Finding a new use for the Ashe Street Courthouse

Robert Houk • Sep 15, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Members of Washington County’s Budget Committee are being asked to place where repairing the roof of the unoccupied Ashe Street Courthouse and other key projects rank on the county’s list of top capital spending needs.

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy, who made the assignment at last week’s committee meeting, said the county has a “number of old buildings” that are in need of repair. He said the question for county commissioners to answer is: “How do we move forward with these projects?”

He said the first step is to prioritize those needs within the county’s capital investment plan. Grandy gave committee members a number of projects to rank on that funding list.

Those projects include $2.4 million to replace the heating/cooling system at the historic Washington County Courthouse in Jonesborough, $2 million to replace the heating/cooling system at the county’s Detention Center, $1.35 million to relocate the county’s Election Commission offices and $475,000 to develop a county Emergency Medical Services firefighting training center.

Also on that list is $300,000 needed to replace the roof on the Ashe Street Courthouse, 401 Ashe St., Johnson City. The building is more than 100 years old and was originally constructed as a U.S. Post Office.

The building was used later as a county courthouse before becoming the headquarters of Washington County’s 911 Emergency Communications District for more than three decades until 911 moved its operations to Boones Creek in late 2017.

The building has not been used since that time.

Unless county officials find a new public use for the Ashe Street Courthouse, its ownership will revert back to the federal government, which will likely sell the property at an auction. Grandy said Thursday that is part of “the dilemma” the county now faces because there has been no new use identified for the former courthouse.

At the same time, the building has a leaky roof that the mayor said needs to be replaced “sooner, rather than later” if the county hopes to protect the building for future use.

“If we do give it back to the federal government, then we don’t need to put a new roof on the building,” he said.

Grandy said he has been working for more than a year to find a way to repurpose the building, which is in need of renovations costing at least $3 million.

“It’s still a great building,” Grandy told commissioners last week. “It was last renovated in the 1980s for 911.”

He said memories of the building’s days as a courthouse can still be seen with the wooden benches and dated furniture on its second floor. He said the classic period architecture of the building, including its spiral staircase and limited parking, offers both opportunities and challenges for redevelopment.

Johnson City officials have identified the Ashe Street Courthouse as a key anchor to redevelop the West Walnut Street corridor between the downtown area and the East Tennessee State University campus. Grandy said he has conferred with both city leaders and ETSU officials to identify possible new uses for the building.

“We’ve got some very bright and creative people working on this,” he said. “I’m very optimistic we can think of something.”

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