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Johnson City preps to rezone long-unused Optimist Park property

Johnson City is preparing to rezone the now-defunct Optimist Park, which could set the stage for development on a couple pieces of city-owned property that have long gone unused.

The Johnson City Regional Planning Commission will consider Tuesday whether to rezone six parcels along Novus Drive, a new public road that connects North State of Franklin Road to West Market Street. The request comes from the city manager’s office.

If approved, the request would then go to the City Commission, which would consider the proposal on three readings.


The Johnson City Regional Planning Commission will consider a rezoning request from the city, which would change properties along Novus Drive to B-4 and MS-1. This map shows the properties in question.

Development Services Director Preston Mitchell said the city plans to sell Optimist Park’s two northernmost tracts, which are currently vacant and dominated by grass. The city considers the property surplus.

“In preparation for getting that property back into the private market ... we wanted to zone it appropriately to allow for whatever redevelopment needs or wants to occur,” Mitchell said.

The parcels east of Novus Drive would change from R-4 (medium density residential) to B-4 (planned arterial business), which would make it consistent with existing zoning in that area. The one property west of Novus Drive would change from R-4 to MS-1 (medical services).

Most of the property is city owned, but the rezoning does include two privately owned plots, one owned by the Brumit Company and the other by Deborah Wilson. The rezoning also includes city-owned properties occupied by the Boys and Girls Club, located at 2210 W. Market St. Mitchell said the organization won’t be impacted by the rezoning.

Near Innovation Park

The properties included in this rezoning are just north of two 30-acre tracts along Market Street, which city leaders hope will eventually serve as hotspots for development and job-growth. ETSU owns one of the properties, which is currently home to medical clinics and the Innovation Lab. The other property, owned by the city, is vacant.

In May, commissioners approved a $346,500 contract with engineering consultant S&ME Inc. to provide design services for infrastructure at Innovation Park.

S&ME will be responsible for developing preliminary plans and final construction documents for a road, utilities and stormwater management. The consultant will work with the real estate agency Realty Trust Group, which is under contract with the Public Building Authority, during the design process and management of the construction phase.

Mitchell said the request to rezone the park is “part and parcel” with the city’s plans for Innovation Park. Although it hasn’t been finalized, one idea is for Novus Drive to extend across West Market to provide access to Innovation Park.

What’s the history of Optimist Park?

Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl said the city originally purchased the 30 acres of property that made up Optimist Park in the late 1960s — before the construction of State of Franklin Road.

The park, which at the time included softball fields, bleachers, picnic tables and a playground area, was designed to serve the neighborhood behind Market Street. In time, other uses cropped up on the property, including the Boys and Girls Club and an electrical substation.

“Gradually, the use of the community park was supplanted by other uses,” Stahl said. The size of the park was ultimately reduced from 30 acres to about 14.9 acres.

The construction of State of Franklin Road, which started in the late 1980s, changed the character of the surrounding area from residential to commercial. When that happened, Stahl said, the city realized that Optimist Park wasn’t effectively serving the community.

The city started the process in the 1990s of transferring the operations at Optimist to another property.

Because the city had received federal money through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the city had to convert those park functions to replacement land, which ended up being a two-decade process.

The city effectively decommissioned Optimist Park about 12 years ago after a major storm damaged the facility, toppling light fixtures and harming other installations at the ball fields.

ETSU to host advanced underwater vehicle workshop

East Tennessee State University and STREAMWORKS will host an “Advanced Underwater Vehicle Workshop” at the ETSU-Eastman Valleybrook Campus in Kingsport from July 12-16. This professional development workshop will focus on the soon-to-be-released remotely operated vehicle SeaMATE Barracuda 2.0.

This workshop is just weeks ahead of the 2021 Marine Advanced Technology Education International ROV World Championship, an underwater robotics competition, which will take place on the main ETSU campus Aug. 5-7.

