City leaders, legislators meet to discuss needs, concerns
By Dave Ongie, News Editor
At the dawn of a new decade, Johnson City’s Board of Commissioners and city staff members took time last Thursday afternoon to huddle with local members of Tennessee’s General Assembly ahead of the next legislative session.
The purpose of last week’s meeting was to outline major projects the city has in the works and highlight issues the city is facing that Sen. Rusty Crowe and Reps. Matthew Hill and Micah Van Huss may be able to help address when they return to Nashville. Over the two-hour meeting, the specter of massive growth in middle Tennessee and the repercussions it might have for Johnson City colored nearly every topic from economic development to education.
“The demands for state dollars for roads, education and infrastructure of all sorts is really strong in middle Tennessee because that’s where all your population growth is happening right now, for the most part,” city manager Pete Peterson said during his opening statement. “Being four hours to the east, how is this going to impact us?”
With population growth nearly stagnant in our region, Crowe stressed the importance of individual city and county governments presenting a united front in order to better compete with the counties and municipalities in middle Tennessee that are currently experiencing a population explosion.
“I guess the regional perspective is what we need to be thinking about to be able to compete with some of the metropolitan areas so the train doesn’t leave the station without us,” Crowe said.
Peterson told Crowe that the regionalism push probably isn’t moving as fast as people would like, but he said tourism is an area where collaboration has already been taking place. He added that working together on economic development projects across county lines has been a bit more challenging because of governmental red tape that requires each county to have its own economic development entity.
“So everybody’s going to have to maintain – at least on the county level – an economic development entity,” Peterson said. “How does that work back through that larger economic development unit? I think everybody is trying to figure that out.”
Despite the challenges, there have been notable successes in the early stages of the regionalism push. The Aerospace Park project located adjacent to Tri-Cities Regional Airport was the result of unprecedented cooperation between multiple city and county governments. Peterson reported that construction on Aerospace Park is scheduled to be finished by the end of the calendar year, and Northeast State is well on its way to receiving certifications that will produce employees with the proper training to work for the employers who populate the facility.
Crowe also pointed to the promise of the proposed Regional Retail Tourism Development District in Boones Creek, which came about as a result of legislation spearheaded by Hill and Crowe during the final hours of last spring’s legislative session. Last Thursday, Hill called the pending project a “wonderful example of regionalism” and said he expects a flurry of development when the district’s boundaries are set by the city commission and approved by the state.
Vice-mayor Joe Wise talked briefly about the city’s upcoming redesign of the West Walnut Street corridor, which is intended to rejuvenate the crucial bridge between Johnson City’s downtown district and ETSU’s main campus. Peterson also talked about the potential for a major economic development project on Market Street across the street from the Boys & Girls Club of Johnson City and Washington County.
ETSU and Johnson City own matching 30-acre tracts of land that sit adjacent to each other, and the proximity of that land to the VA, Johnson City Medical Center and ETSU make it a prime spot to build a center for rural health research. Given the large scope of the potential development, Peterson said Johnson City might possibly need assistance from legislators to obtain a TDOT grant to build a road through that property.
“We see that as probably the next significant piece of economic development,” Peterson said, adding that the project could create hundreds of jobs.
The 111th Tennessee General Assembly will reconvene on Jan. 14.