“Everything we’re doing is very intentional,” Dianna Cantler, the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership’s Director of Downtown Development, said recently. “One of the comments I heard recently was that vibrant communities are talent attractors and I think that’s very true. How are we going to get our young adults to stay in Johnson City and this region if we don’t put our money and our efforts into creating a community where they want to stay.”
It doesn’t seem that long ago that downtown was not a preferred area to be hanging around, but now, any day or night of the week, there’s vehicle traffic, foot traffic and scores — comparatively — of shops and restaurants open for business.
“When we talk about the future, one the things I would hope people would come to understand is that all the development that's occurring downtown is not just for the current generation,” Cantler said. “There was a time when downtown was deserted and all development went north. Cities are realizing having a vibrant downtown really makes an impact on business recruitment, it helps the hospital when it comes to physician recruitment, it is an asset to university when they are looking to recruit new faculty or new students.
Another phrase Cantler said she recently heard was “Bluegrass, beer and broadband” in regards to Johnson City.
Those three things are important “because we’ve got a new workforce that can work wherever they want to. They want to work where there’s cool music. they want to work where there’s great craft beer. In our case, we hope that they want to work where they have access to wonderful outdoor recreation opportunities, and then they want broadband,” Cantler said.
She said the Johnson City Development Authority is a finalist for an Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) grant to install free wi-fi throughout downtown.
“That’s a priority for us ... to make sure that we can partner with BrightRidge and not only have the broadband for our businesses downtown, but to be able to offer it to guests and people who come downtown who are here for a short period of time to be able wi-fi access as well,” she said.
As the younger population of techies age, they will still want to have access to these same things, she said.
And while some in Johnson City don’t quite like the number of craft beer breweries that have popped up across downtown, Cantler said those businesses bring a different clientele than a beer joint.
“Part of it, I think, is there’s a difference in going in somewhere buying a $2 bottle of beer and then drinking multiples versus buying a $5 pint of beer and sitting and enjoying it,” Cantler said. “I think there’s a little bit of difference just in the cost. You’re not going to drink as much when it’s more expensive. I think a lot of the breweries we have are family friendly places. They close early. They’re not open for as long of hours so you don’t have people that are sitting there drinking all day.
“There’s a different clientele going there, there’s a different cost in visiting those places and there’s a different atmosphere. People ask me when will we have too many breweries and I tell them, well we’re not anywhere near Asheville or Knoxville, and the market will decide when there’s too many.”
Restaurants have also started making a mark in downtown, and partner with some of the breweries that don’t serve food.
“The food industry, the great local restaurants we have partner with great local breweries,” Cantler said. “And then the access to Tannery Knobs and the Tweetsie Trail, and then there’s our green spaces downtown. They all go hand in hand. Usually the people that go to the breweries are also very physically active people. It’s a different clientele than what you would get in some other situations.”
Of course, some new businesses haven’t fared so well, but some of that could be their choice of location. Cantler said there are three main areas of downtown — the historic core, the several blocks outside of that and then the Walnut District.
“When you’re opening a business, you need to do your due diligence,” to know the foot traffic. “There’s a reason why retailers want to know the foot traffic of an area. In some of those cases, we weren’t just there yet to have the kind of foot traffic the business needed. I think Overmountain Outdoors is a good example. They had a beautiful location at a great price lease per square foot, but they didn’t have the foot traffic they thought they would have.”
Overmountain opened at the corner of West Market and Boone Street, but have since moved to the corner of Buffalo and Tipton Street beside the arcade.
“Now that they’ve moved, I think they’re successful because they’re next to restaurants that have the same clientele that they need.
“As any area expands, you want to make sure that you don’t go two blocks too far. Especially if you’re depending on foot traffic. We’re going to get to that point. Right now, the development authority, our concentration on retail development is the 200 and 300 block of Main Street and then along Commerce Street in the warehouses,” Cantler said. “Those are the areas, that historic core, where we are concentrating because we want to fill those spaces because we know that’s where the foot traffic is.”
Once those buildings are occupied with businesses, the JCDA will start expanding its focus further out from downtown proper.
“That gives us a couple of years until Walnut Street’s the new infrastructure gets put in place and then we direct our efforts that direction.