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Market will determine ultimate use for John Sevier Center

David Floyd • Sep 24, 2019 at 8:34 PM

Local officials expect the revitalization of the John Sevier Center will be an important economic engine for Johnson City.

"State of Franklin Road, when we built that, that was a game changer," said Johnson City Manager Pete Peterson. "When we built Winged Deer Park, that was a game changer. ... The John Sevier project is a game changer."

But at this point officials are unsure what that engine will look like.

“I think ultimately that’s going to come down to what a developer sees as a viable opportunity with that structure,” said Johnson City Vice Mayor Joe Wise, who also serves on the Johnson City Development Authority.

The development authority recently approved a $4.6 million loan to buy the building, and officially closed on the purchase of the structure in September.

The 10-story apartment building now serves as subsidized housing for roughly 150 tenants. The authority plans on moving the residents to a new, yet-to-be-constructed building and sell the John Sevier Center to a developer, who will then turn it into some form of commercial or residential project.

The developer ultimately chosen for the project, Wise said, will be picked through a public process, probably through a request for proposals or qualifications.

Dianna Cantler, the downtown development director for the Johnson City Development Authority, believes the space could eventually contain a combination of different uses, encompassing residential spaces like apartments or condos. It could also serve as a home for restaurants, office space or a even boutique hotel.

The use, however, will ultimately depend on the economic conditions at the time that the developer buys the space, which Canter said is still far off.

"It’s going to be driven by the market," she said.

Bob Cantler, the president and CEO of the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce, said there haven't been many projects in downtown Johnson City that match the scale of the plans for the John Sevier Center. The revitalization of the Model Mill is one recent comparison.

“It’s a facility that’s under capacity of what it could be,” Cantler said, “and I think by improving it adds more quality of life for whoever lives there and could add more to the tax rolls depending on what moves in, whether it’s hotels, condos, businesses, residents, whatever.”

The Chamber has not played a role in the project at this point, he said, but it will act as a resource to the developer once they're in Johnson City.

"We’ve allowed JCDA to do the work they need to," Cantler said. "We’re a resource when needed, but at this point we didn't want to do anything to jeopardize or impact what JCDA is trying to do."

Dianna Cantler said the architect who designed the John Sevier Hotel in the 1920s, William Lee Stoddart, also designed about 30 similar hotels throughout the Southeast.

Although the JCDA won’t have full control over what the hotel is rehabilitated for, she anticipates planners will look to the adaptive reuse of those buildings for inspiration.

One of Stoddart’s original designs in Tennessee, the Farragut Hotel in Knoxville, was recently re-purposed as a modern hotel, the Hyatt Place Downtown Knoxville.

According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, the Farragut Hotel opened in 1919 and was in operation until about the 1970s. The building was purchased in 1975, the paper reports, for use as an office building. It sat empty for a decade before a developer bought the building in 2014.

The John Sevier Center is currently on the city tax rolls as a commercial residential property, Peterson said, which means it's taxed at a level similar to office buildings, retail or any other apartment building.

Although the revitalization of the structure won't produce a life-altering amount of new revenue for the city, Peterson said the increase in the value could mean easily two, three or four times more tax revenue than it is currently generating.

"Is it going to change the course of history? No." Peterson said. "But it's creating jobs, it's creating economic activity, it's having a positive impact on the quality of life in the energy going on downtown."

But before the development authority begins considering the kind of development that will go into that building, Wise said the organization needs to think about how it's going to meet the needs of people currently living in the center.

"The key thing right now is that you can’t even begin to contemplate a project like that while the building is still home to people," he said.

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