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Purchase plans for John Sevier progress

Nathan Baker • Feb 8, 2019 at 11:52 PM

Johnson City Development Authority Chair Robert Williams said Friday at least two outside investors are interested in developing the John Sevier Center in the heart of the city.

Williams reported to the authority’s board on the progress of plans to buy the 10-story building, secure adequate housing for and relocate its current residents and then sell the building for rehabilitation and redevelopment. He said one potential developer spent half a day touring the former hotel and another plans to look it over next week.

Before selling the property, however, the board and its advocates must first convince the Washington County Commission to approve $4.5 million secured through tax increment financing allowing the authority to buy the property and make repairs to the building. The board’s proposal has twice been on the commission’s agenda, but votes on it were delayed twice when JCDA leaders decided to postpone them to allow more time to answer county commissioners’ questions.

The project will likely again be on the commission’s agenda later this month.

Williams said he believed momentum was swinging toward the commission’s approval of the project, but he thought the chances of its passage were better if the commissioners didn’t consider it on the same night they were scheduled to tackle a request for a payment in lieu of taxes incentive package from a private developer. He also said the extra month gave the JCDA more time to answer some of the commissioners’ lingering questions.

Should the county approve the TIF funding, JCDA will borrow the purchase price from an area bank. Williams previously said preliminary figures show rental income from the Sevier Center’s federally subsidized residents will pay for the debt service on the loan.

For those existing residents, the authority and the city are still searching for the proper sites to build or renovate new housing.

Johnson City Senior Planner Matthew Manley told the board he soon expects to use mapping and data analysis software to help identify properties that are suitable to replace the 150 occupied dwellings in the John Sevier. The software should allow planners to take a “scientific approach” to finding potential sites, he said.

Williams originally said the authority was considering splitting the current residents into several residential sites instead of having so many of them concentrated in a single building, which he said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development discouraged. Now, he said HUD is reluctant to split the existing contract for subsidies among different property owners, so the authority may try to find a developer to build a single apartment complex with multiple buildings.

As the preliminary phases progress, Dianna Cantler, the authority’s liaison from the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, said an architect from Johnson City’s Ken Ross Architects has drawn up some sketches of what the building may look like once it’s fully rehabilitated.

“It’s been really fun to go through and look at the pictures from the 1920s when it was built and to see the changes that have been made and what he could bring back,” she said.

Cantler said she’d also discovered the John Sevier Hotel and the Poinsett Hotel, a historic Greenville, South Carolina, structure the authority was using as inspiration for the John Sevier project, were designed by the same man, architect William Lee Stoddart. Stoddart designed dozens of hotels and apartment buildings between 1907 and 1930, many with similar features.

In addition to the John Sevier and the Poinsett, the redevelopment of the latter of which former Mayor Knox White said was a turning point in downtown Greenville’s revitalization, Stoddart designed the still-operating Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston, the Hotel Farragut in Knoxville and the Battery Park Hotel in Asheville.

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