By Gary Gray
The National Park Service has approved the historic, pastural Keefauver farm as a replacement for Johnson City’s long-defunct Optimist Park, opening the door for a new recreation area with a number of possible uses.
Replacing Johnson City’s eerily vacant 15-acre Optimist Park with recreational offerings at Keefauver farm has not only been a municipal task, but also a state and federal bureaucratic obstacle course with “conversion” as the end goal. Roughly 52 acres has been approved. Two acres, on which a home built in the 1800s stands, has been excluded.
“The National Park Service has accepted our request for the conversion,” said Johnson City Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl. “But basically they have asked for additional documents, including maps and surveys. Once they’ve approved that and it is recorded at the courthouse, our legal counsel will proceed accordingly.
“Of the 53.93 acres that comprise the Keefauver property, 51.93 acres has been approved to be utilized for outdoor recreation. The 2 acres, which essentially is the original farm house and some out buildings, is not considered part of the conversion property.”
About 30 years ago, Johnson City received $60,000 in federal grant money to use for ball fields at Optimist Park, but that relatively low-dollar gift came with a taxing caveat: That property of equal or greater value fill the void left when Optimist Park became obsolete, and that outdoor recreational uses must replace that which was lost.
Washington County farmers have been allowed to graze cattle on the property at Shadden and Hales Chapel roads, and Boones Creek Historical Trust members are still waiting to hear whether Johnson City commissioners’ plans for Keefauver farm include its proposed historical museum and old-school Bluegrass venue.
The Tennessee Department of Environment Conservation approved the city’s recommendation for the property conversion nearly two years ago, and final approval from the National Park Service has been anticipated since that time.
The Keefauver property, which was a long-running family dairy farm, is city-owned but located in Washington County in the midst of a fast-growing residential area – growth realized by the county. There is about a half-mile gap between the city limits and the property. Still, the city can legally develop the land without annexing into the municipality.
What once was Optimist Park is now an empty property with visible remnants of ball fields located at 543 North State of Franklin Rd.
City officials are in need of land to expand its softball, baseball, soccer, football, rugby and other sports offerings. Meetings are taking place, and several sites are being considered for a possible sports complex or major addition. The Keefauver property will likely not be a candidate, according to city officials.
“The question is, how much space is really available for recreation,” Stahl said. “The old 1840s vintage house qualifies as a historical site, at least by the state. I think the property can be used for passive recreation, including a park, playground, and yes, ball fields. But I’m not sure there would be enough space to put everything the city is looking to do on that site.”
The city’s Parks and Recreation Department is the apparent heir to the farm, but city commissioners ultimately will determine the uses, activities and dollars spent on what currently is expected to become some form of recreational site. Public Works Department employees have been removing unstable structures, building and silos, but one large building and the house will stay.
“To my knowledge, a master plan has not yet been put together on the Keefauver property,” said Parks and Recreation Director James Ellis. “I can see that property being used in large part for nature programming. You’ve got relatively flat property for events and for athletic fields. I also understand the Boones Creek Historical Trust has an interest in the house.
“Public Works is performing work now that will ensure the safety of anyone that is scheduled to be on the property. The one barn in a state of disrepair has been taken down, as has the small dairy building. The three silos will be coming down. We feel we can re-purpose the area. But again, that depends on a master plan, which likely will come through the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.”
BCHT board member Vicki Shell was heading the push for an interactive museum and acoustic music offering on the property, but both Stahl and Ellis said they have not heard any news recently regarding that plan.
Optimist Park became unusable about six years ago, and the city began looking for a replacement. Originally, property was identified off Browns Mill Road but later dropped. Keefauver was then identified as one, if not the most desirable exchanges.
In April 2011, a tornado touched down in Johnson City and passed through Optimist Park, significantly destroying the park’s infrastructure, including lighting, utility poles, field backstops and park fences.
With approval of the park conversion, Optimist Park will be decommissioned and the city will finish construction of a two-lane road known as the Johnson City’s Lark Street Extension project. The new access road will run from West Market Street to North State of Franklin Road via Lark Street.
The old park property will be subdivided to make viable tracts for commercial development. This also will lay the groundwork for a connector street to the opposite side of West Market to facilitate infrastructure and help encourage development and open economic doors at the city-owned 30-acre site, which was formerly home to the Tennessee National Guard Armory.
The city bought Keefauver in 2009 for the appraised price of $1.37 million. That appraisal, and an accounting of Optimist Park’s value, were taken in 2008, with the latter coming in at about $803,000.
City Manager Pete Peterson said there continues to be discussion about what the city should do with Keefauver farm. Suggested uses include a nature center park, athletic fields and use of part of the property by the Boones Creek Historical Trust. He also said developers of a new subdivision near the farm have expressed some interest in acquiring the property.
“Some original discussions when we were acquiring the property included a city and/or county school on the property,” Peterson said. “With the dramatic change in annexation laws, in conjunction with the recent economic recession and resulting downturn in home building, the need for a new city school at that location no longer exists.”