By Gary Gray
A Johnson City commissioner is talking with the owner of 37 acres of land next to Winged Deer Park to nail down the price of a preferred location on which new recreational fields might be built to meet growing demand.
“I have spoken with one commissioner,” said Joe Wilson, whose bottom line will determine whether the City Commission pursues or dismisses the option. “We had a meeting this week, and I spelled out to him what it would take to buy it. We came to an understanding that he and I will continue to talk going forward. The result will be that the information will be relayed to commissioners.”
Mayor David Tomita, Vice Mayor Jenny Brock and Commissioners Joe Wise and Todd Fowler told The News & Neighbor they had not talked with Wilson and did not know who was. Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin, who has attended most of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board’s meetings as they examine their options, was not available for comment.
Commissioners regularly meet and talk with people about community issues, but several members expressed concern that negotiations might be better handled in a more official manner. If, in fact, Van Brocklin has made the move, he could be doing everyone involved a favor.
During the last Advisory Board/City Commission joint meeting, Board Chair Jonathan Kinnick made it clear the Wilson Property, on which softball and soccer fields would be placed, and the construction of four soccer fields on the Winged Deer lakefront, was the group’s top choice. The board also agreed that contacting and entering into negotiations for the Wilson property was a zero-cost priority.
Van Brocklin, Fowler and Brock agreed with the recommendation, and Van Brocklin told his colleagues: “Even though we may not like the idea of negotiations, I would personally say purchase the property and bank it if it’s available.”
Tomita was absolute in his opposition and vocal about generating the city’s tax revenues with a commercial or residential development on the property, instead of athletic fields. Wise favored looking at other courses of action. But at meeting’s end, there was no consensus on if and when talks with Wilson might begin. Though Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl was mentioned as a potential negotiator, there was no vote or agreement for Stahl or any other designee to go forward. Commissioners did not publicly conclude on a “next step.”
“At the end of the day, we would have to receive some direction from the City Commission to officially make some overtures to negotiate to purchase the property,” Stahl said. “There has been no official direction to make an offer, and nothing’s changed on that.”
Wilson’s desire to get as much money for the property as he can has been a constant theme, and members of both the City Commission and Parks and Recreation Advisory Board have stated along the way he may be feigning a coming residential development to get the city to move.
About three months ago, when serious talks among city officials began, David Sanders with The Brokers Realty and Auction told The News & Neighbor a South Carolina company was “getting real close” to signing on the dotted line for the purchase of 37 acres along Bristol Highway to develop condominiums.
“They backed off,” Sanders said last week. “They said they couldn’t make the numbers work. I’d like to see the city talk with us. I think the city needs the fields. It would bring people to town. And if that happens, they would spend money here.”
A developer already has rough graded some of the property — a lot many refer to as “the rock pile.” A company was onsite a few years ago, and its intent was to build condominiums.
“They put down about $1.2 million and did $1 million in grading,”
Sanders said. “But apparently they ran into some problems and backed out of the deal.”
Sanders did not elaborate.
City Manager Pete Peterson has said Wilson has had the property on the market for multiple years and that it was appraised about two years ago at $40,000 per acre, or $1.48 million.
Meanwhile, Mitch Miller, Washington County Economic Development Council CEO, confirmed that an agent with The Brokers Realty and Auction contacted him about possible incentives.
“I was approached about a potential residential development,” Miller said. “I told them we have done tax incentive programs for blighted downtown areas, but we do not do those types of projects. I told them they should approach the city about it.”
No City Commission/Advisory Board joint meetings are currently scheduled.