By Jeff Keeling
For want of a nail the shoe was lost;
For want of a shoe the horse was lost;
For want of a horse the battle was lost;
For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost –
All for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Substitute “track” for the word “nail” in this old proverb and one could argue the dire outcome at the end might await the Johnson City area when it comes to capitalizing on our strongest assets. Please bear with me.
Last week, we reported that Johnson City’s relationship with the NAIA National Indoor Track and Field Championships could be in jeopardy. The city hosted the event from 2001-2010 at East Tennessee State University’s mini dome, and brought it back this year for the first of a two-year run.
It only seemed fitting, really, and seems fitting. A city known for its running culture and home to a dome – a quirky structure that was no place to play football on a gorgeous fall afternoon in the Appalachians, but proved a fine venue for many a memorable race, jump, throw or vault under the hum of the fluorescent lights – should parlay those assets into something that adds value to its tax base and reputation.
NAIA seems to love Johnson City. Johnson City loves the NAIA. Our scenic beauty, hospitality, geographic location and vibrant downtown all are favorable to attracting the meet, which brings lots of visitors and money to town. It dovetails nicely with the area’s historic and current running culture.
But there’s a problem. The aging track at the dome is of a condition, length and configuration that coaches, athletes and spectators aren’t wild about. It’s probably the main hindrance to the city potentially establishing a long-term and lucrative role as home to the NAIA championships. Even the outdoor meet is a possibility.
So, with its estimated cost of $600,000 or so, I’ll call a new track and associated infrastructure the nail in this little proverb. If Milligan College coach Chris Layne is anywhere close to accurate in his estimate of the cost to replace the dome’s track and make the facility more attractive to coaches, athletes and spectators, that estimated amount equates to a nail’s cost in the overall field of battle. It’s chump change.
If a new track is the nail, the mini dome must be the horse. Next March, meet organizers including Layne and the local Convention and Visitors Bureau, plan to play up the dome’s iconic role in indoor track and field. The place has the potential to become a retro-hip home for indoor track if it’s marketed right – think Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler University’s 88-year-old basketball home where the movie ‘Hoosiers’ was filmed.
That horse could carry the Johnson City area and ETSU into an important battle – the battle communities face every day to set themselves apart in a way that attracts visitors, new residents and businesses. People these days are looking for places with interesting attributes to accompany things like good schools, affordability, low crime rates and natural beauty. Johnson City has all that, but we need to look beneath the surface to find other attributes that set us apart in a way that draws positive notice.
That leaves the kingdom of the Johnson City MSA. Our leadership is working hard to check off many of the standard boxes that should help our area grow and prosper, but again, for my money the standbys aren’t enough. A new college football stadium, more athletic fields to attract youth tournaments, and a 1,200 or 1,300-seat performing arts center don’t detract from our area, certainly, but neither do they really set us apart in any special way.
Yet we are collectively spending, or in the case of new athletic fields considering spending, upwards of $75 million on the assets listed above. They are the cannons, the horses and the fortresses of the proverbial battle. A new, banked 200-meter track inside the mini dome and new infield infrastructure truly do represent the horseshoe nail in this proverb.
ETSU shouldn’t be expected to pay for the improvements itself, though shifting its priorities to make that happen wouldn’t, in my opinion, represent a bad idea.
No, this doesn’t need to be a one-entity deal. The City of Johnson City, the CVB, Milligan, and local private citizens with a love and appreciation of track and field need to all come together and work together if this is to be done. There will be bureaucratic hurdles to leap, but considering the cost and the opportunity, it ought to be done. I think the late Dave Walker, ETSU’s longtime track coach, might agree.