowns in cities. Those are the places that I always like to go because it’s the heart of the city and you find more interesting things,” she said. “I guess I’m the eternal optimist and I have seen improvements over the years, but once I came here I liked it. I like the feel better than the mall or a strip center.”
Nelson Fire Art Center got its start in a small space on South Roan Street. In 2001, Dick Nelson wanted to expand his space and expose more people to art, so he moved to its current location at 324 E. Main St.
“I had traveled around and had seen how downtowns had changed, and so I’ve always called downtown development and redevelopment decisions no-brainers,” said Dick Nelson, owner of Nelson Fine Art Center. “I’ve just always thought it was a no-brainer that downtown would become a great thing, so that was really my move up here was because I knew downtown would be great.”
Malcolm Blowers, owner of Main Street Antiques, came to Johnson City from Asheville, N.C., where the downtown area went through a drastic change. He bought some property downtown and opened his store in 2000.
While he would’ve liked to see downtown Johnson City grow and develop sooner rather than later, Blowers said he’s pleased with the new focus that’s been put on downtown, both from the private sector and the public work that the city has been involved in over the past year.
“It’s gratifying to see some things happening. It’s been a long time coming. Some of us thought it would happen sooner,” he said.
One of the leading reasons why downtown has seen a great deal of recent growth is due to the fact that there are city officials who have committed themselves to the downtown area’s continued progress, Blowers said.
“I think it’s beginning to realize some of its potential. One never knows how long the political climate will be favorable, but right now there is a commission that is establishing a favorable climate for downtown renewal. In 2000, there was a political culture that made it impossible to move forward,” he said.
Campbell’s Morrell Music, 118 W. Market St., has operated downtown since 1985. Since the business moved to its current location in 1991, owner David Campbell has mostly seen businesses come and go.
More recently, he has seen buildings come down. While that might be disheartening for some, Campbell said it’s a positive sign for downtown as it’s all a part of the city’s plan to better the infrastructure in the downtown area.
“It’s only because the city has committed to doing things. I think because of the stuff they’re doing now is what’s bringing more people and business downtown,” he said.
Many downtown business owners believe having more retail downtown is one of the things the area needs to work on in order to see continued progress as revitalization efforts continue.
“You need feet on the street. There’s no question if there are feet on the street after 11 at night. This is the liveliest downtown between Knoxville and Roanoke after 11 o’clock. It is the deadest downtown from 8 to 5,” Blowers said.
Still, Blowers said it’s encouraging to see an influx of restaurants and several new retailers who have opened their doors within the past year.
Nelson, who has been instrumental in creating First Friday, Blue Plum and other events that have brought more people to downtown, said downtown still has a long way to go, but people are finally starting to realize downtown Johnson City will soon be a destination location for many people in the region.
“I don’t think we’re at a point where I can say, ‘I told you so,’ but it makes me feel good. I think people are starting to get it. They’re starting to get the value of a prosperous, successful, interesting downtown. There will come a time when the economic development board when they’re recruiting an industry to come to this area, they’ll bring them downtown to show them what we have,” he said.
Washington County Economic Development Council Director of Redevelopment Shannon Castillo said all of the businesses that have remained downtown through its ups and downs are beginning to see the benefits of staying committed to the potential they saw many years ago.
“These people didn’t just set up shop and wait for opportunity to come to them. They invested and then brought opportunity by getting involved and making downtown better as a whole, not just for their business,” she said.