Turning up the heat on the Mountain Harvest Kitchen

Johnson City Press • Apr 22, 2018 at 8:30 AM

The town of Unicoi’s Mountain Harvest Kitchen holds much promise. Space in the shared-use facility, which also operates as a business incubator, is available to all citizens for a rental fee of $25 per hour.

It is a place where entrepreneurs can test their ideas and receive technical support, as well as market counseling and financial advice.

The 4,000-square foot building opened in August with a lot of fanfare and community pride. The Mountain Harvest Kitchen, which is associated with East Tennessee State University's Innovation Laboratory, offers industrial-sized equipment used for baking, processing, canning and dehydrating food.

We should never forget, however, it is a facility built and largely operated by local, state and federal tax dollars. That includes funds from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and the Appalachian Regional Commission, which together with the federal Economic Development Administration, have provided more than $900,000 in grant funding for the approximate $1.2 million cost of the kitchen. Officials say another $400,000 ARC grant has paid for additional kitchen equipment and programming at the facility.

Town leaders developed an operating plan for Mountain Harvest Kitchen that projected significant operating losses in its first few years. Economic development officials say that's typical for this type of project. Even so, there's concern that things aren't going exactly as planned.

Press staff writer Sue Guinn Legg reports that former Johnson City Mayor Pete Paduch is projecting the kitchen will end its first year in September with a operating loss of $130,000, which he estimates is 10 percent of the town’s total $1.3 million budget and $70,0000 more than a $60,000 town subsidy included in its business plan.

Understandably, town officials are divided and troubled by Paduch's projections. Some think he may be right in his calculations. Others say it is impossible to know at this point what those operating losses will actually be.

It’s far too early in the game to say whether Mountain Harvest will succeed, and we certainly think the project deserves time to find its legs. The potential for an economic driver is clear.

Unicoi County Mayor Johnny Lynch told the Press he is hopeful that with the kitchen’s first full local growing season coming up, its continued use by local food business startups and the growing popularity of its educational classes, the facility could see a modest end-of-year gain.

We hope he's right, but in the meantime town officials must remain totally transparent when it comes to the finances of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen. It's said too many cooks can spoil the broth, but when it comes to knowing how our tax dollars are being spent, we can never have too many cooks in the kitchen.

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