JOHNSON CITY - Johnson City has tossed its Med Tech anchor in congested waters, but now community leaders need a solid plan to bring the economic islands together.
Among other things, the fourth objective in a recently completed study of the city's Med Tech economy renders the opinion that development on State of Franklin Road may have become its own worst enemy. Increasing traffic congestion and an inability to develop State of Franklin's Med Tech businesses into a true corridor due to the proliferation of retail and restaurant establishments are but two reasons a new planning direction is needed.
The study, performed by Market Street Services Inc., an Atlanta-based consulting group, and commissioned by the city, East Tennessee State University and Mountain States Health Alliance, calls for adoption of planning policies that promote sustainable, long-term economic growth and a strong quality of life.
"During previous discussions, the Med Tech Task Force acknowledged that the significant presence of retail and other types of development along State of Franklin Road meant that the opportunity to create a true Med Tech Corridor had likely passed," the study states.
However, with the focus going forward on leveraging the city's existing Med Tech assets to strengthen the local economy, rather than being limited by the geographic boundaries of State of Franklin Road, the potential for robust growth is in place.
The Johnson City Commission, with its ability to affect zoning and control land use, would seem best poised, of the three entities that commissioned the study, to have the largest impact on implementation of this portion.
Due to a lack of technology infrastructure investments, and an organization in the region that pays attention to and promotes such efforts, the study said Johnson City essentially is "not in the game" in terms of being a competitive place for innovation, research and certain technology businesses.
"These technology infrastructure issues can affect future economic growth in Johnson City, particularly for business and research institutions that are large users of Internet bandwidth and technology," the study states.
Currently, the ability to transfer large amounts of data, particularly for businesses and research institutions that are large users of Internet bandwidth and technology, is lagging far behind such markets as Knoxville.
Likewise, past efforts at performing such studies have proven ineffective, in part because proper implementation was never pursued and largely because the findings were unrealistic.
In the Hammer, Siler, George study, issued in 1993, it was recommended that city and community leaders pursue a national applied research center to serve as the centerpiece of the corridor. This effort obviously never materialized, and Market Street Services said this idea should still be considered "pie in the sky."
"Given ETSU's relatively small research base and lack of a corporate or federal sponsor of a research center, it is not realistic to expect Johnson City to be able to attract a national research center," Market Street Services states.
Likewise, the study addresses a 2003 master plan for the 60-acre "middle anchor" that proposed a mixed-use research park. While several issues hinder implementation of this plan, the study makes a recommendation that the city should reconsider possible uses for its portion of the park.
"Market Street recommends the potential for a mixed-use retirement/senior residential development, in addition to commercial/retail space and office/laboratory space, be examined for the city's portion of the land, if taking a medium-term time frame for development of the land (five to 15 years)."
The consultants believe this type of development can be successful because the property's proximity to medical facilities and offices, as well as proximity to retail and business services, makes it desirable as a location for retirees.
State and federal restrictions on the types of allowed uses for ETSU's portion of the park would not allow such flexibility.
If the city should choose to look at development of the park in a longer time frame, such as 25 to 50 years, Market Street suggests using the city-owned portion as a city park until viable medical, technology or educational options become realistic.
While the study states the "corridor" concept basically does not and cannot exist, it offers suggestions on how the community can still pull together its Med Tech interests through other means.
The addition of visual elements to State of Franklin Road would give it a recognizable identity and would provide the city with a marketing tool with which to draw attention to the corridor's Med Tech assets as a group.
Signage, banners, gateways and landscaping would serve to give the feeling of a business corridor, even if the original intent of the corridor concept has been lost over time.
"These sort of aesthetic improvements enhance the connection that tourists, business visitors and current residents could have with the Med Tech economy in Johnson City," the study states.
The study also addresses quality-of-life initiatives such as the need for a fine arts center and the benefits of continued downtown revitalization.