The Town of Unicoi was officially incorporated in 1994.Dave Boyd/Johnson City Press
UNICOI — What began as a grassroots effort by a group of concerned citizens celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
The town of Unicoi was officially incorporated in 1994. Town Mayor Johnny Lynch, who has been involved with the town since even before its incorporation, said a big celebration to commemorate the town’s first 20 years is planned for later this year.
The town got its start through a small collaboration among like-minded Unicoi County residents.
A little more than 20 years ago, a group calling themselves the Citizens for Better Government began meeting in Erwin to discuss local issues. One such issue that came up during the group’s sessions was Johnson City’s apparent interest in the northern end of Unicoi County.
“At that time, Johnson City was doing a lot of finger annexing, which was permitted then,” said Lynch, who served as chairman of the group. “So this group decided that we would try to get someone out here in the community to sponsor a meeting, just like a town meeting, to get more information together on this.”
Lynch said the CBG went to the local Ruritan Club, which agreed to sponsor the town hall-type meeting, held at Unicoi Elementary School. Possible annexation was a hot topic at the meeting, as Johnson City already had growth-plan markers in the community as far south as Dry Creek.
Another group was formed from this meeting, referring itself as Unicoi United. Lynch was again appointed to be chairman of this committee, which started having regular meetings.
“We decided that all the people we had talked to did not want to be annexed,” Lynch said.
Lynch said then-Erwin mayor Russell Brackins told the members of Unicoi United of a possible solution to the annexation concerns — the incorporation of a separate town. At the time, what is now the town of Unicoi was part of Unicoi County. The members of Unicoi United were in favor of Brackins’ suggestion, Lynch said.
“We started a campaign to incorporate the town,” Lynch said.
Much like the process to have a referendum placed on a ballot, members of Unicoi United circulated petitions for those in favor of incorporation to sign.
“We did a lot of knocking on doors and pushing the idea,” Lynch said. “We wanted, at that time, to be able to control our destiny out here, and that’s basically what it amounted to. Annexation was part of the issue, but it wasn’t the whole issue. We just wanted to remain a community in ourselves. This is a real proud community, so that just stands to reason that folks out here would want that.”
The group’s work paid off, as the matter was placed on the ballot and a majority of residents voted in favor of incorporation of the town of Unicoi. The town was officially incorporated in early February 1994.
Lynch said the assistance of the Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service was sought in the town’s early days for guidance. The town established its charter and eventually held its first election. Charles Hensley served as the town’s first mayor, while Lynch and Bill Nuss were elected to serve as the town’s first aldermen. Lynch’s wife, Pat, served as the town’s first city recorder, although she was not paid for her services.
What is now Unicoi Town Hall was once a bank, and those at the bank allowed town officials to use a small room to serve as the first Unicoi Town Hall. That room is now the mayor’s office. Town meetings were held in the cafeteria of Unicoi Elementary School.
“We just started on a shoestring and built from there,” Lynch said.
The town’s board of mayor and aldermen would later grow to five members. The town itself would also soon begin experiencing growth. Several years ago, a Walmart store was established within the town’s limits. Since then, other businesses have also set up shop in Unicoi.
In recent years, the town has renovated and now utilizes the historic Bogart-Bowman cabin, has established a visitors information center off Exit 32 and has constructed a pavilion at the trailhead of the popular Pinnacle Fire Tower Trail, among completing and planning other projects.
“We’ve come a long way in a short time,” Lynch said. “We’ve tried to provide as much the citizens as we can possibly do and stay within our limits of spending.”
Throughout the town’s two decades, officials have remained committed to keeping the town going and offering services and amenities to its citizens without a property tax. Although this comes with sacrifices, like the lack of trash and brush pickup and other services typically funded through a property tax, Lynch said the town remains committed to its stance of not enacting a property tax.
“There’s some advantages and disadvantages to it, but since we are a rural community, it hasn’t affected us a whole lot,” Lynch said. “We’ve gotten along pretty well, and I think most folks are satisfied with the way we’re doing it now.”
Lynch said he is looking forward to future growth, as well as the town’s next 20 years.
“We would like to preserve our rural atmosphere as much as we can and still be able to allow for growth,” Lynch said. “I guess people may question that and say ‘what do you mean?’ Well, our growth, to me, is going to be mostly at our interstate exits. We’d like to see a hospital here in the future, things like that. We are still striving to get that. There are some projects that we are working on that are 10-year projects, and some projects that are one-year projects.”