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Robert Houk

Opinion Page Editor
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Columns As I See It

U-Haul, Model Mill signs of the times

August 11th, 2014 9:24 am by Robert Houk

U-Haul, Model Mill signs of the times

Although U-Haul of Johnson City is in the process of relocating to North Roan Street, its giant sign still looms large over the downtown landscape. That iconic sign (U-Haul — Your Storage Place — Open 7 days) has been a part of the downtown area for decades.

One U-Haul employee told me recently she has heard the sign referred to as a “beacon in the night” by some Johnson City residents. Many will hate to see it go. Others are not as sentimental and are looking forward to the day when this throwback to the 1970s no longer towers over the downtown.

Count me among those who will miss the sign. It’s been there for all of the 27 years I’ve worked downtown. The U-Haul sign and the city’s bus station have been great landmarks in giving directions to the Johnson City Press.

It wasn’t that long ago that the only reason people ventured downtown was to rent a U-Haul truck, or to rent storage space at the facility. That, of course, was years before downtown became cool.

City officials rewarded U-Haul’s faithfulness to the downtown area by condemning its property on King Street as part of the stormwater abatement program. Corporate officials at U-Haul fought the city, but lost the contest in the courts.

I believe one of the reasons U-Haul didn’t want to move from the property is the sign. I don’t think a sign of that immenseness is allowed under the current city code, which means U-Haul couldn’t place it (or one like it) at a new location.

It’s just a thought. I could be wrong.

If all goes as planned, U-Haul’s relocation will allow Johnson City to complete the final phase of its stormwater plan. Making sure downtown doesn’t drown every time it comes a heavy downpour will continue the unprecedented investment and growth in the business district.

Maybe then city leaders can turn their attention to other portions of the city equally in need of some infrastructure improvements. I nominate West Market Street as one such candidate.

Another area ripe for redevelopment is Walnut Street between Buffalo Street and University Parkway. Certainly, the city has made effort to include this district as part of the improvements downtown. Still, more is needed.

One day, when the latest lawsuit against the developer and the property owner (the local Chamber of Commerce) is dismissed, work will begin to tear down the Model Mill to make room for a large apartment complex. I will be sad to see the wrecking ball take down the facility. The mill has been a landmark in the city for more than 100 years.

I pass it daily going to and from work, and I’ve watched it slowly fall into ruin. The only bright spot has been the graffiti art. Yes, it’s illegal, but you’ve got to admit it has spruced up the site.

It’s all but certain that the Model Mill will fall to progress. It’s a bit sad, however, that at a time when Johnson City has had great success in repurposing old buildings (including train stations), there is nothing that can be done to salvage at least a portion of the mill. It’s loss will be just another sign of the times.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at Like him on Facebook: JCPressRobertHouk. Follow him at 

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