By Dave Ongie, Managing Editor
Leaders in Johnson City are hopeful the John Sevier Center will one day be restored to its former glory as the hub of a bustling downtown district.
But for now, the former hotel that is closing in on its 100th birthday is home to 150 residents, and the top priority for city officials is to ensure the safety and comfort of those who call the aging facility home. A permanent solution has materialized in the form of a $31 million construction project that is expected to yield 145 new apartments on South Roan Street and provide subsidized housing for the current residents of the John Sevier Center while freeing the downtown landmark for redevelopment.
“We believe we can provide through this process better living conditions for the folks who are currently in the John Sevier,” City Manager Cathy Ball said during a press conference last Thursday. “Hands down. No question about it.”
In order to make the new apartment complex a reality, Johnson City Commissioners voted to loan LHP Capital $5.9 million to help fully fund the project. The new housing will be located on a tract of land located between Food City and the Haven of Mercy Thrift Store on South Roan Street.
There are still potential obstacles ahead, but Thursday’s vote was a major milestone on the long journey toward what city leaders believe will ultimately be a win-win scenario.
The board of directors of the Johnson City Development Authority (JCDA) voted in September of 2019 to purchase the John Sevier Center for just over $4 million and has since spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs trying to get the facility up to code. JCDA chair Hank Carr said the organization knew what it was getting into when the purchase was made, but the age of the building has made it difficult to get ahead of the long list of necessary repairs and renovations.
“It’s been a real challenge to bring that building up to acceptable standards for the residents,” Carr said. “It’s a continual challenge, and it’s not sustainable over a long period of time.”
With that in mind, last Thursday’s commission vote to help get LHP Capital’s construction proposal over the hump was a crucial step toward getting the Sevier Center’s residents into new housing as soon as possible. But there is still a lot of work to do to get the Sevier Center up to code, and the stakes are high.
An inspection by HUD will be crucial as the agency weighs the decision of whether to transfer the Sevier Center’s housing assistance payments to the new facility on South Roan Street. Carr said “three or four” mock inspections have taken place in the past year as people who do inspections for a living have come through and assessed the facility. According to Carr, the result of those inspections has been “a long list of repairs.”
Despite the fact that the Sevier Center failed HUD inspections in 2015 and 2017, the JCDA is hopeful money invested to replace roofs and ceiling tiles and repaint the interior of the building will pay dividends in the next inspection.
While the city has undoubtedly made a substantial investment with the goal of reclaiming a centerpiece of Johnson City’s downtown district, Ball said on Thursday that the wellbeing of the residents is and will continue to be the top priority until they are relocated to modern housing. Only then will the focus shift to redevelopment of the John Sevier.
Ball recalled becoming emotional as she watched a documentary on the massive fire that killed 16 residents of the John Sevier on Christmas Eve of 1989, and for that reason, there is a sense of urgency around seeing this project through.
Johnson City Vice Mayor Todd Fowler echoed those sentiments.
“I moved here in 1993, right after the fire,” he said. “We need to do better for the people that live there.”