Then and now: Johnson City managers reflect on decades of changes

City Manager Pete Peterson has worked for Johnson City for about 29 years — more than one-sixth of the city’s 150 year lifespan.

Peterson started in Jan. 2, 1991, beginning as a development coordinator before ultimately rising to the position of city manager, a role he serves in now.

Charlie Stahl has worked for the city on a few different occasions — the first in January 1983 as a city management intern, working principally for the assistant city manager on the budget process. Now, Stahl is one of the city’s two assistant city managers. He’s totaled almost 20 years at the organization.

During their tenures, Peterson and Stahl have witnessed significant shifts in the way the city operates. They’ve also had front row seats to ebbs and flows in the City Commission, which, like any elected body, has gone through periods of combativeness.

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Peterson said he heard more comments from citizens about the contentiousness of City Commission meetings than comments about the actual content of the meetings themselves.

Peterson remembers participating in a radio interview at around that time in which the interviewer compared the fights in the commission chambers to a wrestling match.

“He goes, ‘You guys have destroyed my Thursday night. WWF is on the same night as the city commission meeting, and I can’t decide which one’s the better fight,’” he said.

Peterson said the natural human factor involved in group dynamics plays a part in that, and in the past, some conflicts have centered around specific issues. For example, in the 1990s, Johnson City was in the process of siting the Iris Glen landfill down the street from City Hall.

“You had one for sure and probably two city commissioners that were elected basically as single-shot candidates because they were opposed to the landfill,” he said. “So you immediately had conflict built into that group dynamic.”

Stahl remembers that the city’s decision in 1984 to purchase property that would eventually serve as Winged Deer Park also attracted its fair share of criticism. The issue was previously considered by the City Commission in the 1970s but was shot down in a split vote.

“I was actually in the audience when it was purchased,” Stahl recalls. “People actually spoke against buying it and the big argument I remember about buying it was, ‘Why are you buying property outside the city limits? How are people going to get to this so-called park?’”

Now, the city limits surround and extend beyond Winged Deer Park.

“That’s where I think the City Commission exercised a lot of vision in the growth of the city,” Stahl said.

At the time, the city’s boundaries were limited to just Washington County. Now, they extend into three counties, including Carter and Sullivan.

Currently, Peterson said there aren’t as many issues that rise to a level of public concern similar to that of the landfill.

“I think the commission and staff have done a really good job of trying to get the community’s input on what direction that the community is headed, and tried to get feedback through our citizen survey,” he said.

The city has performed three or four of those surveys now, and whenever the city gets that feedback, Peterson said it makes adjustments in its budget and work plans to reflect the desires of residents.

Advancements in technology have also led to significant changes in how the city conducts regular business. Survey crews, for example, used to be composed of three or four people. Now, the city can send one person out with the proper equipment to do the work of a four-person team.

It’s also made it easier for the city to keep track of its sewer lines.

“In the early 90s, we probably had no clue where all of our water and sewer lines were,” Peterson said, “or where the valves to turn them on and off were other than what was in the heads of the people that got out and worked that system every day.”

Now, Peterson can pull up a map in his conference room that shows the full extent of the city’s water and sewer line system.

The city is also subject to much more state and federal oversight, he said. The majority of of laws and regulations the city enforces, Peterson said, are handed down by a higher level of government. Those regulations have made it more expensive for the city to operate.

“There’s just more and more of it,” he said. “The level of regulation now in comparison to what it was 30 years ago is exponentially greater.”

For example, builders now have to follow a set of stormwater regulations handed down by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Thirty years ago, if you wanted to come in and build a 30 lot subdivision, we just made sure you didn’t have a pipe dumping a bunch of rainwater out on your neighbor’s basement,” he said. “That’s about all we looked for because that was all we were required to look for. If you wanted to build a house in a flood plain and build it right beside the creek, it was probably okay.”

Now, the state requires houses constructed in a flood plain be elevated, and subdivisions must retain stormwater onsite and release it at the same rate as the land did pre-development.

“I’m not meaning to say we should not be doing that stuff,” he said. “I’m just saying that’s a change that is more time-consuming and costly and can be frustrating to us just as it is to our end customer.”

Brewery, legacy project get budget committee’s approval

The Washington County Budget Committee voted Wednesday to approve use of funds from tax increment financing for two key projects in downtown Johnson City.

Committee members approved $220,000 from TIF funds for the Legacy Sesquicentennial Project at King Commons. The panel also agreed to use $195,915 from the TIF district for the Watauga Brewery, to be located in a renovated building at 142 W. Walnut St.

Both items will be voted on at the County Commission’s meeting on Aug. 26.

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy told committee members the TIF request for the sesquicentennial project does not “require any new money from the county.”

Dianna Cantler, director of downtown development at the Johnson City Development Authority, said work on the Legacy Plaza, which will include a history circle, is expected to be completed in late November. The Nature Adventure Area at King Commons will be ready in the spring.

She said the Watauga Brewery project will include extensive interior renovations to facilitate a restaurant, a roof-top bar and event space. She said the redevelopment of the 2,500-square-foot building at the corner of West Market and Boone streets is likely to spur other rehabilitation projects on the block.

“Owners are more likely to put money in their property now that flooding concerns have been addressed,” she said.

Cantler also told commissioners that downtown was far from reaching the “saturation point” for the number of craft breweries the area could support. She said there were 14 breweries now operating in Knoxville and 28 in Asheville, N.C.

“We are no way near that number,” she said.

In other business, Grandy told committee members he will compile a list of projects that could be included in the county’s capital fund. He said that list would prioritized and discussed by the committee next month.

The list will include $465,520 for a new emergency medical services station and a request from the Washington County Election Commission for $975,000 to buy a building, which sits across U.S. Highway 11E from the George P. Jaynes Justice Center, to relocate its offices.

Another $345,000 would be needed for renovations to the building, which formerly housed Olde Towne Hardware.

A recent appraisal of the property, now owned by the family of former Jonesborough Alderman David Sell, valued the 1.9-acre tract at $791,000.

Commissioner Jim Wheeler said he was “excited by the possibilities” the property offers the county for new meeting space. He also asked the Election Commission to “flush out details” of a possible lease-to-own option for the county to acquire the property.

Committee members also voted Wednesday to approve $258,000 to cover the cost to complete the design and construction work on Phase 1 of athletic fields at the Boones Creek pre-K-8 school. 

Roe honors Johnson City’s 150th birthday in Congress

U.S. Rep. Phil honored Johnson City’s Sesquicentennial on the floor of the House on Tuesday.

Roe made the following remarks on the House floor to recognize the city’s 150th anniversary:

Today, I rise to celebrate and pay tribute to my hometown of Johnson City, Tennessee for its sesquicentennial. In 1856, entrepreneur Henry Johnson opened a railroad station and a commercial business, Johnson’s Depot; and just 13 years later in 1869, Johnson City was founded, holding its first election on January 3, 1870, when voters elected Mr. Johnson as the city’s first mayor.

Today, Johnson City boasts a diverse economy, attracting national and regional companies, while also supporting countless small business owners.

The city is home to three major hospitals; to the James H. Quillen VA Medical Center, which serves more than 170,000 veterans; and to East Tennessee State University, recognized for the highly regarded Quillen College of Medicine and Gatton College of Pharmacy.

The city has become a thriving community for more than 66,000 residents, and I look forward to what’s in store for Johnson City over the next 150 years. I ask for unanimous consent to submit a more complete statement on Johnson City’s history into the record.