Funds for Ashe Street Courthouse included in governor's budget

Robert Houk • Feb 4, 2020 at 7:45 PM

Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock believes Gov. Bill Lee’s decision to place $5 million grant in his proposed $40.8 billion state budget for renovations to the 109-year-old Ashe Street Courthouse is “great news” for both historic preservation and economic growth along the West Walnut Street corridor.

“It’s really exciting,” the mayor said Tuesday, adding the grant will help refurbish an important building in the city’s plans to create “an eco-system” where young entrepreneurs can build new businesses.

“This will help us save a historic building from deterioration, and helps us to leapfrog the redevelopment of the West Walnut Street corridor,” she said.

Brock said the former county courthouse at 401 Ashe St., which opened as a federal post office in 1910, is an essential part of the city’s plans for West Walnut Street. The mayor said she and City Manager Pete Peterson met earlier with the governor to outline the city’s plans to use the Ashe Street Courthouse as part of a business incubator.

She said Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy, East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland and U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, also expressed their support of the project to Lee.

“It was a big ask, but the governor came through for us,” Brock said of the budget request, which must be approved by the state General Assembly.

Grandy said it’s important that local leaders “help shepherd” the grant allocation through the legislative process in Nashville to make sure those funds are included the final version of the new budget. The county mayor also said it will be key for stakeholders to determine the best use of the Ashe Street Courthouse.

“There are a number of interested parties involved,” Grandy said. “This building is key focal point for the West Walnut Street corridor, and it needs to be something that will draw people to that point.”

Washington County Commissioner Jodi Jones said dealing with the old courthouse’s future will be something she and her colleagues will soon take up as they begin work on a new county budget.

“We will see how it all works out over time,” Jones said.

In the meantime, Jones said Tuesday she was feeling “gratitude and excitement” for the governor’s decision to include work for the Ashe Street Courthouse in his new budget proposal.

The Ashe Street Courthouse’s Beaux-arts architecture was a popular style for government buildings constructed in this country between the1890s and the 1920s. The building served as the city’s post office until 1938.

A year later, Washington County began its lease of the property and the building was used as a county courthouse for decades until it became the headquarters of Washington County’s 911 Emergency Communications District in the late 1980s. The building has been vacant since 911 moved its operations to Boones Creek in late 2017.

If the county doesn’t find a new public use for the Ashe Street Courthouse, its ownership will revert back to the federal government. 

Last month, Washington County Commissioners authorized the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia to seek a National Register of Historic Places designation for the old courthouse. Heritage Alliance officials said the designation will allow the county to qualify for grants to refurbish the building.

Jones also noted that members of the local Coalition of Historic Preservation and Reuse have been raising money for a feasibility study of the Ashe Street Courthouse.

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