If there’s one thing downtown business owners agree on, it’s the fact that downtown Johnson City could use a shot in the arm when it comes to developing into a thriving and successful area.
The Washington County Economic Development Council’s downtown revitalization plan, which aims to generate private investment in downtown while giving the area a much-needed breath of fresh air, might just be the kind of thing business owners have been looking for.
The key elements of the downtown strategy include creating a permanent open-air farmers market adjacent to Founders Park; moving the Hands On! Regional Museum from its current location to a completely new facility on Cherry Street; creating a greater East Tennessee State University presence downtown, through the use of several city-owned buildings in the 300 block of east Main Street where Hands On! is currently located; and creating green space with an outdoor amphitheater near the Johnson City Public Library between Millard and King streets.
The plan was unveiled last week during a joint meeting of the council and the Johnson City Development Authority.
“I am so excited about this plan. I think it’s the best thing that’s happened in 20 years down here,” said Lorraine Washington, JCDA board member and owner of Taste Budz in downtown Johnson City. “When I left the meeting, I was walking on cloud nine back over here. I was a happy camper.”
Taste Budz, 300 S. Roan St., has been a downtown staple for eight years.
While the plan certainly faces a number of hurdles, namely in the form of dealing with downtown’s homeless population in the midst of clean-up efforts, finding new ways to work with city building codes and regulations and finding funding for various projects, Washington said it’s the kind of strategy that could point downtown Johnson City in a very positive direction.
“I think this is just a stepping stone. I think this will grow into downtown coming alive again. That’s what I think,” she said.
Washington isn’t alone in that kind of forward thinking.
While many might think of the current state of downtown Johnson City as a place that is in disrepair, the fact is there’s a number of developments that are already pointing toward revitalization, such as a new $2 million, 25-unit apartment complex, Northeast State Community College’s pending facility at the Downtown Centre, construction of Founders Park and the recent sale of the historic CC&O Railroad Depot.
“I think downtown is absolutely growing. I think the perception is not reality. I think it’s a lot cleaner than people take it for. Their vision is something that was five years ago,” said Eric Ruhm, who opened Energy Fitness at 212 E. Main St. with his wife in September.
After getting a quick run-through of the council’s proposal, Ruhm said it’s definitely something that could spur downtown development, but worries that city building codes could be one of the plan’s biggest detractors.
“They’ve got to relax on some of those things. There are things that you can do to let them do it in stages instead of saying if it’s not this way, it can’t be done,” he said. “Just making things pretty isn’t going to do it. They have to have a reason to come after ‘it’s pretty,’ so there are lots of ways to give businesses incentives to move into downtown and that can be tax breaks or all different kinds of things.”
Still, Ruhm believes the plan, with its focus on the park and a new farmers market, could help downtown get more day-to-day shops and move away from the typical bar scene that exists now.
“I think the strategy is awesome. I think it’s necessary. I’m happy to see any kind of attention, especially outdoor activity that happens away from the outskirts of town and brings that into town,” he said.
With downtown areas being the “creative core” of a city, Dick Nelson, owner of Nelson Fine Art Center, 324 E. Main St., is excited about what the plan could offer in terms of both the arts and keeping existing businesses as anchors for any future downtown development.
“Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I’ve been in downtown for 13 years. Empty buildings don’t bother me, because most of the empty places are only empty now. They’ve not been long-term empty,” he said. “Turnover is inevitable. The mall has turnover. We’re going to have turnover in downtown. There’s a lot of little changes and people are willing to think about coming downtown, whereas in the past you’d say downtown and they’d just roll their eyes.”
Nelson is most excited about the prospect of ETSU moving downtown with a focus on an arts program, such as bringing the university’s Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies program downtown. That could help feed into other art programs downtown, as well as help things that already take place like First Friday and the Blue Plum Festival.
“I think this is great and an arts presence in downtown probably makes the best sense. Look at Savannah College of Art and Design, where they have taken part of downtown Savannah (Ga.) for part of their art school,” he said.
The pieces of the downtown puzzle are there, and the council has taken the existing assets and the forward momentum moving through downtown in order to kick-start the plan into action. That’s something Hands On! Executive Director Ginna Kennedy said can only make downtown a better place.
“A permanent location for the farmers market — fabulous idea. ETSU facility downtown — fabulous idea. New Hands On! facility — obviously, I think that’s a fabulous idea. ... And this is the most momentum that I have felt in a long time just knowing that it’s not just about Hands On! It’s not just about the farmers market. It’s not just about ETSU,” she said. “It’s about Johnson City and making downtown better and making the community better, and I think the more we work together, the more successful it’s going to be.”
With the City Commission moving forward with considerations on a new farmers market and other developments and investment in place in downtown, council CEO Robert Reynolds said the overall plan is really an extension of the council’s mission to create a dynamic and successful program.
“We want these businesses to thrive down here. We want to bring more investment, more job opportunities, more cultural opportunities, more opportunities for the farmers market to thrive, more opportunities for entertainment downtown, and we’ve got to fix it to do that,” he said.
When asked, why move forward with a plan now, Reynolds said a better question is, “Why not now?”
“The time is now. The worst thing that could happen is that we look back five years from now and know that we have missed this opportunity,” he said.
While there are plenty of challenges ahead, they’re a list of challenges nearly every downtown area has faced when looking at revitalization.
As for a time line, Reynolds said there really isn’t one, however, he said he believes the new farmers market could in place by next year. ETSU’s possible downtown expansion is another aspect that could happen soon.
“We’re not putting time constraints on it. That’s going to be determined by the community’s willingness to step up and have that become a reality, so we’d like to see this happen as soon as possible,” he said.