KINGSPORT — Like every other city around the world, Kingsport had to make some significant changes this year to adapt to the chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Safety — for both employees and customers — took center stage, but at the same time the city had to secure its finances, continue to address the homeless situation, and look at ways to improve housing options, while planning for future projects.
To say 2020 was an unprecedented year would be an understatement.
These were some of the comments made during Friday’s State of the City event, held at the MeadowView Conference Resort and Convention Center.
For the past seven years, Kingsport has held such an event to talk about the financial picture of the city, to discuss some of the projects that have come to fruition over the past year, and to give a preview of the major things that will be happening in the near future.
City, county and state officials and business, education and community leaders gathered Friday morning to hear from City Manager Chris McCartt and Mayor Pat Shull about what’s going on in the Model City.
However, the event began with a somber tone, due to Thursday’s passing of Pal Barger and former Kingsport Mayor Ruth Montgomery.
“Both of those people were absolutely amazing individuals who dedicated their lives to serving others, who made many positive things happen for all of us,” said Miles Burdine, president and CEO of the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce. “They loved this place and Kingsport loved them back.”
A YEAR OF CHALLENGES
Shull kicked off the hour-long presentation by talking about some of the challenges Kingsport faced in 2020, including:
• Street repair: “We programmed more money and repaired more miles and we’re going to continue that pattern.”
• Ballad Health protest: “When I came on board, we had a protest taking place. They have a right to protest, but they don’t have a right to block the right of way, so we had to work through that situation.”
• Homelessness: “I would have to say, don’t believe everything you read on social media. The city has done more for the homeless since Chris became city manager than any time in the past history. It’s not our core mission, but we have gone the extra step to address the issue.”
• COVID-19: “It’s causing us to rethink a lot of things, how to do basic things, but do them safely. We’re trying to be as safe as possible.”
• Domtar: “We negotiated a win-win agreement between the city and the company. We wanted to preserve jobs and keep a vital industry here.”
FROM THE CITY MANAGER
“It’s hard not to have a conversation about 2020 and not talk about the pandemic,” McCartt said as he began his discussion. “As we moved through the first quarter of the calendar year, the reality that the virus was coming our way was apparent. It was something we had never seen before.”
One of the first things Kingsport did was to take measures to protect both its employees and its customers, McCartt said. Facilities were temporarily closed, protective barriers were installed at face-to-face locations, and many services were provided by appointment, remotely or online.
“A lot of the measures we put in place in those early days ... to reopen many of our facilities became used as best practices across the state for how to go through the shutdown and reopening,” McCartt noted.
Kingsport knew it would be taking a financial hit earlier this year due to the shutdown and made adjustments accordingly, including freezing all positions, eliminating all travel, making expenditures mission-critical, and delaying all capital expenditures.
McCartt said the city was able to recapture $3.8 million in the fourth quarter of 2020.
“We’re two months in (fiscal year 2021) and things are looking good,” McCartt said.
McCartt gave a rundown of the major capital projects that were either completed or showed significant progress this year.
• Main Street: “I’m pleased to tell you the Main Street project is moving forward. It’s a $6 million project that we’ve been working on for quite some time.”
• New city hall: “Very soon we’ll call 415 Broad St. home. We had hoped to be in there in December, but that’s now been pushed to late January or early February. It will streamline our operations and improve customer interface.”
• New outdoor pool: “It was not the year to open a new public pool, but nonetheless we did. It was our No. 1 requested item. We continue to reinvest in projects that make Kingsport unique, and it furthers our effort in sports tourism.”
• Miracle Field: “I challenge you to find a project that’s touched the hearts of more people than this.”
• Greenbelt extension: “For 30 years we’ve been working on (the Greenbelt). We’ll cut the ribbon on the new section next week.”
• Infrastructure: “This past year we’ve put $500,000 into our sidewalks, replaced over 162 handicapped ramps and continue to push the needle when it comes to paving.”
He closed by looking at some of the projects on tap for 2021, such as the pedestrian bridge and new skate park at Brickyard Park, the push to add new housing options downtown and elsewhere in the city, the master plan for the Parks and Recreation Department, and the continued focus on infrastructure.
“I truly believe that 2021, despite all of the things going on, will be a positive year for Kingsport,” McCartt said.