Visitors were asked to use their imaginations last week to help shape downtown Johnson City’s skyline and start a dialogue to deal with empty and dilapidated buildings in an area targeted for revitalization.
Washington County Economic Development Council Redevelopment Coordinator Shannon Castillo said First Friday attendees filled three black paper sheets posted at empty buildings with the simple prompt “I wish this building was ... ” scribed at the top.
After seeing a video in which a similar technique was used to engage locals in the rebuilding process after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Castillo said she thought the Science Hill High School reunion last week was the perfect venue to debut the crowdsourcing program locally.
“It went better than I ever thought it could have,” she said. “I sat across the street at Main Street Pizza Friday and watched people reading and adding things, and that’s what it was all about.”
Written suggestions — some off the wall and some not appropriate for mixed company, Castillo said — covered the eight-foot wide sheets of paper with the accompanying chalk left at the former downtown site of the public defender’s office, an empty building shell on Main Street and a location on Buffalo Street known colloquially as the 1888 building next to the Downtown Deli.
“We’re getting a lot of ideas on all three buildings of what these buildings could be in the future,” Castillo said. “What we’re hoping is maybe someone comes in with some money and sees this as an investment opportunity.”
One of the most popular suggestions to fill the empty spaces was a brewery, Castillo said, along with a grocery store, residential space, a toy store and a book store.
Angie Carrier, development services director for Johnson City, said the municipality also has an interest in seeing revitalization downtown, and that’s the reason for a codes enforcement sweep started six months ago.
“One of the important aspects of revitalization is building maintenance, so we’ve been doing some walkthroughs and notifying building owners of violations,” Carrier said. “It seems as though the downtown area has been ignored over the past 20 years to some extent, so we launched this big process to take care of that.”
City inspectors will comb through buildings downtown over the next few months looking for safety concerns and work with owners to form a plan of action for correcting them, she said.
At one location, Carrier said loose bricks were at risk of falling from the side of a building onto the sidewalk, and at another, a building’s facade was starting to separate from the storefront.
“Our main concern is safety,” she said. “If it’s a minor property maintenance issue or the grass needs to be cut, we’re going to deal with that later. With new businesses coming into the area and people living there, we want to make sure everyone is safe first.”
Most building owners have been receptive to codes officers’ suggestions, Carrier said.
Some out-of-state owners were more difficult to locate, but once they were, they were willing to work with the officials to form a schedule for repairs, she said.
Castillo said she hopes that the crowdsourcing program and the codes sweeps will result in a more beautiful downtown.
“It’s sad to see these empty buildings,” she said. “Maybe after seeing these things going on, owners will say ‘Maybe I should invest in my building or maybe I should sell it.’ ”
She said she’d like to see the public given more opportunities to participate in the development process in the future, but said nothing is planned as of yet.
“Anytime we can bring people together, that’s a success,” she said. “This little experiment brought more input than any other online survey we’ve done, because people could walk by these buildings and imagine the possibilities.”