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Foreclosure catches up with Johnson City's railroad depot

JEFF KEELING • Jun 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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The “SOS” call in 2002 was for Johnson City to “Save Our Station,” and that’s what Dorian Jones ended up doing with the former Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio railroad depot at the corner of Buffalo and Cherry streets. But if the century-old building is going to move from its still threatened condition to a renovated, usable state, someone other than Jones will oversee it — the property is being foreclosed on and will be sold at auction June 23. Despite getting the property for free in a December 2003 quit claim deed, Jones has seen debts mount on the building — which nearly fell to the wrecking ball early in this decade — since borrowing nearly $500,000 against the property in early 2008. Leaders at the Johnson City Development Authority see the pending change as an opportunity to progress with renovations, potentially using a combination of private and grant money. They’d like to see the building become the site either of a railroad museum and public offices, or a privately operated business — but either way they’re hoping to see completion of a historic renovation that began with Jones. One of those JCDA members, Craig Torbett, was active in 2002 and said the JCDA came close to getting the property itself in order to keep it from being demolished. The railroad company was simply leasing the land under the building it owned, though, and concerns that the land could revert to Tipton Jobe’s heirs caused the JCDA to balk. Torbett said Jones did a great deal of legwork after getting the building, contacting all the Jobe family heirs through an attorney, and that the property now belongs to him. That should make it easier for a buyer to confidently redevelop the property, and Torbett said the JCDA is intent on seeing that happen. “I think it’s the most prominent historic structure that’s on the table for development,” Torbett said. JCDA’s David Tomita agreed. “It’s the last one that hasn’t been torn down,” Tomita added. You’ve lost the old train station, the Majestic Theater — this is our last chance.” For his part, Jones is washing his hands of Johnson City, where he’s spent more than a decade buying and working on a handful of downtown buildings. He’s wrangled with the city government over numerous issues, including whether to allow a recreational trail from East Tennessee State University to downtown — along the former CSX tracks — to pass by the depot. Jones said the city’s decision to pull up the former CSX tracks last year to prepare for the trail, instead of trying to renovate the tracks for continued rail use — was an example of what he sees as a less-than-ethical leadership approach. “The corruption here is rampant,” he said. “The people here don’t give a (darn)... there are cities that are enlightened. This is not one.” Jones said he simply wanted to save the station and get it open for some kind of public use — JCDA members give him credit for shoring up a roof that was near collapse — but that too many things beyond his control stood in the way. “From day one, the City made this impossible. I tried. I couldn’t get permits, I couldn’t get this, I couldn’t get that, until seven months ago, when it was too late, was I finally able to start pulling permits.” Jones got the station and attached freight house in December 2003, 20 years after the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina railroad sold it, along with miles of track, to the East Tennessee Railway Corporation. He has spent the last several years working to renovate it to original specifications, and it was the cost of this work that landed the site in foreclosure. Jones borrowed $492,800 from Interbay Funding, a Fort Washington, Pa., company, putting the building and its internal fixtures up as collateral. Jones has had the building on the market at $495,000 — it includes 11,000 square feet in the two-story station house and another 6,000 in the freight house — for some time now. The JCDA approached him a number of months ago, but couldn’t agree to a price. Jones also owns the former Honey Krust bakery building across Buffalo at 221 Cherry, and said last week he was “walking away from” that building as well as he prepares to move to Asheville, N.C. That 90-year-old building, for which Jones has been asking $575,000, comes with a quarter-acre parking lot. JCDA’s Tomita said he plans to be at the auction, scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Washington County Courthouse in Jonesborough, “and making sure any prospective buyers know who we are and what we do.” That’s because JCDA Executive Director Suzanne Kuehn has outlined an array of grant and loan opportunities, several exceeding $200,000, that could aid prospective buyers in the station’s redevelopment. Torbett said purchase by the JCDA or another public entity should be a last resort. “JCDA’s role should always be to get it into private hands,” Torbett said. “If that happens without JCDA involvement and just our support, that’s the ideal outcome. If it takes more than that hopefully we would at least consider a more hands-on role.”

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