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Local News

JCDA to encourage urban renewal effort downtown

March 10th, 2007 11:45 pm by JEFF KEELING

JOHNSON CITY - Johnson City Development Authority commissioners will informally encourage the city to buy the former White's warehouse, tear it down, and make the property a showpiece of flood control and urban renewal efforts after agreeing on the tactic at their monthly meeting Friday.

In an effort to address Washington County commissioners' concerns about the tax increment financing (TIF) plan for downtown redevelopment, JCDA commissioners also made minor adjustments to that plan.

With Johnson City's storm water control program kicking into gear soon and significant development pending along the south State of Franklin Road corridor, a project to create green space and a retention pond could reap many benefits for the city, Commissioner B.J. Miller said.

"What an opportunity to take what is an eyesore on that corridor and turn it into a feature that's not only visually pleasing but also has a function," Miller said.

The property in question has a $1.85 million asking price. It covers 3.5 acres and is bounded by State of Franklin Road on the south, Sevier Street on the west, Commerce Street on the north and Boone Street on the east.

Much of the property is covered by a 100,000-square-foot warehouse. Brush Creek is diverted underground at the warehouse's west end and does not reappear until it reaches Water Street just east of Roan Street.

JCDA Executive Director Bridgett Massengill said advocating the purchase would mesh with JCDA goals, which include "to recommend governmental action where necessary to promote the modernization and general improvement of such areas as the central business district."

She said the city could potentially find extensive grant funding to aid in the project.

The idea of converting the former White's property predates its availability for sale. A Pittsburgh-based consultant, Fred Bonci, produced a rendering of the Brush Creek corridor from Tennessee Street to Boone Street following two days of meetings with city leaders in the fall of 2005. The drawing included numerous retention ponds and green space, including a large pond and park-like space where the warehouse sits now.

The city's long range planning coordinator, Steve Neilson, said creating such "quality green space" should spur development nearby. Already, development plans for the stretch from Tennessee Street to Watauga Avenue include a new baseball stadium for East Tennessee State University and a large, privately developed student housing complex.

Brenda Clarke, a local real estate broker involved in the 198-unit student housing project, said it could open by fall semester 2008, and ETSU Athletic Director Dave Mullins said the baseball stadium - which could include surrounding retail development - could happen within a few years depending on funding support. ETSU bought the property east of Tennessee Street from Mullican Flooring a few years ago and has done preliminary site work.

"We're optimistic that we're going to be able to raise the funds for it and move ahead with that project. We just don't have a definite timetable on it until the funds are raised," Mullins said.

Clarke said the housing developer, Milestone Developments of Roanoke, Va., plans to put a retention pond on its property and create a public access walkway along the creek.

"I think it would be a great investment, and I think it does speak well to what we're trying to drive (in terms of redevelopment)," Chamber of Commerce Director Gary Mabrey said.

In other business, the board:

•Agreed to alter the TIF in two ways: by changing the city's base assessment year to 2007 to match Washington County, and to allow the county an opt-out clause, providing it honors any outstanding bond issues.

•Discussed the first "Downtown Cleanup Day" scheduled for March 31.

•Heard progress reports on two grants worth $12,500 that will help promote downtown through signage and other physical improvements, promotional materials and Web site enhancement.

•Prioritized top goals for 2007 including streetscape and Downtown Square design, marketing strategy and implementation, an arts and entertainment brochure, and creating a business retention program.

•Learned that the past three years have brought more than $7 million in private investment downtown and seen a net gain of three businesses and 60 jobs.

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