Johnson City Press: Oak Hill Cemetery, now a nonprofit, has new hope for future
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Oak Hill Cemetery, now a nonprofit, has new hope for future

Jonathan Roberts • Jul 14, 2019 at 12:00 AM

After two failed attempts to win Oak Hill Cemetery a place on the National Register of Historic Places, owner Timothy Clay McKinney is hoping its return to nonprofit status will help open a path to preserving the historic site.

A 2014 try at national recognition was unsuccessful. In 2016, it was added to the local historic district and a second attempt was made at a place on the Register — again without success.

Those unsuccessful efforts to leverage the past to help keep pace with rising costs and less funding have led McKinney to believe a place on the listing is “probably never going to happen, with much of the reasoning stemming from efforts in the late-2000s to modernize and restore the cemetery.

In a letter sent to McKinney in August 2016, E. Patrick McIntyre Jr., the state historic preservation officer and executive director of the Tennessee Historic Commission, said:

“There are modern markers, monuments and other site features throughout the property, including modern headstones, flagpoles, non-historic pathways and a non-historic shed.”

“It is the opinion of our office that, while the site possesses historical value, the Oak Hill Cemetery does not meet the federally established program criteria and is therefore not eligible for listing in the National Register,” the report concluded.

Thomas Manning, chairman of the Oak Hill Cemetery Friends and Volunteers, said he didn’t feel the assessment was fair, but said he understood the decision, with both he and McKinney appearing ready to focus efforts elsewhere.

While the setbacks limited the of ways Oak Hill can pursue access to grants and other funds, earning a place in the downtown historic district in 2016 and the recent return to nonprofit status could go a long way.

“I would hope (the city) would be able to help us,” Manning said of the cemetery receiving its 501(c)(3) status.

Speaking to the Press earlier this month — before Oak Hill received its nonprofit status — Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock said the city “can’t provide support to a private” cemetery, but also said “It’s just one of those things to say ‘well, if you were a nonprofit it might make some difference where we could help.’ ”

And though Brock said there have been no “serious discussions” about how the city can help, it’s possible more help could be on the way now that Oak Hill is a nonprofit.

In an emailed statement, City Manager Pete Peterson said the city attorney is “currently reviewing the tax status” of Oak Hill, and that the city is “only allowed to make contributions to quasi-government agencies or nonprofits.”

He also added that he expects the City Commission will discuss Oak Hill’s request for funding at its next meeting, which is scheduled for Thursday, July 18. 

While it’s still too early to tell how much all this will actually help the cemetery going forward, both McKinney and Manning feel the move to nonprofit status will help them long-term.

Manning is hopeful now that it’s a nonprofit, saying there “may be a chance” of getting grants. Not only that, but there are also plans for public events in the cemetery this fall, with daylight tours and ghost tours potentially on the docket.

If they fail to get grants or the nonprofit status of the organization isn’t as impactful as expected, the outlook could be a bit more grim, with Manning saying they’d be “basically out of luck,” as they’re barely treading water as is.

For those interested in helping, donations can be made through their GoFundMe at https://www.gofundme.com/historic-oak-hill-cemetery-upkeep or by mailing checks made out to Oak Hill Cemetery Friends and Volunteers to Bank of Tennessee, P.O. Box 4980, Johnson City, Tennessee, 37602.

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