Revitalizing downtown Johnson City: Creating space for all

I heard a statement recently that has stayed with me, “Downtowns are the one place in a city that belongs to everyone.” I believe that is certainly true for us in Johnson City. Downtown is an integral part of our history, and as we focus on recruiting business and young professionals to our city, the way our downtown is perceived becomes even more important. Downtowns are iconic and powerful symbols for a city and often contain the most recognizable landmarks, distinctive features, and unique neighborhoods.

I would go as far as suggesting a city’s downtown area has an important and unique role in economic and social development. Downtowns create a critical mass of activities where commercial, cultural, and civic activities are concentrated. This concentration facilitates business, learning, and cultural exchange.

So why do we need to continue with downtown revitalization? Is the answer for talent attraction, historic preservation or economic development? I believe it is these three reasons and more.

One of the best ways for towns and cities to spur economic growth today is by reinvigorating their historic commercial corridors and putting their character-rich older and historic buildings to work. “In the New Economy, place matters most,” argues Urban Land Institute Fellow Ed McMahon. “In a world where capital is footloose, if you can’t differentiate from any other place, you will have no competitive advantage.”

Recently, the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership was able to convince ebm-papst to locate their US headquarters in the Washington County Industrial Park. As part of ebm-papst’s visits to our area, they requested to visit downtown Johnson City multiple times. Often we see our restaurants full of corporate executives from businesses all over the region having dinner in downtown.

Visitors to the ETSU campus, whether it is potential students, future employees or alumni, typically can be seen walking through downtown. The importance of how our downtown presents itself makes a statement to those who are considering living here. If a community has a vibrant, restored downtown, it makes the city an attractive place to live, grow a business, send children to school, recreate or grow a career or even retire.

With the addition of public greenspaces, high speed fiber, restaurants and breweries, expanding outdoor recreation opportunities and experiential retail growth, we are increasing our opportunity for new small business development and talent attraction.

Historic preservation isn’t about casting buildings in brass but it’s about keeping old places alive, in active use and relevant to the needs of communities today. Rehabilitation of 80+ year old buildings takes a lot of patience, vision and money. As we restore our historic buildings, bringing new life to them in a way that might have been different than originally built, we create a sense of place that encourages creativity in our residents. You could say we are protecting our past for our future residents, by working with already built places that are more sustainable. As we rehab these buildings, we become a more walkable city, with a desire to embrace diversity and inclusion. In the past 10 years, the property values in the Downtown Redevelopment District have grown by 53% compared to less than 10% in the rest of the county.

Creative Placemaking has become a buzz phrase in downtown development in the past few years. It is an evolving field of practice that intentionally leverages the power of the arts, culture and creativity to serve a community’s interest that builds character and quality of place. The addition of public art, via sculpture, murals, sidewalk art and more have brought a new life to our downtown. This intentionality of making the walk between parking space and storefront more enjoyable also attracts visitors and encourages people to linger and communicate with others.

In the past two years, 27 properties have been sold in the district and 12 buildings are under rehabilitation currently with 19 new businesses opening. This means jobs in construction, income in real estate and small business development. The Johnson City Development Authority has two directives: increase the number of people living, working and engaging in downtown and to increase the commercial property values.

As our City’s goal of recruit and retain becomes a directive for economic development, our downtown is an important component in the plan.

Dianna Cantler is director of development for Johnson city Development Authority.

Today in Johnson City History: November 30

Nov. 30, 1888: The State of Tennessee chartered John T. Wilder’s “Watauga Improvement Company.” This provided for building houses, grading streets, making sidewalks, libraries and schools, as well as other like-infrastructure.

Nov. 30, 1899: Since the East Tennessee Telephone Company put in a toll station here, Johnson City was connected with the outside world. Earlier that week, W.E. Uptegrove called up Little Rock, Arkansas, and talked 19 minutes. The distance was more than 1,300 miles, but the conversation was carried on distinctly. The toll charges were $27, the equivalent of about $837 in 2019.

Nov. 30, 1911: Dr. R.L. Patton, of Telford, had been in Johnson City as one of the commissioners appointed to locate the Memphis to Bristol highway through the county.

Nov. 30, 1956: The Science Hill Hilltoppers defeated the Washington College Eagles 52-49. Jerry Vance led scoring 17 points.

Nov. 30, 1979: More than 7,100 fans enjoyed the performance of the Statler Brothers and Barbara Mandrell at Freedom Hall Civic Center.

Nov. 30, 1986: The Royal Lipizzaner Stallions appeared at Freedom Hall.

Nov. 30, 1996: East Tennessee State University and Lees-McRae College played basketball at Freedom Hall. The Bucs won 73-56. It was one of only seven wins in a dismal season with 20 losses.

Sources: Johnson’s Depot; The Comet; Johnson City Press-Chronicle; Bobbie H. Shirley, Freedom Hall.

Johnson City at 150: Then & Now

Just a block from where Henry Johnson built his general store near Brush Creek in 1856, the town he founded will celebrate its 150th birthday today in King Commons Park.

