Short-sighted commissioners put economic progress at risk

Johnson City Press • Feb 27, 2019 at 8:15 AM

Seven Washington County commissioners may have upended a key component of economic development for the region Monday, choosing instead to leave it stagnated with an unknown fate.

The commission had the opportunity to significantly improve the business landscape in downtown Johnson City by approving a $4.6 million tax increment financing plan for the Johnson City Development Authority to buy and redevelop the John Sevier Center, a decayed former hotel that houses low-income residents.

But in an all-too-familiar ode to old town-and-country rivalries, the proposal went nowhere in a 7-7 tie. Potentially the tie-breaker, Commission Chairman Greg Matherly was not at the meeting because of illness. We hope Matherly and his fellow commissioners will see fit to return the proposal to the agenda immediately and give the county the economic boost it needs. Allowing the John Sevier to continue to languish hurts everyone.

Let’s not mince words: Monday’s tie was a short-sighted failure rooted in envy. The vote was largely along rural-vs.-urban lines. Six of the seven nay votes came from the county’s districts west of Johnson City. Had such a plan directly funded a project in or around Jonesborough, you could bet the outcome would have been different.

Commissioners should not allow one old feud to cost this region thousands of jobs. No, the John Sevier project alone would not employ thousands. What it would do is create a ripple effect of business development in downtown Johnson City, which would in turn improve prospects everywhere in Washington County and Northeast Tennessee. The JCDA imagines downtown as focal point for Northeast Tennessee’s vast outdoor recreation opportunities as economic development leaders market that aspect to developers and employers. As downtown improves, quality of life improves. As quality of life improves, business owners are more likely to locate here. The plan also calls for the relocation of John Sevier residents to new housing outside the TIF district, and those developments, too, would add to the county’s tax base.

The county would more than recoup the TIF investment. To put it simply, you can’t bank revenue from taxes you’ll never generate. Downtown will never generate its potential without complete revitalization, and it’s incumbent on our public leaders to facilitate that. The John Sevier — the county’s tallest, most visible building at the epicenter of downtown — should not be left to dangle on mere hopes of a private solution.

County commissioners must abandon the silly notion that Jonesborough and rural residents have no vested interest in Johnson City’s development.

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