By MARINA WATERS
After discussing the topic for several months, the Washington County Commission finally came to a vote regarding the Johnson City Development Authority’s redevelopment and urban renewal plan for downtown Johnson City and the John Sevier Center.
The resolution for the plan failed in a 7-7 vote on the JCDA’s tax increment financing. The second JCDA resolution to use TIF to finance the acquisition of the John Sevier Center also failed in a 7-7 vote. Commissioners Larry England, Freddie Malone, Suzy Williams, Phil Carriger, Jodi Jones, Gary McAllister and Jim Wheeler were in favor. Commissioners Steven Light, Kent Harris, Jerome Fitzgerald, Danny Edens, Bryan Davenport, Robbie Tester and Mike Ford were opposed. Chairman Greg Matherly was absent.
The amendment to the JCDA redevelopment and urban renewal plan included taking the plan from an assessment-base model to a tax-base model and also raising the plan’s debt ceiling by $11 million. For Harris, the amount of debt was a primary concern.
“This is a large amount — millions of dollars more — that they are asking this commission to take on in that TIF area,” Harris said. “It’s actually going to be up to an amount that never ends because it’s based on a percentage of the value of the property in that TIF area that they can borrow on. I for one am against that.”
The resolution included that the JCDA would have to bring any project over $25,000 to the commission. JCDA board member Craig Torbett added that if commissioners were concerned about the debt climbing, they would have the opportunity to vote against the projects that would be presented to them as part of the plan.
“It does not in any way increase the debt on the books at any point,” Torbett said. “At any point that you feel the debt has reached a level you don’t want it to, you can simply disapprove that project.”
For some commissioners, the decision came down to growth for the area. Carriger asked commissioners if they were “for growth and jobs or for doing nothing” while McAllister said he felt the investment in downtown promoted the area as a whole to other businesses.
Meanwhile, numerous commissioners commented on the poor conditions in which the John Sevier Building residents live. The JCDA’s plan includes relocating those residents elsewhere before remodeling the historic building and placing it on the market.
Malone said he felt change would eventually be happening for those living in the John Sevier building one way or another and the commission should consider whether that will be change brought by a local or a national corporation.
“A lot of times people do not want change and they fear the change that might come in the future,” Malone said. “But things for those residents at the John Sevier Center are going to change. The question is do we address that change on the local basis or do we allow that to happen outside of our hands?”
Cantler said the property is currently for sale. Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership’s CEO Mitch Miller added that the JCDA planned to use TIF for the John Sevier project. He agreed with Tester that after the commission voted down the motion for the TIF amendment, the John Sevier project discussion was a “moot” discussion.
Jones said she felt the commission should discuss what possibilities there were for the JCDA and the John Sevier Building project in light of the failed TIF motion.
Carriger added that he felt the commission needed to vote on the John Sevier Building resolution in order to hold the commission accountable.
“Are we going to be a part of the solution or are we going to be a part of the problem?,” Carriger asked the commission. “We spent three (Commerce, Industry and Agriculture) meetings, we spent a tour of the John Sevier Center, we spent three hours and 20 minutes going over all this.
“I really feel for the people of the John Sevier Center. That is very, very poor conditions that they live in. I think it’s a shame their county commission evidently doesn’t care about them. I think this body needs to be on record and tax payers hold them accountable.”