Johnson City commissioners cleared two major hurdles last week, approving about $9.7 million to secure land for athletic and recreational use and to construct a much-needed expansion of city school facilities.
Commissioners approved a $1.4 million sales agreement with Joe Wilson & Partners to purchase the 36-acre lot adjacent to Winged Deer Park off Bristol Highway. An additional agreement with Heyward and Cherry Sell gives the city an additional 1.8 acres for movement to and from the existing athletic facilities.
A nearly $8.4 million contract with BurWill Construction also was approved for the construction of a new cafeteria and gymnasium at Liberty Bell Middle School.
Both projects are longtime needs, not impetuous wants. The evidence for both is in the time and effort afforded them and the fact they are meant to meet vital community needs.
The purchase next to Winged Deer will create a 237-acre footprint on which Johnson City residents will benefit from increased softball, soccer, rugby and other recreational offerings. The move will likely increase the number of diamond-shaped fields by five, as well as at least one new rectangular field. It also will open the door for large tournaments, which could draw visitors and boost the local economy.
“What comes next will be decided by commissioners,” said Parks and Recreation Director James Ellis. “A funding source will have to be identified, and a design will have to be approved. As far as economic development and tourism attraction, we’re basically doubling our fields. This adds to our menu of services and makes Johnson City a more desirable destination.”
Knoxville’s Lose & Associates designed various concepts for the property, and the company will continue to work with city officials to complete the preferred layout which may include a new playground, walking trails and other amenities.
The vote was 4-1 to buy the Wilson property. Mayor David Tomita, Vice Mayor Jenny Brock and Commissioners Ralph Van Brocklin and Joe Wise voted for the sales agreement. Commissioner Todd Fowler voted against the purchase, saying Wilson had paid only $600,000 for the land and the move was a political one.
“I don’t think it’s right to hold the city over a barrel,” Fowler said.
Wise said the opportunity to expand upon Winged Deer Park was too good to pass up.
“I’m sympathetic to Dr. Fowler’s comments, but there are some numbers (different land options) that the land is going to cost,” Wise said. “If we’re ever going to have a large sports complex, it’s here.”
Commissioners voted unanimously on the Sell agreement.
The Sells, whose property sits adjacent to Winged Deer and above Wilson’s, basically deeded 1.8 acres to the city in exchange for a new city water tap from Bristol Highway to their property line and water to service restrooms and irrigation. This agreement also requires the city to construct a public street to their new property line, a chore the city would have undertaken regardless.
A unanimous vote also put in motion construction of Liberty Bell’s new cafeteria and gymnasium.
BurWil’s original proposal was $9.8 million. That item was pulled from the City Commission’s agenda a few months ago. City Manager Pete Peterson said at the time its removal may prove worth the wait as ongoing negotiations appeared to be lowering the price tag.
The approved contract guaranteed maximum price is about $8.4 million. Peterson said there about $9.5 million available for the project, including a $600,000 contingency and other various costs. Construction is expected to begin Oct. 1 and be complete sometime in 2020.
“This is something that for 11 years Vice Mayor Brock and I have been advocating for,” Van Brocklin said.
Liberty Bell students have had no choice for years but to walk to Freedom Hall Civic Center to use its gymnasium and cafeteria. Concerns have included safety and that some students may not be getting to the cafeteria for morning meals.
The roughly 40,000-square-foot project came into clear view for the Johnson City Schools Facilities Committee last year after nearly a decade of work, planning and anticipation. School and city officials originally hoped the project would get started in June or July.
The design includes a gymnasium that seats about 1,300 and a large cafeteria complete with the latest kitchen equipment and furnishings. The cafeteria will accommodate about 350 students — 100 spaces more than what is currently available.
Much needed locker room expansion also is a big factor within the project. The new gym would incorporate three, 15-locker locker rooms and one 40-locker locker room for physical education.
Approval of the construction contract should move the next school system priority to the forefront: The reconfiguration of Liberty Bell and Indian Trail into two new grade 5-8 middle schools in 2021.
Finally, commissioners also approved $8 million in funding for ETSU’s new fine and performing arts center now under construction. These funds are for construction. However, the city is contributing a total of about $11 million to the cause. There was no discussion on what was simply an invoice for funding committed nearly two years ago.