Cootie Brown’s to enter negotiations for vacant lot across from ETSU

Local architect Ken Ross holds up an elevation design of the new Cootie Brown’s restaurant. Photo by Collin Brooks

Local architect Ken Ross holds up an elevation design of the new Cootie Brown’s restaurant. Photo by Collin Brooks

By Collin Brooks

It’s all about the money.

That was the general feeling as the Johnson City Public Building Authority decided to enter negotiations with a group that plans to build a Cootie Brown’s restaurant and an office building or retail space on State of Franklin Road.

The 2.3-acre piece of property is nudged between Regions Bank and Ruby Tuesday’s restaurant and had gained interest from the Purple Cow and the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce. In the end, it was the almost $4,000 more the PBA will receive from the proposed building.

“Like Hank (Carr) and Stephen (Dixon) said, I tend to be about the money,” said PBA board member Tim Belisle, before a unanimous vote for Cootie Brown’s was taken. “I think our charge is to minimize the loss, I guess, that is experienced by the PBA for the citizens of the city. And so, for that reason, I struggle with going any other direction other than the one that promises the greatest financial return for the PBA.”

Numbers that were released by the PBA in a handout they distributed at the meeting said that the PBA would receive close to $34,000 a year from the restaurant’s tax roll. The number increases to over $47,000 depending on the use of the building on the back space of the lot. That was more than the Purple Cow ($30,921) and the Chamber of Commerce ($22,227) would generate.

With those types of monies at stake and the PBA in need of revenue, vice-chairman Henry Carr said income had to be the number one priority for the board.

A preliminary concept of what the new restaurant and building will look like on Lot 8.

A preliminary concept of what the new restaurant and building will look like on Lot 8.

“For me, tax revenue is a big deal here,” Carr said. “I take my responsibility to the PBA very seriously…This organization is running on empty. It’s no big secret, it’s set up that way and it was going to happen. So we are right at the edge of that. And I know that in a very short period of time, we will be at the city asking for significant funds, I don’t know how much that is, but it will be significant.”

He said that he would be uncomfortable standing in front of the city and asking them for financial help, if they didn’t take the largest revenue source from this deal.

Before the vote, Cootie Brown’s owner Tony Vella tempted the PBA with an even sweeter deal in the form of a new Key Lime pie initiative. Vella said that his business is about to embark on selling the sweet dessert nationwide and that he would use the State of Franklin address to run his internet sales. Vella said he hopes that will end in a big pay day for his business and the city.

“I’m going to sell a million of these pies, I guarantee it,” Vella said. “And I am going to use this address to process the sale. The back office building will be my home office for Cootie Brown’s Pies and Dessert.”

The pies will sell for about $49 apiece and Vella was adamant that he would sell a million a year.

“If you all don’t think I’ll sell a million of these, then you would have never thought that Cootie Brown’s would be in business today,” said Vella, who also mentioned a new location won’t hurt sales at his current location on North Roan Street.

In the state of Tennessee, sales tax is collected from internet companies that sell over $500,000 worth of products annually.

PBA Chairman Jon Smith encouraged board members not to take into account collecting the revenue from the pies, because it wasn’t a solid and concrete number, yet.

“When we make decisions, we’ve got to make them based on concrete, or at least nearly concrete, prospects,” he said. “And Tony is not this way, but I have run into people that have pitched some of the greatest ideas to me ever, and I am still waiting for some of them to happen. I don’t mean to be factious, but we need to limit ourselves to what is in the near term and practical. But that is just my opinion.”

The longevity of the Chamber — having operated for over 102 years — was taken into account, but no one raised a hand when they were asked if they would like to proceed with that option. Almost all of the board members said they weren’t in favor of the Purple Cow in that particular location, but they looked forward to them opening a location in Johnson City.

The prohibitive uses of the property were discussed, but no action was taken to change them. That will need to be discussed in the future, as besides non-profits be prohibited to build on the property, office buildings are not supposed to be put on the land.

The negotiations will start immediately and after the due diligence period for both parties on the property, Vella said he will start construction right away.


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