Neighborhood group hopes fire doesn't derail mill restoration momentum

Tony Casey • Updated Sep 26, 2016 at 5:41 PM

When Johnson City’s Model Mill burned late Sunday night, crowds on each side of the property were filled with emotion as they watched the flames destroy parts of the property’s buildings.

For some, it was the excitement of posting photos and videos of the inferno to social media, but for many others, the emotion was much less energy-filled. Jodi Jones, past president of the Southside Neighborhood Organization based in the Tree Streets, described what she saw among her neighbors.

“There were gawkers,” Jones said Monday. “Then there were the neighbors who'd worked so hard on this. They were shaken and hugging each other, standing around speechless.”

Jones was one of the many SNO members who’d tackled the project of seeking to preserve the century-old Model Mill — which had employed many Johnson City residents over the years. The massive building sits on the front step of the neighborhood and had provided jobs to some of its residents.

Jones said many in the crowd believed they had saved the mill from previous plans to raze it and build five apartment buildings on the spot — keeping a North Carolina development company from purchasing the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce-owned property in 2015. Now they were overtaken by frustration, watching the work they did, the pressure they applied and historical information they relayed to keep the Model Mill from being torn down, slip away as flames licked at the structure. 

Tree Streets resident Amber Lee had been a part of the effort to hold the real estate developers off until the Model Mill could be properly restored and its historical significance preserved. It was Lee who filed a lawsuit challenging a variance by the Johnson City Board of Zoning Appeals to allow for the apartments to come through. This deal eventually fizzled out, opening the door for Summers-Taylor’s Rab and Grant Summers to come through with a better plan in regard to the wants of the Tree Streets group.

Jose Castillo, a local businessman, headed a tour of the property in late 2014 to help generate interest in its historical significance. The property was also listed by the Tennessee Preservation Trust as a Top 10 endangered property that same year.

When the Summerses announced in July they would buy the property, renovate several buildings and move their headquarters there, it was welcome news for the Tree Streets organization.

Sunday night’s fire seemed like a step backward for Jones, Lee and their peers, but they’re holding out hope the Summers family will follow through with the restoration project.

“Grant (Summers) came out last night and said there's still a structure there, and it still can be done,” Lee said about the Model Mill’s assumed next owner.

According to early reports from the Johnson City Fire Department, the building’s interior wooden structure was severely damaged, but some parts of the other buildings only suffered some water and smoke damage.

Lee envisions that damage to the buildings could even invigorate the movement to save the Model Mill, that people might appreciate more the opportunity they have to get behind preserving local history. Jones said the neighborhood will be on pins and needles over the next few weeks in anticipation of what, if any, these events change the Summerses’ plans.

The timing of the fire is poor, in terms of the development going on adjacent to the mill property.

Joe Wise is the chairman for the task force looking at matters on the West Walnut Street Corridor, which depends on, among other projects and focuses, development of the Model Mill.

Wise said the fire was unfortunate, but the success of the corridor would not solely depend on the outcome of the mill’s piece of the equation.

“The West Walnut Street Corridor has never been about one thing,” he said. “It's about the corridor in its entirety.”

He’s also hopeful the reasonable plan laid out by the Summerses does go through.

“It's a not a fatal blow to development there,” Wise said about the fire. He’s eager to see the details and the cause of the blaze come out.

Johnson City Police Department Chief Mark Sirois said a person of interest is under investigation, but did not attribute the fire to arson.

Email Tony Casey at [email protected]. Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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