'Secret' auto parts company considering temporary move to downtown Johnson City

Zach Vance • Updated Feb 18, 2019 at 9:33 PM

Johnson City commissioners were presented with a peculiar proposition from Development Services Director Preston Mitchell during Monday’s agenda review meeting.  

An undisclosed automobile heating component manufacturer is interested in temporarily locating its assembly line in the former BedInABox site at 220 E. Millard St., bringing with it roughly 100 jobs, Mitchell said. 

“That’s a 100 people eating, shopping and spending time downtown that doesn’t exist today. That’s a home run,” City Manager Pete Peterson told commissioners. 

But with no guarantee it will even make the move, the company first wants to see commissioners rezone the 65,000-square-foot site from a B-3, or Supporting Central Business District, to a I-1, or Light Industrial District. 

“This would be a roughly three-to-four-year operation,” Mitchell said.

“In the meantime, they’re also shopping another larger site out in the (Washington County) Industrial Park, where they’d build a larger facility, and they’d actually do full-blown manufacturing, warehousing, assembly and distribution from that larger facility three to four years later.”

Mitchell said Alicia Summers, vice president of industrial development for the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, has been working with the company on the deal.

However, according to Mitchell, Summers signed a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA, that legally prevents her from revealing the company’s name or other specific details about the move. Considering NETREP’s involvement, economic development incentives could also be part of the negotiations. 

In 2013, BedInABox owner Bill Bradley renovated the former Giant Foods warehouse to accomodate his online mattress business before moving in. In the last 18 months or so, Mitchell said BedInABox relocated its business to North Carolina, but Bradley still kept ownership of the property. 

“The reason BedInABox was able to move into this facility when they did in 2013 was because they met a very strange little interpretation of the B-3 zoning ordinance. And that is you can do hand-crafted assembly. ... But, that handcrafted assembly is required to have some sort of retail or storefront component to it,” Mitchell said. 

To meet that storefront zoning requirement, Mitchell said BedInABox operated a showroom. 

Following Mitchell’s presentation, Vice Mayor Joe Wise directly asked, “So if we rezone it, they’re coming? 

Not necessarily, as Mitchell said the company is also shopping other properties in other cities. 

“They’re looking at other properties. We have tried on multiple occasions to get them to give us an LOI (Letter of Intent) or something more than just a, ‘You’re one of our cities we’re shopping,’” Mitchell said. 

“What they’re wanting to ensure are their entitlements. And if the entitlements are in place that night on (March 8, the day after the third reading of the rezoning request), our understanding is that we would receive the award, but there is no guarantee.”

The Johnson City Regional Planning Commission voted 7-2 during its Feb. 12 meeting to recommend approval of the rezoning request.

The planning department’s staff is also recommending approval, even though the usage technically conflicts with the city’s future land use plan for downtown business.

“Staff recommendation is to approve based on the fact this is an opportunity for reuse of an existing light industrial facility. If this was new construction, our recommendation would be to deny because of the new introduction of that type of facility. But the building is already here,” Mitchell said. 

If for whatever reason the company does not relocate there, Mitchell said the rezoning would stay in place until the owner, Planning Commission or City Commission requests it to be changed back. 

The rezoning request will be on the City Commission’s agenda for Thursday’s 6 p.m. meeting at City Hall. 



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