By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Jonesbrough leaders gathered inside the town’s visitor’s center last Tuesday afternoon to tend to a relationship that has been fruitful for a very long time.
The occasion was a reception for Jim Tracy, the State Director of Rural Development for the USDA. Tracy was instrumental in securing the funding necessary to build the new Jonesborough K-8 school. He also helped with the funding for the Jackson Theatre, the purchase of the International Storytelling Center building, the restoration of the McKinney Center at Booker T. Washington School, the construction of the Jonesborough Senior Center and the renovation of the Chuckey Depot.
Jonesborough Mayor Chuck Vest credited Tracy for opening the door and creating opportunities and praised folks in Jonesborough for making the most of those opportunities time and again.
“We’ve really taken Jonesborough to another level thanks to Rural Development and people like Jim Tracy,” Vest said. “The good thing is all those projects have been successful, and because of that, anytime Jonesborough calls, Rural Development takes our call. They’re always willing to help.”
While Tracy has been at the helm during a particularly transformative period for the town of Jonesborough, the town’s relationship with the Rural Development program goes back a long time. In fact, former mayor Kelly Wolfe pointed out the visitor’s center that hosted last Tuesday’s event was built in 1978 with the help of Rural Development financing, as was the town hall building next door.
In a state where local governments thrive on sales tax revenue, Wolfe said Jonesborough has had to be creative in order to fund capital projects that improve the quality of life for its residents. A lack of major sales-tax-generating properties leaves Jonesborough continually struggling to produce enough cash flow to complete large capital projects.
“Rural development over the years, out of necessity, has been a primary lender for the town of Jonesborough,” Wolfe said. “Its mission is to serve rural communities in ways they otherwise couldn’t be served for major community improvement projects. The main feature of Rural Development that is attractive to rural communities is they stretch their loan terms over long periods of time, up to 38 years.”
Tracy characterized the unique funding mechanism that allowed Jonesborough to serve as a third-party borrower for the Washington County School System as a good solution for taxpayers.
That was the case with funding secured by the town of Jonesborough to build a new K-8 school. The $32.75 million project will be paid off over 38 years, at which point Washington County will take ownership of the facility.
“The good thing about it is it’s actually saving taxpayers money in the long run going through us,” Tracy said. “We did this one, and we’ve done, I think, three more this year with school systems in Tennessee. It’s a good thing for the community.”
Thinking outside the box has become a way of life for everyone since the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head earlier this year, sending all levels of the government back to the drawing board during a crucial stretch in the budgeting process leading up to a new fiscal year. The pandemic has created plenty of economic headwinds, but there are also opportunities emerging, particularly in the realm of learning and working remotely.
Tracy said the focus of the USDA’s Rural Development is currently looking for ways to accelerate the proliferation of high-speed Internet service in rural areas.
“Broadband is one of the big things we’re doing now statewide, trying to get broadband to all these rural areas, not only for schools but also for businesses,” Tracy said. “That is real, real important.”
In many respects, the town of Jonesborough is ahead of the curve on that front. Thanks to BrightRidge, Jonesborough’s historic Main Street gained access to 10 Gigabit Internet service in May of last year, the fastest service currently available in the marketplace. BrightRidge is also looking to expand high-speed Internet service throughout Washington County, and those efforts were boosted recently when the utility received $2.47 in Emergency Broadband Grant funding from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.
Tracy said the trend of people opting to leave larger metropolitan areas in order to live and telework in less populated locales is already happening, and the new reality presented by COVID-19 is accelerating the process. As the USDA’s Rural Development program scrambles to provide rural areas with the bandwidth necessary to adapt to the new world, Vest said Jonesborough is looking to capitalize on the assets that are already in place thanks to BrightRidge.
“Having high-speed Internet with BrightRidge is a plus for us,” he said. “It’s going to help us continue to recruit people who want to work from home or people who want to set up offices in our downtown area and possibly live and work in our downtown area.”
In addition to high-speed Internet, Tracy also listed workforce development as an ongoing focus for the Rural Development program. He mentioned a project designed to provide grant money to help middle school students start identifying potential career options and create a pathway to high-paying jobs in the trades.
“If they’re not going the college route, maybe they can go the TCAT route and learn a vocation,” Tracy said. “We’re able to grant money to the TCAT and grant money to the schools to help them in that regard. That’s a big thing that can change the quality of life in these communities.”