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Washington County Commissioner Mike Ford dies

Washington County Commissioner Mike Ford died over the weekend after a short hospitalization.

Ford was elected to represent District 15 and was serving his third term.

“Commissioner Ford served his District well and his first commitment was always to his constituents,” said Commission Chairman Greg Matherly. “He loved his community and I will miss him.”

Ford served on the Agriculture Extension Committee, Committee for Resale of Land, County Owned Property, Emergency Communications District 911 Board, Rules and Employee Compensation and Benefits.

Ford retired this year from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, where he was over food services for the detention center. He maintained one of lowest costs per meal of any detention facility in ‘Tennessee. Commissioner Ford was known for his “jailhouse cookies” that he baked for prisoners, commissioners and county staff.

“Commissioner Ford was a great representative for his constituents, and a thoughtful commissioner when it came time to vote,” said Mayor Joe Grandy. “He will be greatly missed, especially the way he led the Pledge of Allegiance at most commission and committee meetings. He always began with ‘let’s honor America,’ and for him, it was an honor to led the pledge and to serve his community.”

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Unicoi native hikes Pinnacle Mountain Fire Trail 400 times

Steve Wilson has always loved the outdoors. That’s why he’s making his own little detour up the Pinnacle Mountain Fire Tower trail.

The 71-year-old made his 400th trek to the top of the Pinnacle Mountain Fire Tower trail in Unicoi on Dec. 19. Wilson said he started keeping track of his trips up the trail in 2015.

“I’ve been keeping track of it since 2015, but I keep track of all my steps,” Wilson said. “I’ve got Excel spreadsheets and I put down how many steps I walk every day.”

The Unicoi native has two degrees in forestry and has been a lifelong hunter and fisherman, so it makes sense that when he was looking for a way to be more active he decided to take up hiking.

“I decided to maybe get healthy about 11 years ago when I turned 60,” said Wilson. “I quit smoking and lost a little weight and decided I’d replace smoking with walking.”

Wilson said he hikes the trail as often as twice a week when he’s in town, but when he’s out of town he does quite a bit of hiking in other spots too. Wilson has hiked more than 1,400 miles of the Appalachian Trail and said that his goal is to walk 10 miles each day no matter where he is.

“My goal is to walk 10 miles a day, to average 10 miles a day,” said Wilson. “And in general, I get close to that on a yearly basis. I’ve usually averaged a little over nine miles a day for the past seven years.”

Wilson said it takes him around two hours to hike to the top of the Pinnacle Mountain Fire Tower trail, and while he said the view from the tower is one of the best around, the real appeal of the trail is the effect hiking it has on his health.

“It’s good exercise,” Wilson said. “When you get past a certain age you’ve got to do something to keep your health going, and you can either sit on the couch somewhere and eat everything in sight and go straight to the graveyard, or you can take a little detour. And I’m just trying to take a little detour I guess.”


Barnett: Johnson City Schools still on-track for August middle school transition

With the goals of easing overcrowding and boosting the social development of students, Johnson City Schools officials say they’re on track to transition to two middle schools beginning in August.

Currently, Johnson City students in fifth and sixth grades attend Indian Trail Intermediate School before moving to Liberty Bell Middle School for seventh and eighth grades.

Starting next school year, students in fifth grade will return to the elementary level, and Liberty Bell and Indian Trail will become middle schools serving sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

Superintendent Steve Barnett said the changes will allow students to spend more time with classmates, teachers and coaches before moving to a different school. Students will also have better access to extracurricular activities.

The alterations will also help ease a bottleneck at Indian Trail Intermediate School, which is currently 100 or more students above its capacity of 1,100.

Transferring fifth grade back to the elementary level has made it necessary for the city to build 20 additional classrooms across three of the system’s elementary schools: four at South Side, eight at Woodland and eight at Lake Ridge.

“That really helps us with our capacity,” Barnett said. “It gives us a few years. We’re still going to have capacity problems to work through, but we’ve currently been overcrowded at Indian Trail for quite some time.”

Johnson City saw its population increase to more than 71,000 people in 2020, and if the community continues to grow as expected, Barnett said, schools may need even more space to accommodate elementary students. Towne Acres Elementary School, for example, is an aging facility that officials will likely need to upgrade, he said.

“We’ll just have to continue to review that and work with the city and work with the county to make decisions on how we grow,” he said. Many of those decisions will ultimately depend on where Johnson City sees its population increase.

The classroom additions at South Side are complete, and Barnett expects the additions at Woodland will wrap up in the middle of January.

The city is also completing HVAC upgrades to Woodland and Lake Ridge, where crews are dividing the work into zones. HVAC improvements at Lake Ridge could spill over into the 2022-23 school year, Barnett said, and students may need to move to different rooms as crews finish that work.

“(We’re) going to try to have as little interruption to classes as possible,” he said.

Schools officials are also evaluating staffing levels at both schools.

Barnett said the system has surveyed employees at Indian Trail and Liberty Bell to assess their interests. Some Liberty Bell teachers will move to Indian Trail or vice versa, and some instructors will move with fifth graders to the elementary level.

