By Jeff Keeling
The last Sunday in August, I enjoyed a long, leisurely and large multi-course dinner meal with about 130 other people under the Pavilion at Founders Park in downtown Johnson City. Excluding trips to the farmers market, the Farm to Table Dinner was the third event I had attended over the past 10 days in the $2 million, city-funded open air structure.
And I must admit, if crow pie had been among the courses served at Sunday’s dinner, by all rights I should have been willing to eat a couple of helpings.
The weekend before the dinner, I had seen a concert and part of a Shakespeare play, both of which had been moved into the pavilion from Founders Park due to the threat of inclement weather. In each case, the pavilion served as both a functional and attractive venue, and everyone present seemed to have a lovely time.
Even before the dinner event, I had begun to realize the pavilion is destined to be worth every penny Johnson City commissioners agreed to put into it. A year and more ago, I wasn’t so sure as the process to design and build what had originally been envisioned as a new location for the farmers market dragged on and costs rose several times.
A decent, covered space for the farmers market? Great idea, I thought. A significantly fancier, more expensive version that – presumably due to its fanciness and expense – we would be calling some special name? I just hoped we weren’t getting into boondoggle territory, and doing so using tax increment financing money that might really be helpful to spur downtown redevelopment through other, more standard TIF projects.
I have generally supported, and often enthusiastically advocated for, that investment, all the way back to a column in 2007 calling for the city commission to pull the trigger on purchase of the former Young’s warehouse. That hulking building, as many of you know and some of you don’t, covered Brush Creek and the majority of the five acres that comprise Founders Park today.
But I’m also all for getting a good bang for the taxpayer buck, and as the farmers market/pavilion endured multiple design iterations and its costs crept up, I began to wonder whether something a bit less fancy would have done the trick. Would the space fill up on Wednesday and Saturday mornings but stand idle the rest of the time, a monument to good, but unrealistic, intentions?
While I didn’t really expect the “pavilion” would prove a boondoggle, I was skeptical about its prospects for becoming some sort of people and event magnet in its own right, aside from its function as farmers market.
I am a skeptic no more. The pavilion, Founders Park and all the growing activity around them are making it abundantly clear that the last half-decade’s significant public investment in downtown is paying off in wonderful ways. Even in my most optimistic imaginings, I wouldn’t have envisioned the park and pavilion to be the center of so much use, so soon after their completion, in so many different ways.
Spending the public’s money on quality of life-related projects is a hard sell for some people. It isn’t building new schools, laying down asphalt or policing our communities. It isn’t even providing infrastructure in undeveloped parts of the greater city so retail and other development can more easily occur. It’s taking a calculated risk on the premise that making the community a more attractive place for current and future residents to live, play and commune together is worthwhile.
Local elected officials need to keep a watchful eye on projects like the park, the pavilion and the increasing number of trails that are making our city more bikeable and walkable. But the decisions they’ve made about such projects over the past decade have improved life for all of us, and I have no doubt they’ve created an attractive place for people to make a new home. And in the case of the pavilion I’ll raise a forkful of crow, well done, to that.