2nd chance a must on John Sevier

Johnson City Press • Apr 16, 2019 at 7:30 AM

It appears the Washington County Commission will have a second chance do right by the county’s taxpayers while improving living conditions for 150 low-income citizens.

As Press News Editor Nathan Baker reported in Saturday’s edition, the Johnson City Development Authority plans to resubmit its request for a $4.6 million tax-increment financing plan to purchase the John Sevier Center in downtown Johnson City for rehabilitation. County commissioners largely were split along rural-urban lines in February when the TIF request failed in a 7-7 tie. Chairman Greg Matherly was not present to cast a tie-breaking vote. Six of the seven nay votes came from the county’s districts west of Johnson City.

Armed with new information they hope will sway some naysayers, JCDA leaders plan to take the request back to the commission. It’s too important not to try, and we maintain our position that the commission should approve plan.

The idea is to buy the apartment tower, move its residents to better housing and sell the century-old former hotel to a commercial developer. As we have stated on other occasions, the project would be a win for the building’s residents and downtown.

Returning the city’s tallest, most visible structure from a detractor to a successful hub would be a mini-economic earthquake of sorts, sending waves throughout Washington County. As downtown’s prospects improve, the more it becomes a focal point in the regional effort to market quality of life to developers and employers.

Taxes from the downtown TIF district already go into a special fund, but the plan would require the commission to raise the debt ceiling, which some commissioners have cited in their opposition. But without the project, increased tax revenue to fund the TIF would never be generated. Plus, once the JCDA sold the building to a developer, the debt would be moot. In a nutshell, there’s nothing to be gained by not raising the ceiling and plenty to lose. Downtown will never realize its economic ripple potential without complete revitalization, especially if the John Sevier remains a sore point.

If that’s not enough to convince commissioners, giving the John Sevier residents a better living environment should. They deserve more than the current conditions afforded them in that building. As Baker reported, JCDA Chairman Robert Williams said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development pre-approved the authority’s application for a Housing Assistance Payment contract contingent on the TIF. Williams and two commissioners who represent the county on JCDA’s board believe HUD pre-approval in hand may help change some commissioners’ minds.

If nothing else, we urge Matherly to step up for Washington County’s citizens, including the John Sevier residents, by breaking the tie with an affirmative vote.

Knowing how stubborn some county commissioners are, the JCDA is right to be armed with Plan B. Concerned about the urgency, Johnson City Vice Mayor Joe Wise was prepared to skip a second trip to the county and fund the purchase outright with traditional bank loans.

The last thing Johnson City and Washington County need is for another buyer to swoop in and buy the building, leaving its fate in the wind. But Williams says the JCDA is in constant contact with the sellers and vowed the board would move quickly under such circumstances.

We are glad to see the JCDA remains firmly committed to seeing the John Sevier project through to fruition, regardless of whether the County Commission has the good sense to facilitate it.

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