“There’s a need for educators to have access to real-world learning experiences, and part of that is training educators outside of the academic institutions and also partnering with industry, communities and different initiatives like this,” STREAMWORKS Director Dennis Courtney said. “ETSU gets that — understanding that STEM education is relevant to everyday life — and they help us facilitate these efforts that impact students’ learning outcomes and futures.”

The workshop will take place on the university’s Valleybrook campus, where around 20 participants from across the U.S. will have access to the STREAMWORKS STEM Gym. The week will end with an ROV challenge in the Basler Center for Physical Activity pool on ETSU’s main campus.

The program is taught by Courtney, Tony Suppelsa of Motorola Solutions, and Matt Gardner of MATE.

The workshop is designed for instructors and mentors who have competed in at least one MATE ROV Competition. Participants will improve their skills and knowledge to incorporate programming into their ROV lessons with students. They will assemble the Barracuda 2.0 in analog mode, then convert the Barracuda to digital mode, programming the built-in software to control the ROV underwater.

By training educators, the goal is to encourage their students to pursue STEM paths and build skills in critical thinking, creative problem solving and group collaboration.

“We’ve found that children who participate in programs like this are now more interested in science, engineering and technology jobs,” Suppelsa said. “It gives exposure to technology they wouldn’t necessarily get to see in the classroom, and it solves real-world problems. Who’s going to be the next Graham Bell or Tesla? You’re not going to get there playing Fortnite every day. We need these children to be the next generation of inventors.”

The workshop is provided through STREAMWORKS, MATE Inspiration for Innovation and the National Center for Autonomous Technologies. Underwater robotics inspire students to sharpen their STEM and creative problem-solving skills.

For more information, visit materovcompetition.org and streamworkseducation.org. To apply, contact Courtney at dcourtney@streamworkseducation.org.

Project BBQ: Food truck barbecue done Texas style

I’ve always had a soft spot for food truck vendors. This comes from a guy named Pete who ran “The Dog Cart” across the street from my high school. Pete did a very good business selling Arpeako hot dogs to teenagers like me who’d smelled his business in operation from inside our classroom. Pete was my first exposure to what is required for a man to run his own business, being both entrepreneur and employee at the same time.

Johnson City has such a man as Pete named Alex Weaver. Like Davy Crockett, Weaver had “gone to Texas,” (looking for a college education instead of the Alamo,) and returned with an idea for serving Texas-style barbecue in East Tennessee.

First impressions

Using a food truck to sell his barbecue was an apt one for Weaver. Like a fisherman, Weaver can go where the “fishing” is best rather than just staying in one place. He can also make sure the food truck’s menu is a constantly changing one. The food truck can set up anywhere there are hungry people nearby, its daily menu’s offerings updated hourly on the white board out front. Project BBQ’s good-sized smoker occupies a separate trailer, sending out savory smells to attract customers from far and wide. There are several of the food truck-supplied dining tables and chairs under nearby shady trees for customers’ who wish to dine al fresco.

Brisket Smash Burger with Tater Totz

We had just finished a quick trip to the nearby Mall at Johnson City, when my dining partner spied the white with black lettering food trailer of Project BBQ tucked into a corner of the SunTrust Bank building parking lot off Mockingbird Lane, and decided for the two of us where we were having a late lunch.

A brief scan-through of the daily special menu brought a question from her about what a Brisket Smash Burger was. The capable Steve answered my dining partner from his perch at the order window, stating that the Brisket Smash Burger was a mix of coarsely chopped smoky beef brisket together with some lean ground beef. This last made the smoked brisket more easily moldable into a patty shape while the fat content of the brisket meant that the smoky flavor permeated the whole patty.

My dining partner ordered a Project BBQ Brisket Smash Burger ($11) together with a fat handful of hash brown-style “tater totz” as her side dish. The Smash Burger was a hit with my dining partner, being very partial to the way the smoky flavor of the brisket was matched perfectly by the just the right amount of its fat content to mouth-filling proportions. Even the “tater totz” were excellent, neither too overdone and rock-like, or too underdone and a soggy mess on her plate. My dining partner gobbled them all up, leaving none at all for me to sample and comment upon.