Barnett said he and Middle Grades Supervisor Todd Barnett have also spent a lot of time with human resources to identify the best places for employees.

The system is working to ensure there are adequate resources for extracurricular activities and athletic programs at both schools. They’re also developing comparable programing at both schools for middle schoolers in comprehensive developmental classrooms, which serve students with disabilities.

A look back at the top stories in Jonesborough in 2021

A lot has happened in Tennessee’s oldest town over the past year.

From the hiring of a new town recorder, the installation of the Jackson Theatre marquee, an alderman and local businessman purchasing the Parson’s Table and, of course, the town breaking ground on its school project, among other happenings, it was a busy year.

Here’s a look back of some of the biggest stories from Jonesborough in 2021:

Aldermen sign off on final school design, break ground

In September the Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved the lease-to-own agreement with Washington County to build a new K-8 school, breaking ground on the 137,000-square-foot facility on Nov. 9.

It was the final hurdle for the school project, which Town Mayor Chuck Vest said he hopes will be open for students in two years. The school is being built on 48 acres at 720 North Cherokee St. It is expected to cost $42.75 million, about $10 million more than originally estimated.

Town receives grant to build sidewalks

For years, residents along East Main Street have asked town officials to consider installing sidewalks in the area, and for years nothing happened due to logistical and financial hurdles. That changed this month when the town received $100,000 from the Sonia King Trust to fund the construction of sidewalks from Headtown Road to downtown, connecting both the Senior Center and McKinney Center to downtown as well.

Town Administrator Glenn Rosenoff said the town had been exploring the idea of adding sidewalks in the area for a few months now and has been conducting traffic studies but would not have been able to allocate funding for it until the next budget cycle. The projected cost for the project is about $104,000. While the town will still need to work around some logistical hurdles, construction is expected to begin in 2022, though no firm timetable has been set.

New town recorder takes over

After nearly two decades in the position, Jonesborough Town Recorder Abbey Miller announced she would be retiring to spend more time with family back in April. Miller was hired in 2002 and played an instrumental role in helping Jonesborough improve its financial standing.

After a months-long search, the town hired former Eastman Chemical Co. executive James “Pat” Ryder to replace her as the town recorder and finance director in October. Ryder spent 12 years with Eastman before retiring last year, and has spent more than two decades working in finance in the corporate sector. Ryder said the decision to take the job is a “left-turn” for him, but that he’s trying to learn everything he can to try and fill his predecessor’s shoes.

Alderman, business owner buys Parson’s Table

Jonesborough Alderman and Tennessee Hills Distillery owner Stephen Callahan and business partner Scott Andrew purchased the historic Parson’s Table building overlooking downtown Jonesborough earlier this year for $372,000 with hopes of restoring it to a fine dining restaurant.

The Parson’s Table was initially founded in the 1870s as a church, falling into a state of disrepair in the 1900s before the building was sold in the 1950s. In 1972, International Storytelling Center Founder and former Town Mayor Jimmy Neil Smith bought the property with the goal of turning it into a restaurant, which opened as Widow Brown’s in 1973 before becoming the Parson’s Table sometime later. In the 1980s, the property was sold again and continued to operate as a restaurant until the mid-2000s when it was reborn as an event venue. In the 2010s, the event venue closed, and the Parson’s Table building has sat vacant since.

Andrew said renovations will likely cost more than a million dollars, and that they are seeking grant funding to help cover some of the cost. Callahan said the overall structure of the building is in good shape, though Andrew conceded the inside will need some work. Callahan and Scott said work on the Parson’s Table isn’t likely to begin in earnest until next summer.

Downtown shop decorates movie set

Gabriel’s Christmas owner Gabe Eveland and his team got the opportunity of a lifetime earlier this year — getting contracted to decorate for the set of “Christmas in Tune,” a Lifetime movie starring Reba McEntire and John Schneider that released this month.

Eveland said when he first saw the email he thought somebody was playing a prank on him, but soon realized it was for real. In a matter of days, Eveland and his team were in Nashville for location scouting before returning to Jonesborough to pack supplies, props and anything else they thought they might need to decorate movie sets. They remained in Nashville for two-and-a-half weeks, decorating a 19th century estate outside of Nashville, Massey Concert Hall at Belmont University and the five-star Hermitage Hotel in downtown.

Jackson Theatre marquee installed

In April the Jackson Theatre got perhaps its most public upgrade since the restoration process began in 2017. The project, which was initially projected to be completed in 2018, has been beset by a number of design, funding and construction delays and is still a work in progress.

When the Jackson Theatre’s marquee was lifted into place on April 15, Rosenoff saw it, metaphorically, as a sign — “a sign to say, ‘Hey, we’re almost complete, we’re almost there.’” In April, Vest said the project likely won’t be completed until late next year.

Jackson Theatre on track for 2022 completion

When the Jackson Theatre’s marquee was lifted into place on April 15, Jonesborough Town Administrator Glenn Rosenoff saw it, metaphorically, as a sign — “a sign to say, ‘Hey, we’re almost complete, we’re almost there.’ “