After more than 12 years of discussion and planning, Founders Park is complete, and visitors are more than content with the results. (Photos by Ron Campbell and Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)
An oily heap of crumbling warehouses near downtown Johnson City once smothered a choked creek.
Not any more.
Founders Park, the city’s pristine 5-acre, watery greenway has become a reality. The newly sodded grass is inviting. Trees are blossoming. An amphitheater sits ready. Walkways are being traversed. Kites are flying. Sculptures are being placed. And, lest we forget the main objective: new walls are helping move water down Brush Creek instead of onto city streets.
The transformation has been, in a word, dramatic.
City commissioners, planners and others recognized this need, and this spot, more than a dozen years ago. They endured brainstorming sessions and bumpy bus tours of the city’s waterways. The torch was passed in many cases, but the focus sharpened.
A bit too dramatic? Not really.
In 2009, Public Works Director Phil Pindzola stood with a member of the Johnson City Press at the corner of Sevier Street and West State of Franklin Road. He surveyed the busted ground in front of him and lamented the fact that a sizeable federal grant for a stormwater project at the site would not be coming the city’s way.
Founders Park happened anyway.
“We’re on the map now,” remarked Michael Jones, who along with his wife, Sam, and dog, Junie, took in a casual stroll along the revamped creek this week — one of more than a dozen outings so far. “It’s beautiful. I kept reading about how it was going to turn out. It more than met our expectations.”
The couple turned their eyes and looked down the length of the park, remarking on the antique lighting fixtures, bridges, landscaping, sculptures and other visuals that have attracted them to the multi-dimensional layout.
“We can hear the water, and that’s really soothing,” Michael said. “The art — that’s wonderful. I’m happy they will be placing more of that here. We were here the other day and a juggler was here. I’m going to start bringing my guitar down here. They kept assuring us it was going to look nice, and we kept reading about it in the paper. I have to say, it looks much better than I thought it would.”
Sam Jones said she had some relatives visit recently. They were from a large city in Ohio, and she was not sure how they would react.
“They were impressed,” she said. “This past week we saw a family and a child flying a kite. It worked out really well. We feel like it’s our park.”
The project was identified years ago by the city’s Downtown Storm Water Task Force and the Washington County Economic Development Council as necessary to help alleviate flooding problems at various sections of Brush Creek.
City-owned land along West State of Franklin Road has been turned into a multi-functional piece of property between Sevier Street and Wilson Avenue at which Brush Creek was opened up to capture flood water.
Don Mauldin, Knoxville’s Lamar Dunn & Associates’ executive vice president and lead consultant/engineer for the city’s $30 million long-range flood mitigation plan, has walked in and out of City Commission chambers over the years running down the basics.
Last year, Mauldin’s design of Founders Park garnered the highest statewide award by the American Council of Engineering Companies of Tennessee.
He toured the finished Founders Park on Thursday.
“Before this was approved, everybody was skeptical that Founders Park wouldn’t produce flood reduction or influence development and redevelopment,” Mauldin said. “When Marcy Walker was a commissioner, she told everyone, ‘let’s just do this one and see what happens.’ Tupelo Honey came and redevelopment is underway.
“I’d have to say that based on what we thought, Founders Park has done what we thought it would do. It helped ease downtown flooding and opened up development possibilities. I’ve been in this business since 1977, and I’ve been involved in a lot of projects. I’ll always consider Founders Park one of the most outstanding projects we’ve ever had.”
It took about four years, but the City Commission approved the first of eight planned phases of downtown flood mitigation in October 2012, when a $2.8 million bid by Johnson City’s Thomas Construction Co. to build the 5-acre Founders Park stormwater/park project won unanimous approval. Land acquisition, demolition, engineering, environmental permits and other costs brought the total amount needed for the project to about $5 million.
Commissioners agreed to issue up to $6 million in bonds to pay for this first step in its eight-piece, long-range plan. City Manager Pete Peterson said at the time, and continues to reiterate today, that the city was going to begin by addressing the areas that flood most frequently. Though flooding problems continue to hit various parts of the city, he also has reminded residents and business owners that the city is working incrementally toward the end result.
It was February 2011 when Commissioner Phil Carriger said he’d heard enough talk and endured nearly two years’ worth of arduous presentations on plans for what then was being called Warehouse Park.
He leaned toward his microphone and said he felt comfortable that citizens would be getting “the best bang for their buck” if the last of Lewis Wexler’s Free Service Tire properties was purchased and demolished so the project could go forward without more delays.
“Taxpayers need to see results, and that’s why the first couple of phases are so important,” he said at the time. “There are eight phases. The question is, how do we start getting results when we know we don’t have $30 million to solve the entire problem?”
Action taken soon after that statement marked the answer to that question.
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