Brisket Philly w/ onions, poblanos, & smoked queso

My Brisket Philly ($9.50) is Project BBQ’s very successful take on the classic Philly Cheesesteak sandwich, with spicy poblano pepper strips instead of bell peppers and smoked queso cheese instead of the classic’s usual Cheese Whiz.

Taking a bite of their Brisket Philly had an effect that was both looked-for, yet surprising. I found the smokiness of the beef brisket excellent to start with, but it reached a higher level when combined with the smoked queso cheese. The spiciness of the poblano peppers was surprising when joined by the onions and added to the mix.

Having requested two side orders, one being sweet vinegar slaw and the other baked beans ($3 each) my meal was turning out to be quite memorable indeed. As we were finishing up, Steve suggested we split the last Blondie along with a couple of the fresh-made chocolate chip cookies, all for the low price of $5.

Too good to pass up, as it turned out: the Blondie was a bit shopworn but still had an excellent flavor, and the chocolate chip cookies were just the way my dining partner liked; soft, chocolate-y and chewy.

The bottom line

Being mobile means that Project BBQ food truck tends to move around a lot, so make sure you consult their Facebook page for days and hours of operation, a brief rundown of what the daily specials are and their current price listing.

Oh, and Project BBQ also does smoked pork ribs that are so out of this world they frequently run out fast.

If that doesn’t get you to take a look at the Project BBQ Facebook page, I don’t know what will.

Richard Branson answers students’ questions during a news conference at Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, N.M., on Sunday, July 11, 2021. Branson and five crewmates from his Virgin Galactic space tourism company reached an altitude of about 53 miles (88 kilometers) over the New Mexico desert before safely gliding back home to a runway landing at Spaceport America.

Billionaire Richard Branson reaches space in his own ship

Lucas Armstrong finished eight under par to claim his second title at the Ridgefields Invitational.

72nd annual Ridgefields Invitational golf tournament

Jonesborough lawmaker believes farmers need a helping hand

State Rep. Rebecca Alexander, R-Jonesborough, said a recent visit to a goat farm in the 7th District has bolstered her resolve to make agriculture one of her top priorities in Nashville.

The lawmaker said touring the farm near the Lamar community provided her with an opportunity to learn more about the economic plight that working farmers face every day. Her goal, the Washington County lawmaker said last week, is to pursue initiatives that improve agri-business opportunities in Tennessee.

“Farmers have struggled so much in recent years that their children don’t want to go into the business,” said Alexander, who grew up on a dairy farm near Gray. “As a legislator, I want to know how I can make the lives of our farmers easier and more prosperous.”

Help From Rescue Funds

Alexander said she hopes that some of “the massive amount of federal money” coming to Tennessee from the American Rescue Plan Act can be used to help family farmers. She believes “now is the the time to act” on agriculture reforms, with Gov. Bill Lee being a strong advocate for small farmers.

Alexander said she and her colleagues in Nashville can help farmers in Tennessee by reducing regulations and creating new incentives and tax credits for agri-business.

More Grants For Farmers

The Jonesborough legislator said she would like to see more grants made available to dairy farmers in Tennessee. She said Washington County’s once thriving dairy industry has declined in recent decades to just a few working farms.

“People see the prices for dairy products go up in the grocery stores, but that money isn’t going into the pockets of dairy farmers,” Alexander said. “The actual price for milk is the lowest it has been in history, but the cost of the corn that is fed to the cows has gone up. So has the cost of equipment and labor.”

Lessons Learned From Pandemic

She said the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many problems with this nation’s food supply chain, and has demonstrated a need for major reforms. Alexander said it makes sense for Tennessee to earmark a portion of its federal pandemic relief funds for addressing those issues.

One such issue, Alexander said last week, is establishing a slaughterhouse and meat packing facility in the region. She said the pandemic demonstrated the problem with having a limited number of meat processing facilities in the United States.

Alexander said beef producers in Northeast Tennessee, who now “ship their cattle thousands of miles” for processing, have been aware of the problem for many years.