Committee recommends county commit $1 million to ETSU arts center


Action deferred on JC farmers market site, county farm property

By Scott Robertson

The new committees of the Washington County Commission have begun meeting, and they are quickly setting to business.

The Commerce, Industry and Agriculture Committee (CIA) met Monday night and, after electing a slate of officers (David Tomita, chair; Todd Hensley, vice-chair; Larry England, secretary), considered several items, recommending two of them be moved on either to another committee or to the full commission for approval.

The first item on the agenda was consideration of the approval of a recommendation to commit $1 million to the East Tennessee State University Fine and Performing Arts Center project in $100,000 increments over the next ten years.

Jeremy Ross, ETSU chief of staff, spoke on behalf of the university, telling the committee that since the state now requires a 25 percent match on all capital projects, the university is required to come up with $10 million of the total $40 million to fund the project. “So far we have raised $6.3 million of that,” Ross said. “All of those funds to date have come from private donors, around 250 of them.”

Ross spoke of the economic development impact of building the center. “We know we have 150 events per year at ETSU. We also know that around one third of our visitors come from out of state. In a North Carolina report in 2010, the estimate was that $30 was spent on average by every person that attended an event – not counting the ticket. That money all goes into the local economy.

“Outside of a labor force,” Ross told the committee, “what most influences a company’s decision to move to an area is quality of life based on cultural events. I can tell you in the last two months through the research foundation we have helped with the economic development council recruit four entities to the area, and all four asked about this project specifically.”

Commissioner Robbie Tester asked Ross if the county would see revenue in return for its investment, in the form of ticket sales or other funding streams. “What we’re here proposing tonight is an economic development piece,” Ross answered. “So there is no tax increase for either the county or city. The county and city do not have to pay a ticket director or marketing or lights or electricity.

We are asking for minimal support to bring in the $30 million in matching money from the state for the $10 million we raise. So we’re not approaching it from a shared revenue standpoint, but we’re not approaching it from a shared cost standpoint either.”

The university has discussed building a larger center than the one that has been approved by the state, said Ross, but the $40 million figure is for a 750-seat, 130,000-square-foot facility.

The committee voted to recommend the full commission commit the funds to the project. Tester was the only commissioner who voted against that recommendation. The full commission next meets Oct. 27.

The committee then heard from Johnson City Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin, who asked that the committee recommend to the full county commission a $400,000 increase in the TIF funding allocated to finance construction of the Johnson City Farmers Market and surrounding area through the Johnson City Development Authority.

Despite the CIA’s vote to recommend that the budget committee take up the request before sending it to the full commission, the county is forcing Van Brocklin and other supporters of the increase to play a waiting game.

At best, the county has shown less of a sense of urgency about increasing the TIF funding from $1.25 million to $1.65 million.  In a letter dated Sept. 9, Johnson City City Manager Pete Peterson asked that the full county commission take up the recommendation at its Sept. 22 meeting. Instead, the request was referred to the CIA, then to the budget committee, which is not scheduled to meet until Oct. 15, three days after the bids on the project expire. Even if the budget committee recommends the full commission approve the measure, the commission will not hear it until its meeting Oct. 27 meeting.

“That is the process the county wanted us to undertake,” Van Brocklin said after the meeting, “so that is how we will do it.”

After a brief discussion of proposed new EPA regulations, the committee turned its attention to the Washington County Greenfield Farm (the county farm) property.

After determining that most of the members of the committee had never been to the farm, Tomita said, “While I would certainly not want to take any options off the table at this meeting, I don’t think any of us feel we know enough to consider any specific recommendation tonight. So as soon as we can make sure we don’t violate sunshine laws by doing so, I’d like for this committee to tour the farm between now and our next meeting.”

Tomita invited members of the homeowners group that represents the owners of the properties that border the farm to accompany the committee on that tour, and promised to publicize the date and time.

Hensley asked Tess Lloyd, co-chair of the association of property owners, what their preference would be for use of the land going forward. “All I know is that it’s an underutilized property and that it would probably be very expensive to bring the building up to code at this point,” Hensley said.

Lloyd said the idea of the county selling the property would not be popular among the farm’s neighbors. “We would be happy to talk to anyone who wants to come out,” Lloyd said.

“Well, that would be a good deal of the purpose of the tour,” Tomita said. “We want to see the place, and we want to hear from the folks around there.

“I don’t think we’re in any particular hurry to make a quick decision,” Tomita concluded. “We want to make a good decision.”



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