As Grant Summers guided leaders from the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership and members of the community on a recent tour through the historic Model Mill property, he described efforts to rehabilitate the 109-year-old structure as a “heart project,” which seems fitting.
By the time Grant and his father Rab finish restoring the historic property late next year, it has the potential to be the heart of a rejuvenated West Walnut Street district that could prove to be a crucial connector between ETSU and Johnson City’s downtown. The old mill will house the headquarters of Summers-Taylor – the Summers’ family business – as well as an art gallery featuring the work of ETSU students and a bakery. Rumors of a restaurant moving into the building are swirling, and the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce is in talks to lease space in Model Mill as well.
Joe Wise, a Johnson City Commissioner and the chairman of the West Walnut Street Task Force, sees the investment made by Rab and Grant Summers – operating as R&G Ventures, Inc. – as a rock hitting the surface of a pond. Wise is hopeful the project will create a ripple effect of private investment throughout the rest of the West Walnut Street corridor.“You’ve got this great big parcel right in the middle of the corridor, between ETSU and Downtown,” Wise said. “It’s one of the biggest structures in the corridor. And then for it to be a historic structure being repurposed I think really begins to push the ball with a little bit of momentum in the right direction.”
Since the West Walnut Street Task Force was formed about two years ago, there has been a concerted effort by city and community leaders to rehabilitate what was once an industrial district. The promise of tax increment financing played a large role in making it feasible for Rab and Grant Summers to take on the Model Mill project.
“This is a huge example of a public-private partnership,” Grant Summers told those in attendance at the recent Model Mill tour.
Time will tell whether the Model Mill project and the rehabilitation of the West Walnut Street corridor are successful, but for now, Wise is encouraged to see city government, ETSU leadership and the business community pulling in the same direction.“We’re all sort of in this together, and if we’re sensitive to finding opportunities to mutual benefit, we will invariably find them,” Wise said. “I think it’s a testament to city leadership, business leadership and university leadership that they’ve looked beyond their narrow little slice and recognized these opportunities and found ways to work together over the last number of years.”