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A lot from a little: Unicoi celebrating 25 years of growth

Sue Guinn Legg • Updated Oct 10, 2019 at 5:34 PM

Twenty-five years after residents of what would become the town of Unicoi voted to incorporate and avoid what many feared was pending annexation by Johnson City, the little town is celebrating its silver anniversary.

The town’s official 25th Anniversary Celebration will be Friday starting at 5 p.m. at the Tourist Information Center in Unicoi.

But before the party, a look back ...

Johnny Lynch, who was among the group of residents who initiated the push for town status, was one of Unicoi’s first aldermen and is its third and longest-serving mayor, on Thursday shared the story of how the town came to be and few of the major milestones it has passed along its way.

“It started with a group that was meeting in Erwin, Citizens for Better Government,” Lynch said. Johnson City was supposedly threatening to annex. They denied it, but we had some pretty good evidence and they had already bought the (former Buffalo Valley) golf course.

“(The group) took on the project and hosted a meeting in Unicoi to find out what people thought about it. There was a lot of opposition to Johnson City annexing and it was actually (former Erwin Mayor) Russell Brackins who told us the only way to prevent it was to start our own town.”

A second group, Unicoi United, was formed to go out into the community and lobby for the new town and to gather signatures to put the issue on a ballot. Within a year, Unicoi voters had decided the issue and the little town was on its way.

The first Board of Mayor and Aldermen included only three members, who held their first meetings in the cafeteria at Unicoi Elementary School. Charles Hensley served as the first mayor. Lynch and Bill Nuss were the first aldermen. And Lynch’s wife, Pat, temporarily served as town recorder until the job was advertised and candidates interviewed and vetted under the direction of the University of Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service.

“We contacted MTAS, who advised us what steps to take and they have continued to advise to this day,” Lynch said.

In the town’s early days, a bank in the building that now serves as Unicoi Town Hall loaned the town the use of a back office for its meetings. And when the bank moved, the town was able to buy the building and take up residence in its first brick-and-mortar facility.

The first budget “wasn’t much at all,” Lynch said. But the town was able to leverage a grant for its first capital project, an extension of water lines to about 20 or 30 homes in the northeast section of its boundaries.

For several of the early years, Lynch said, the town focused on road improvements and used several grants to pave Unicoi Drive and side streets near its center. The next big project was the sewer service, which over a period of years was extended from Exit 34 of Interstate 26 to Exit 32 and to the Jones-Church area of Unicoi. “We turned that over to Erwin Utilities. And we are still paying for that,” Lynch said.

The town’s Tourist Information Center was built in 2013 and became home to the Tanasi Arts and Heritage Center, where local artisans display and sell their work. The Unicoi Ruritan Club added the center’s large meeting room, known as the Buffalo Room, where a variety of meetings, classes and special community events are conducted.

The town bought the Bogart-Bowman Cabin property, including the late-1700s or early-1800s two-story, dog trot cabin where the town hosts several larger seasonal events, in 2008. Restored to its original log and limestone construction, the cabin also provides a weekly venue for local musicians. An arboretum of native trees was planted next to the cabin and a walking trail, soccer field and parking were built on its adjoining lot.

Restoration of the Pinnacle Fire Tower at the top of Buffalo Mountain at Exit 32 and construction of the popular hiking trail that leads to the tower were accomplished through a partnership of the town, the U.S. Forest Service and private conributors.

At the base of the trail, the town built a trailhead pavilion and wooded park with walking trails on property donated by Unicoi resident Jack Snyder.

Most recently, the town completed construction of its Mountain Harvest Kitchen, a regional food business incubator built with approximately $1.2 million in state and federal grants and $250,000 in match funding from the town.

Now in its second year, the kitchen provides work space, equipment and, through a partnership with East Tennessee State University, instruction and assistance to local food business startups.

Through it all, Lynch said, Unicoi has operated without a property tax, depending instead on revenue generated by local sales taxes that over the years have grown its annual budget to approximately $1.5 million.

“That’s how we’ve always done things. That’s what we want to continue doing. And that’s what most of our board members have pledged to do,” he said.

“Our attorney says, “We do a lot with a little,” and that’s pretty true.”

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