The Washington County Budget Committee put off action Wednesday on a request from the county’s Board of Education to move $4.5 million from its education capital funds to cover upgrades to the county’s two high school football stadiums.
Committee members said they needed more information on how using capital dollars to replace the home-side bleachers at Daniel Boone and David Crockett high schools, which is estimated to cost between $3.25 million and $3.5 million for both, might impact other projects on the school system’s wish list.
Jerry Boyd, the county’s director of schools, told commissioners that $1.5 million of the requested $4.5 million is to install synthetic athletic turf at both schools. He told committee members the stadium upgrades are not scheduled be completed in the current calendar year.
Boyd also noted that a plan to replace heating and cooling controls at the two high schools is estimated to cost $4.4 million, in addition to another $750,000 projected for other schools in the system.
He said the school system hopes to cover those HVAC upgrades with Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief funds.
The director said federal regulations require the school system to use at least 20% of the $6 million it is set to receive in the latest round of ESSER funding to address student learning loss during the pandemic.
He said Washington County has decided to earmark half of its federal relief funds for issues involving learning loss, with the remaining dollars going to projects like the HVAC improvements.
Even so, Commissioner Jim Wheeler said he is concerned with how the school’s capital fund balance is being used. He said the county’s own increasingly limited general fund balance makes it more problematic to handle emergencies, such as replacing a school’s roof or its heating/cooling unit.
“It makes it very difficult for us,” he said. “We have no room to move. I don’t understand why HVAC replacements were not placed in the capital improvements plan.”
Boyd said in the future such capital items would indeed be reflected in that plan.
He also agreed with Commissioner Freddie Malone, who suggested the stadium upgrades be reviewed by the county’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee before the budget panel takes action.
The schools director said he understands “collaboration with the HEW committee” is part “of a team effort” between schools and county government.
Additional concerns regarding the school system’s capital spending plan came up later in the meeting when the Budget Committee deferred action on moving an additional $417,000 from education capital funds to replace doors and hardware at Fall Branch and Sulphur Springs elementary schools.
The County Commission has already approved spending $280,000 for the door replacements. The additional money was requested by the Board of Education after the bid for the project came in at $697,000.
“This amount is double what was budgeted,” said Malone, who told his colleagues he wanted to see the project deferred until the HEW committee could review the door replacements in context with a facilities study the school system will do as part of its strategic plan.
In other business, the Budget Committee members did agree Wednesday to approve “the concept” of the school system applying for a $2.337 million low-interest loan from the Tennessee Energy Efficient Schools initiative program for LED lighting upgrades in all Washington County Schools.
Tim Pharis was officially welcomed to the Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park manager position on Wednesday by Tennessee State Park personnel and park namesake former Sen. Lamar Alexander.
Rocky Fork State Park was officially designated as a state park in 2012 and was opened in 2015. It became the Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park in 2019, after former Gov. Bill Haslam named the park in honor of Alexander.
“Every now and then amidst the political controversy that we see on television, people get together to do a good thing, and this is a good example of that,” Alexander said of the park’s creation.
Pharis became a ranger at Rocky Fork in 2015. He was promoted to the position of park manager in January 2021, but the event was delayed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“I got the job as park ranger at Rocky Fork, and I knew I had made it to where I needed to be,” Pharis said. “And as soon as I got here, I was just surrounded by tons of love and support.”
Pharis said one of his biggest goals as park manager is to build a visitor’s center in the park.
“We have an awesome opportunity to get it right the first time,” he said. “We can learn from the mistakes of 55 other parks and really get this correct, and not only get a comfortable place for our visitors, but also protect Rocky Fork while we do it, because Rocky Fork is an awesome place.”
Unicoi County Mayor Garland Evely said the development of Rocky Fork will be an economic driver for Unicoi County.
“In the very near future and going into future years, the park development is going to be an economic driver for our county, and it’ll just be a blessing to everybody that has the opportunity to come up and see the beauty that is naturally displayed in our county,” Evely said.
Pharis said he believes Rocky Fork has the potential to become the top wilderness destination in the state. The park has more than 19 miles of marked hiking trails, almost 15 miles of marked mountain biking trails, rock climbing routes and fishing spots in addition to guided hikes and other educational programming.
“I’m humbled to be able to be here with everybody else guiding me, lending me a hand, yelling at me, poking me with a stick, calling me at 1 o’clock in the morning,” Pharis said. “I am tickled to death, and I can’t wait for this to be the top wilderness destination in the state, because it has what it takes.”
