BY DAVE ONGIE, NEWS EDITOR
Rusty Crowe called the Regional Retail Development District Act that passed the General Assembly in Nashville last week “the first piece of the puzzle.”
But what remains to be seen is what the picture looks like when all the pieces of that puzzle come together. The Regional Retail Development District Act is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the Border Region Retail Tourism Development District Act that eventually begat The Pinnacle in Bristol, a retail, entertainment and culinary behemoth any city or county government would love to install in its jurisdiction.
In the hoopla that followed the passage of the bill last Thursday night, many were certain another Pinnacle in the northern reaches of Johnson City was a foregone conclusion. However, it must also be noted that the Border Region Retail Tourism Development District Act paved the way for the Tri-Cities Crossing development at the intersection of I-26 and I-81, which has yet to take off.
As they say in the investment ads, “past performance is no guarantee of future results.”
Johnson City manager Pete Peterson was well aware of both the rarity of the opportunity and the weight of the responsibility that now falls upon those who will be charged with planning the new 950-acre regional retail tourism development district. As detailed in our front-page story, it will now be up to the Johnson City Commission pass an ordinance, which will lead to the development of a master plan the state must deem capable of transforming 950 rural acres into an economic machine that can feasibly draw a million visitors and generate $2 million in state sales tax revenue (not including the 2.5 cents of every dollar earmarked for local use) each year.
It’s a tall task, particularly when you’re trying not to upset a fragile retail ecosystem two exits up I-26 on North Roan Street, which is centered around the Mall at Johnson City.
“We’re very cognizant of that, and we don’t want to do anything that’s going to disrupt or diminish the effectiveness and the contribution that those shops and those folks make to our community,” Peterson said. “They’ve been here, and they’ve been good corporate citizens. Their business growth has generated the income that we’ve needed to continue to make infrastructure investment to help this community grow.
“So we’re very excited with this new opportunity. We want to do all we can to help grow this new opportunity, but at the same time, we’re going to work to not harm our existing retailers and to try to help both of those areas grow in harmony together to make us a more viable retail location.”
Peterson was aware many longtime residents would immediately harken back to the days when retail moved to North Roan Street and left Main Street desolate when they first heard about the possibility of a monster retail development sprouting up in Boones Creek. Decades later, Johnson City’s downtown district is just starting to
“That happened 40 years ago in almost every town in America,” Peterson said. “They built a mall in suburbia and downtown died. If you go in eyes wide open, knowing that that can happen and you take steps to ensure that you don’t encourage that, then I think you can be successful in developing another retail and tourism hub.”
Peterson believes one key component of the legislation passed last week will keep businesses already established on North Roan Street from bolting to Boones Creek. No business currently located within a 15-mile radius of the new development will be able to receive any sort of financial incentives to move to Boones Creek unless they increase their existing sales floor space by 35 percent. In the current retail climate, that is a tall hurdle.
Besides, the city has nothing to gain by simply moving Roan Street’s existing restaurants and retail stores to Boone’s Creek. The true opportunity here is to attract high-end retail, restaurants and entertainment options capable of catering to a new, untapped market that will make Johnson City a Neapolitan ice cream, of sorts, where downtown, North Roan and Exit 17 all have distinct flavors that reside side by side in harmony.
If the legislation passed last week is the first piece of the puzzle, a new interchange set to be constructed at Exit 17 is a valuable second piece of the puzzle. With the ability to handle a spike in traffic while providing easy accessibility to Boones Creek Road, the interchange will make the new 950-acre district at Exit 17 more attractive than the easy-to-spot yet hard-to-reach Tri-Cities Crossing district.
The rest of the pieces will be largely in the hands of Johnson City’s elected leaders. Selecting the right properties and enticing the right mix of businesses to the district will ultimately determine whether this golden opportunity is seized.