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Johnson City Development Authority seeks additional $50,000 in funding

JEFF KEELING • Feb 9, 2007 at 9:48 AM

JOHNSON CITY - Agreeing that more resources are needed to make the most of downtown's promising future, the Johnson City Development Authority's board voted Friday to request an additional $50,000 from the city for its 2007-08 budget.

The increase would fund an additional staff position, which Executive Director Bridgett Massengill said would focus on strengthening and retaining existing downtown businesses.

With tax increment financing (TIF) soon to bring more development funds, and a pending push to market downtown, board members hope Massengill can concentrate on recruiting new businesses, overseeing TIF activity and enhancing downtown's image.

If granted, the request would put the city's funding at $200,000 out of a $212,200 budget.

That is 33 percent higher than the 2006-07 amount, and 74 percent more than the city's 2005-2006 contribution of $114,657.

Mike Woodruff supported the proposed budget, saying that board members' measurable goals will be out of reach without extra help.

"It's kind of like buying a dog," Woodruff said. "You look at it every day, measure it often, and expect it to grow, but if you don't feed the dog, it isn't going to grow. If growth is going to happen, Bridgett needs the resources, and we need to come up with the measures."

B.J. Miller, who heads the JCDA's design committee, said emphasis on attracting outside development is crucial. She said clear goals must be set regarding everything from downtown appearance to marketing efforts to net gains in the number of businesses operating downtown.

"We need new people, we need new investment, and we need an environment that's going to bring them here," Miller said.

Malcolm Blowers, a downtown business owner, agreed but said the Development Authority had tossed around good ideas without much product for years. He said prospective downtown businesses need to know there are competitive advantages to locating there.

"We've gone a long time with great objectives and great priorities and great plans," Blowers said. "I want to see closure in 2007."

Other members contended that the JCDA has had measurable success in the past several years. Gary Mabrey, who also suggested that the JCDA's committees rank their top priorities for 2007 and present them to Massengill, said her tenure had brought improvements to the downtown area.

"There are things in place right now that haven't been there before," Mabrey said.

Rick Storey agreed and said negative perceptions about downtown - that it is unsafe, that there is a homeless problem, that it isn't visually appealing, and that it lacks adequate parking - are not going to stop the positive momentum that is in place.

"Asheville and Greenville (S.C.) probably had a lot of these perception problems 15 years ago, too," Storey said. "I think there's some folks poised to put some money down here."

The board took one action Friday that will lead to aesthetic improvements soon. Members approved seeking a "Main Street" grant from the state that will help fund new lighting in the Downtown Square parking area. Up to $20,000 in state money is available and must be matched by either local money or in-kind contributions.

In other business, Chairman Tim Jones updated members on the County Commission's deliberations over the TIF. He said a Monday meeting resulted in "a lot of clarity" being provided to commissioners, but no up or down vote being taken.

Jones said the next chance for passage of the county's portion of TIF for the redevelopment district will come Feb. 26.

"I feel good about it, but I don't think we need to sit back and wait," Jones said.

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