Johnson City native Bill Bledsoe remembers catching matinees every Saturday at downtown’s old Majestic Theatre. It’s where he saw “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
The theater opened in 1921 with 880 seats and remained a staple for local moviegoers until it closed in 1981. A partial cave-in of the theater’s roof was the final straw for the aging building, and it was ultimately demolished in 1996.
Bledsoe is a proponent of historic preservation, and at the time, he recalls, there were a lot of misgivings about tearing down the structure.
“Johnson City just kind of suffered from the loss of a lot of beautiful historical things,” Bledsoe said.
In the lead-up to the celebration of Johnson City’s 125th birthday in the mid-1990s, Bledsoe was hired to paint a mural on the side of the Kress building, which used to abut the Majestic Theatre. The city eventually turned the void left by the landmark into a miniature green space called Majestic Park at 239 E. Main St.
Roughly 25 years later, Bledsoe has returned to Majestic Park.
He’s restoring the mural, which has faded after a long-term bombardment of sunlight combined with the steady march of time.
The Johnson City Public Art committee is covering the cost of the restoration. This is the first step in their plans to upgrade Majestic Park.
“The idea was to create a mural, at least from my perspective, that sort of captured in some way how Johnson City became a town and what I thought was unique about it,” he said.
Bledsoe sees Johnson City as a “rural metropolis.” Driving down the highway, he notes, it was possible to see unique architectural characteristics and deliberate city planning on one side and a stretch of farmland on the other.
“I’d been in the military and in different parts of the country and around the world and I’ve never ever been to a place that embraced such a dichotomy as Johnson City did,” Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe’s mural in Majestic Park incorporates elements of Johnson City’s history, including a train on the far right-hand side of the artwork. The railroad began as the lifeblood of the city, he notes, jumpstarting its growth early on. That eventually gave way to the highway, which is depicted in the mural as a gargantuan overpass running overhead.
“This area grew from that marriage between architecture and trade,” Bledsoe said, “and the railroad made that possible.”
At the time that Bledsoe started the mural, farms were disappearing in Johnson City. The artwork depicts a farmer and a mule with a metal beam hanging precariously from a wire overhead, depicting the imposition of development on agriculture.
The mural also shows one of the first churches in Johnson City, which has since been torn down. While the railroad was the catalyst for trade in Johnson City, Bledsoe explained, the church was the nucleus of the community.
“This town on Sundays everything was closed,” Bledsoe said. “Everybody was in church. Church was just sort of the staple that held the community together.”
As he restores the mural, Bledsoe is redefining the borders of objects and touching up the vibrancy of the colors. He’s maintaining the historic integrity of the artwork and has a series of photographs of the original mural that he studies every day to ensure he’s reproducing it as accurately as possible.
The process is also a little different this time around. Twenty-five years ago, Bledsoe stood on a lattice of scaffolding as he painted the mural, which stretched up a significant length of the wall. Now, he has a scissor lift.
Painting the original artwork also involved chiseling and sanding excess concrete, paint and tar off the wall, a months-long process that wore Bledsoe’s metal brushes down to nubs.
It took a full year to complete the original mural, which was followed by a ceremony and an official unveiling.
He expects work will wrap up on the restoration by the end of July. Bledsoe said he’s placing anti-graffiti sealer on the mural, and block sealer will be installed all the way to the top, which will help preserve the integrity of the colors.
A veteran state legislator is urging Tennessee residents to take advantage of the state’s new and traditional sales tax holidays.
State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, issued a statement on Wednesday reminding Tennesseans that the traditional state sales tax holiday begins at 12:01 a.m. on July 30. The 16th annual tax holiday on clothing, school supplies and computers will run through 11:59 p.m. on Aug. 1.
A new sales tax holiday on food, food ingredients and prepared food also launches at 12:01 a.m. on July 30, and continues through the end of the day on Aug. 5.
The new holiday includes the qualified sales of prepared food by restaurants, food trucks, caterers and grocery stores.
“This year we have added a week-long sales tax holiday on food on top of the already popular three-day sales tax holiday that is provided each year,” Crowe said in a news release. “The traditional sales tax holiday targets relief for parents and teachers by including clothing, computers and school supplies for upcoming school year but can be used by any citizen buying the exempted products.”
He added that the hope is the new holiday will “boost sales at our restaurants which have been especially hurt by the effects of the pandemic.”
In addition, Crowe said a law passed by the state General Assembly this year provides a sales tax holiday on gun safes and safety devices. The year-long holiday began on July 1 and ends on June 30, 2022. It helps to encourage safe storage of firearms.
“I hope all citizens will get out and take advantage of the sales tax relief offered this year and that they will visit our local stores to give them a boost,” Crowe said.
For more information about the sales tax holiday weekends, visit www.tntaxholiday.com.