From 2 to 4 p.m., the city’s Sesquicentennial Commission will host the grand finale of a yearlong celebration of the founder’s legacy. With the public invited, the festivities will include the first lighting of a commissioned art piece installed in the center of the new History Circle and the placement of contents in a sesquicentennial time capsule to be opened in 2069.

Here in 2019, Johnson City encompasses 43.3 square miles in three counties, is home to about 68,000 people, and is a hub for education, medical services and manufacturing. It’s the bustling center of a metropolitan region 500,000 strong.

Born because Johnson had the foresight to buy land where the old stage road was to meet the planned path of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, Johnson City received its first charter from the state of Tennessee on this date in 1869. Johnson fittingly was named its first mayor in 1870.

Though Johnson would only live another four years, everything this town is in 2019 was built from his foresight.

The town became a strategic rail junction for the southeastern United States. Three rail lines — the Southern, the Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio Railway and the ET&WNC — all met near the site of Johnson’s original depot. The rail confluence made this a logical spot to smelt iron ore hauled along the rails from North Carolina mines and later the gateway for coal transportation.

As a passenger rail hub, Johnson City was a natural choice for the U.S. government to establish the Mountain Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in 1901. That complex today is the James H. Quillen Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Mountain Home, which continues to serve the health care needs of thousands of former servicemen and women every year.

The railroads brought such entrepreneurs as George L. Carter, father of the Clinchfield, to the region. It was Carter who donated the land for what is now East Tennessee State University. When it opened as a teacher-training school in 1911, the institution was responsible for educating the instructors who would fill East Tennessee’s growing public education system. From normal school to state college to 15,000-student university, ETSU has educated hundreds of thousands of graduates in 108 years.

Having both ETSU and the VAMC was the key to Johnson City’s modern way of life. In the 1960s, this part of Southern Appalachian region was far behind the rest of the country in the availability of medical services. It lacked the primary care physicians, specialists and facilities necessary for a healthy, thriving population.

Local, state and federal officials joined together to create what would become the ETSU James H. Quillen College of Medicine at the VAMC campus — the catalyst for today’s medical services economy.

It’s that evolution Johnson City will celebrate today at King Commons.

Today in Johnson City History: November 29

Nov. 29, 1888: From the pages of The Comet: “Our friend S.H. Hendrix, of Carters, has replaced our sick rooster with great big frizzly one. It is a fine crower and if we that do not get chicken hungry before that time, he will crow for the democracy in 1892.”

Nov. 29, 1906: The Comet’s advertising included the Southern Railroad, which offered holiday excursion rates. Readers were advised that “We seldom repent of having eaten too little,” which was one of Jefferson’s Ten Rules the paper printed that day.

Nov. 29, 1955: Leonardo Thomas Cumberbatch, a player for the Kingsport Cherokees, was awarded 50 percent disability for an injury he received in a Johnson City baseball game that August. A Johnson City doctor testified that while the knee injury ended Cumberbatch’s playing career, he could still do some forms of manual labor. The player’s attorney had argued for 100 percent disability from the Cherokees’ insurance carrier.

Nov. 29, 1974: The Gospel Sing at Freedom Hall Civic Center was attended by 400 people.

Nov. 29, 2011: Science Hill High School went on lockdown and a senior student was arrested after school resource officers discovered a handgun inside his trench coat. The .22-caliber handgun was loaded and there was additional ammunition in his backpack, police said at the time.

Sources: The Comet; Kingsport Times; Bobbie H. Shirley, Freedom Hall: Johnson City Press

Today in Johnson City History: November 28

Nov. 28, 1889: Ground had been broken for the new depot of the “Three Cs” Road — the short-lived enterprise of Gen. John T. Wilder, the Charleston, Cincinnati and Chicago Railroad.

Nov. 28, 1912: Notice on The Comet’s front page advertised a request for sealed bids for the erection of a high school building of fire-proof construction according to plans and specifications as drawn by Bauman Brothers, Knoxville. The new high school was built on the same site of the original Science Hill Male and Female Institute on a hill above Roan and Market streets.

Nov. 28, 1979: Tom Hodge wrote in his column in the Johnson City Press-Chronicle about the groundbreaking ceremonies for the new Johnson City Public Library. This library was built on the site of the old Science Hill High School (later South Junior High School). It was later razed when the city built its current library a few blocks up North Roan Street.

Nov. 28, 1992: Smoky Mountain Wrestling came to Freedom Hall Civic Center.

Sources: The Comet; Johnson City Press-Chronicle; Bobbie H. Shirley, Freedom Hall.

Today in Johnson City History: November 27

Nov. 27, 1890: The Comet reported that the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough had passed through Johnson City earlier that week. The duke at the time was Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough. The duchess was American Consuelo Spencer-Churchill, born Consuelo Vanderbilt, a member of the prominent Vanderbilt family.

Nov. 27, 1936: David Walker, age 11, founded The Tribute, “a small sheet issued every now and then.” The circulation was 250. King’s Boy’s Shop was an advertiser in the publication.

Nov. 27, 1944: Frank Capra’s classic comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace” starring Cary Grant was playing at the Majestic Theater in downtown Johnson City.

Nov. 27, 1987: Sesame Street Live began the first day of a three-day run at Freedom Hall Civic Center. More than 9,900 fans attended the performances.

