Dick Nelson’s custom framing shop and gallery, Nelson Fine Art and Framing, has been in Johnson City’s downtown core for the past 20 years. In that time, Nelson has seen many things change.
Currently located at 205 Colonial Way, Nelson Fine Art started out as a custom framing shop before adding an art gallery and a coffee place, Dos Gatos Coffee Bar, which now has its own building farther up Main Street. From his position along the city’s main drag, Nelson has had a front row seat to the revitalization of the city’s downtown corridor.
Can you tell me a little bit about your origin in downtown Johnson City?
My business has always been either in downtown or within a stone’s throw and I’ve always lived on this side of town as long as I’ve lived here, so I love the south side of town, I love the downtown, I love the Tree Streets so I never considered any other part of town.
How have things changed around you?
Well it used to be the customers, the public was outnumbered by the homeless about 5 to 1, and people didn’t want to walk down the street because they were afraid somebody was going to ask them for a quarter. Now there’s still the same number of homeless people, but they tend to be outnumbered 10 to 1.
Were there a lot of empty storefronts?
Yeah, a lot of empty stores. A few people who really kind of saw the value of downtown and started getting property or putting their businesses in here, but it was a lot of empty (space) or a few offices, some bars and Nelson Fine Art.
You were here from the beginning. What do you think really changed peoples’ perception about downtown and started drawing more businesses to the area?
I think the city started to see in the ... first five years of the 2000s the value of the downtown. Johnson City Development Authority had gone from being an overall Johnson City development authority to a downtown development authority, and there were some people on that board, which I was, who had the vision and were diligently albeit slowly (making) some things happen. We started the Blue Plum Festival 20 years ago ... with the goal of bringing people into the downtown, so they could see what was going on and what was happening .... With the festival we brought people in, and people started to look around and see interesting buildings and start to get the vision of what a downtown could be. .... I can remember doing a survey with the city at one point and they said, “What’s one thing you want us to do?” and this was in about 2005, and my answer was, “Keep it clean, keep the lights working, keep the streets lit, take care of our homeless population and get out of the way.” And they kind of did that. They got out of the way, and there were some people with some big bucks (who) came in and started buying some property and fixing them up, and a few people with the little bucks were doing the same with our properties. We started First Friday here in Nelson Fine Art in 2002, 2001 as a monthly art get-to-together because we knew we needed people to come downtown. And so we decided if we could give them a regular event and a reason then they would start coming on a regular basis, and I think that started causing people to come down here every month.
Why the art space and why the coffee shop? What drew you to those types of businesses?
Well, in my mind, everything was always to bring framing customers because ... while art is sexy and cool and interesting and life changing, the framing is what paid the bills. So if we could bring hundreds of people in every month to see the art, maybe buy the art, to do events then we could earn them as a framing customer and same with the coffee shop. If we could get people through the door, we knew coffee was a big deal and we wanted good coffee and there wasn’t good coffee ... so we started the coffee shop about 10 years ago inside here and then a few years ago I bought the building down the street where Dos Gatos is in now and moved it down there as we were starting this new change of this building.