John Sevier Center redevelopment plan fails in County Commission

Robert Houk • Feb 25, 2019 at 9:48 PM

A $4.6 million tax increment plan for the Johnson City Development Authority to buy and redevelop the John Sevier Center failed Monday in a 7-7 vote of the Washington County Commission, as did a preceding resolution to raise the debt limit for the downtown TIF district.

JCDA board member and TIF Chairman Craig Torbett said the county’s action will force his organization to seek other options for funding the John Sevier Center project.

“We will have to find a way to do this without the county’s support,” he said following the tie votes.

Torbett said the JCDA would try to work with the building’s current owner to ask for more time to purchase the 94-year-old John Sevier Center property.

The downtown TIF district was created in 2003 to eliminate blighted areas, promote development opportunities and expand tax growth for the city and county. Washington County is now collecting $26,750 in property taxes annually from the John Sevier Center.

Officials with JCDA have told county commissioners those yearly tax collections would grow to $62,079 once the redevelopment of the historic former hotel was completed..

Commissioner Robbie Tester, who opposed what he called placing the TIF district’s current debt “on steroids,” said voting on the resolution to approve the JCDA’s TIF project was “a moot point” following the first tie vote.

The commission has 15 members, and Chairman Greg Matherly was absent from the meeting due to illness.

Commissioner Phil Carriger said he wanted to vote on the John Sevier Center project as a way of getting his colleagues on the record. He said the project was key for economic development in Washington County.

“Are you part of the problem or part of the solution,” he asked commissioners.

A vote on the TIF was delayed by commissioners in December, and removed from the board’s agenda last month at the JCDA’s request.

“I’m of the opinion the TIF district has run its course, and its time to move on,” said Commissioner Kent Harris, who voted against both removing the debt limit and the TIF project. 

The JCDA voted in September to buy the 10-story building for $4.1 million and bring the units up to acceptable conditions, help transition residents to new housing facilities elsewhere in the city and then sell the Sevier Center to a commercial developer.

Dianna Cantler, JCDA’s downtown director, said the John Sevier Center could now be sold to an outside buyer, who would decide the fate of the property’s 150 tenants.

A key component of the redevelopment project will be the relocation the center’s residents to what early plans identify as four new buildings of 40 units each, which will include green spaces and allow tenants to be closer to grocery stores, pharmacies and other entities they desire.

JCDA officials projected the new housing would be located outside the current downtown TIF district.

The project also called for the JCDA to make some improvements to the John Sevier Center to bring it up to date on U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development standards and sell the building to a buyer who would redevelop it as a boutique hotel or upscale condos.

In other business Monday, commissioners approved a resolution allowing the Washington County Highway Department to help Carter, Sullivan, Greene and Hawkins counties in flood cleanup. County Highway Superintendent John B. Deakins Jr. said Washington County was fortunate to see “very little damage” from the weekend’s heavy rains and flooding.

Deakins said his crews “could help our neighbors, if asked,” and Washington County would be reimbursed for its work.

Commissioners also voted to make upgrading the county’s infrastructure, improving communications and enhancing workforce development opportunities as the top three strategic goals they will pursue in the next three years.

Those priorities were culled from seven initiatives identified by commissioners during a workshop held Jan. 19 at East Tennessee State University’s Valleybrook Campus in Kingsport.

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