Sources: The Comet; Archives of Appalachia, Mary Hardin McCown Collection; Johnson City Press-Chronicle/Ted Bowers, Johnson City, Tennessee, Memories; Bobbie H. Shirley, Freedom Hall.

Today in Johnson City History: November 26

Nov. 26, 1885: The Comet reported on an unsuccessful attempt at courting. “A young gentleman being introduced to a certain young lady in this place a few evenings since, after a rather lengthy conversation with her mid in his departure: ‘Good evening, ma’am; I hope to have the pleasure of meeting you again some time in the near future,’ when she replied, ‘Yes, I hope so, thank you — in heaven.’”

Nov. 26, 1910: Retiring Gov. Malcolm R. Patterson lectured at Memorial Hall in Johnson City on “True Reforms and False Reformers.” Patterson, who had served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1901-06, was governor for two terms from 1907-11. In his second term, pardon-happy Patterson was plagued by a pardon he issued for political ally Duncan Cooper, who had been convicted in the killing of Edward W. Carmack, Patterson’s opponent for the nomination in the 1908 election. The controversy divided the Democratic Party, and the scandal led Patterson to withdraw from the race for a third term. The result was Tennessee’s first Republican governor in 30 years, Ben Hooper.

Nov. 26, 1959: A shortage of steel halted work at the new Science Hill High School, according to contractor J.E. Green.

Nov. 26, 1974: Black Oak Arkansas, along with Foghat, played to over 5,500 fans at Freedom Hall Civic Center.

Nov. 26, 2006: The Tennessee Department of Transportation was installing cable barriers in both directions in the medians of Interstate 26 through Johnson City.

Sources: The Comet; Tennessee Encyclopedia; Johnson City Press-Chronicle; Bobbie H. Shirley, Freedom Hall; Johnson City Press

Today in Johnson City History: November 25

Nov. 25, 1886: Mr. and Mrs. J.D. Reeves had lost two of their children within the past few days, Emma, 2, and John, 4, died from diphtheria. A third child was very low and another had just recovered from this terrible disease.

Nov. 25, 1931: Alf Taylor died in Johnson City at age 83. He was governor of Tennessee from Jan. 15, 1921, until Jan. 16, 1923.

Nov. 25, 1951: George Stevens’ classic “A Place in the Sun,” which starred Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters, began a four-day run at the Majestic in downtown Johnson City.

Nov. 25, 1994: The Pop Warner Cheerleading Competition was held at Freedom Hall Civic Center.

Nov. 25, 2010: An estimated 3,100 people turned out to run or walk in the 5th annual Up & At ’Em Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning in Johnson City.

Sources: The Comet; Johnson City Chronicle; Johnson City Press-Chronicle; Ted Bowers/Johnson City, Tennessee, Memories; Bobbie H. Shirley, Freedom Hall; Johnson City Press

Today in Johnson City History: November 24

Nov. 24, 1887: Merchants were asked to close their doors during the Union Thanksgiving service at the Baptist Church.

Nov. 24, 1910: The Comet reported that someone anxious for guns had broken a plate glass window at the store of Edward Blake & Son the prior morning and helped themselves to the store’s shotguns and some shells.

Nov. 24, 1953: Johnson City Cardinals President Carl A. Jones announced that the ball club might pull out of the Appalachian League because of Bristol’s likely departure. Jones said there might not be baseball in Johnson City in 1954. The Cards did stay in the league that year and the next but did not field a team in 1956.

Nov. 24, 1961: Milligan College opened the P.H. Welshimer Memorial Library.

Nov. 24, 1967: Seeger Memorial Chapel at Milligan College was dedicated. The seating capacity was 1,300.

Nov. 24, 2006: More than 2,000 meals were served and $20,000 worth of grocery certificates were handed out at the annual day-after-Thanksgiving brunch for the needy at Best Western Hotel.

Sources: The Comet; Kingsport Times; Archives of Appalachia, Mary Hardin McCown Collection; Johnson City Press

Today in Johnson City History: November 23

Nov. 23, 1893: Morton & Arnold’s celebrities appeared at Jobe’s Opera House in the most laughable thrilling and sensational comedy drama of the day entitled “The California Detective.”

Nov. 23, 1936: “The Monday Wash,” a fun and fund raising publication put out by The Monday Club, was printed. Their tag line was “The Monday Wash. All the News That’s Not Fit to Print.” Among other businesses, Parks-Belk, King’s and the Tennessee Motor Company ran ads in the publication.

Nov. 23, 1950: Emory & Henry’s Wasps defeated Appalachian State 26-6 in the sixth annual Burley Bowl in Johnson City.

Nov. 23, 1969: An article in the Johnson City Press-Chronicle asked readers to contribute ideas for items to go in the time capsule that would be buried on Dec. 1, 1969.

Nov. 23, 1982: REO Speedwagon and Survivor played to more than 8,500 fans at Freedom Hall Civic Center.

Sources: The Comet; Achieves of Appalachia, Mary Beth Spina Family Papers; Johnson City Press-Chronicle; Bobbie H. Shirley, Freedom Hall