Taxpayers have been saddled with the underperforming facility’s debt and operating losses for the better part of two decades, so Johnson City commissioners and the Public Building Authority are doing the right thing by selling.
The sale makes sense both financially and logistically, as the university is best equipped to get the most out of the center. ETSU already uses it more than anyone else, and President Brian Noland says the building could be used for new academic programs. Both the university’s existing digital media laboratory and the new performing arts center under construction are right next door to the center in the Millennium Park complex.
Some might say the $5.82 million deal is a steal for the state, since the sale price is just a tad more than what the city still owes on the building. But as Press Staff Writer Zach Vance reported in Saturday’s edition, taxpayers not only have been paying off the debt for construction, they also have subsidized the Millennium Centre’s operations to the tune of $8.5 million over a 17-year period.
City Manager Pete Peterson estimates that the sale will save Johnson City about $2 million per year between the remaining debt service and the operating subsidy. Those funds could be redirected toward other infrastructure needs, such as the Walnut Street redevelopment project.
Longtime Johnson City residents will remember that the Millennium Centre was planned in the late ’90s with a little Kingsport envy in mind. Our neighbors to the north had just opened MeadowView Resort and Conference Center, and Johnson City officials thought our city needed to maintain a competitive edge.
At the time, the whole thing seemed like a rush job, and the finances were in question from day one.
While the basic concept of tying a conference and meeting space to the neighboring university campus was solid, the center never really lived up to its promise of attracting enough gatherings to sustain a practical business model.
That’s not to say Millennium Park and the center itself have not been beneficial to Johnson City. The Carnegie Hotel and its adjacent restaurant, Wellington’s, were major additions to the city’s hospitality profile. And while it has taken 20 years, all of Millennium Park’s parcels finally have been filled. ETSU’s performing arts center and Cootie Brown’s second Johnson City restaurant location will be the newest residents on the block.
With Millennium Park behind it, the city’s energies can be better spent on other development needs. We will be curious to see what Peterson and his team have in mind for the $2 million in annual savings.