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Revitalizing downtown Johnson City: Creating space for all

Dianna Cantler, Guest Commentary • Dec 1, 2019 at 7:00 AM

I heard a statement recently that has stayed with me, “Downtowns are the one place in a city that belongs to everyone.” I believe that is certainly true for us in Johnson City. Downtown is an integral part of our history, and as we focus on recruiting business and young professionals to our city, the way our downtown is perceived becomes even more important. Downtowns are iconic and powerful symbols for a city and often contain the most recognizable landmarks, distinctive features, and unique neighborhoods.

I would go as far as suggesting a city’s downtown area has an important and unique role in economic and social development. Downtowns create a critical mass of activities where commercial, cultural, and civic activities are concentrated. This concentration facilitates business, learning, and cultural exchange.

So why do we need to continue with downtown revitalization? Is the answer for talent attraction, historic preservation or economic development? I believe it is these three reasons and more.

One of the best ways for towns and cities to spur economic growth today is by reinvigorating their historic commercial corridors and putting their character-rich older and historic buildings to work. “In the New Economy, place matters most,” argues Urban Land Institute Fellow Ed McMahon. “In a world where capital is footloose, if you can’t differentiate [your town] from any other place, you will have no competitive advantage.”

Recently, the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership was able to convince ebm-papst to locate their US headquarters in the Washington County Industrial Park. As part of ebm-papst’s visits to our area, they requested to visit downtown Johnson City multiple times. Often we see our restaurants full of corporate executives from businesses all over the region having dinner in downtown.

Visitors to the ETSU campus, whether it is potential students, future employees or alumni, typically can be seen walking through downtown. The importance of how our downtown presents itself makes a statement to those who are considering living here. If a community has a vibrant, restored downtown, it makes the city an attractive place to live, grow a business, send children to school, recreate or grow a career or even retire.

With the addition of public greenspaces, high speed fiber, restaurants and breweries, expanding outdoor recreation opportunities and experiential retail growth, we are increasing our opportunity for new small business development and talent attraction.

Historic preservation isn’t about casting buildings in brass but it’s about keeping old places alive, in active use and relevant to the needs of communities today. Rehabilitation of 80+ year old buildings takes a lot of patience, vision and money. As we restore our historic buildings, bringing new life to them in a way that might have been different than originally built, we create a sense of place that encourages creativity in our residents. You could say we are protecting our past for our future residents, by working with already built places that are more sustainable. As we rehab these buildings, we become a more walkable city, with a desire to embrace diversity and inclusion. In the past 10 years, the property values in the Downtown Redevelopment District have grown by 53% compared to less than 10% in the rest of the county.

Creative Placemaking has become a buzz phrase in downtown development in the past few years. It is an evolving field of practice that intentionally leverages the power of the arts, culture and creativity to serve a community’s interest that builds character and quality of place. The addition of public art, via sculpture, murals, sidewalk art and more have brought a new life to our downtown. This intentionality of making the walk between parking space and storefront more enjoyable also attracts visitors and encourages people to linger and communicate with others.

In the past two years, 27 properties have been sold in the district and 12 buildings are under rehabilitation currently with 19 new businesses opening. This means jobs in construction, income in real estate and small business development. The Johnson City Development Authority has two directives: increase the number of people living, working and engaging in downtown and to increase the commercial property values.

As our City’s goal of recruit and retain becomes a directive for economic development, our downtown is an important component in the plan.

Dianna Cantler is director of development for Johnson city Development Authority.

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