Downtown Johnson City was once a place known exclusively for nightlife and antique stores. That was the story as recently as two years ago, but today, things are changing.
The city has put major efforts into the restoration, renovation and revitalization of downtown as of late and has seen an almost immediate return on these efforts. Fourteen new businesses have opened in the area in the past 12 months alone.
Dianna Cantler, the downtown development manager for the Washington County Economic Development Council, attributes this initial surge of activity to the city’s storm water management project.
“There are several reasons why we have seen a resurgence in downtown,” Cantler said, “The first being that we have public works committees and the city committed to take care of major flooding issues in the downtown streets.”
Before this project began, downtown was notorious for flooding during heavy rainfall, leaving property owners with frequent damages. The issue was tackled by creating Founder’s Park, a public park full of walking and running trails, sculptures and three functional creeks that filter water from downtown.
Cantler said that the stormwater management project is estimated to cost a “hefty” $23 million. The master plan for the project includes another plaza area that is separate from Founder’s and has more of an environmental theme, focusing on solar and water energy.
“We are already seeing the benefits of the storm water project,” Cantler said. “Not only do we have the beautiful Founder’s Park, but we also have people feeling more comfortable about investing downtown.”
Cantler said private investors such as this are another major contributor to downtown’s revitalization.
“We’ve had a couple of individuals who chose to make large investments in the downtown district,” Cantler said. “I would say that there has been $6-8 million invested by private developers within the past year and a half.”
One of these investors in particular owns the White Duck Taco Shop, Tupelo Honey, Yee-Haw Brewing Company and the train depot.
Trish Gibson, front-of-house manager at White Duck Taco Shop, said White Duck Taco found its way to Johnson City when an investor saw the opportunity to combine two businesses into one, in a sense.
“The owner is originally from nearby Perion Forge and also owns Yee-Haw [Brewing Company]” Gibson said. “White Duck and Yee-Haw were brought together by an interest to create a collaborative and innovative space, unlike anywhere else in Johnson City.”
Cantler said successes like the combination of White Duck Taco and Yee-Haw Brewing Company have shown people that there are other business owners who are willing to invest downtown.
“In a 12-month period we have had 14 new businesses open or will be open within the next four weeks,” Cantler said.
Other plans for the area include adding more living spaces and recruiting a hotel to attract travelers downtown.
A third brewery that will open soon and Ally Dispatch Solutions call center corporate headquarters.
There are also two or three blocks or buildings that have been purchased recently for aesthetic renovation purposes and administrators have introduced proposals that would develop Walnut Street as a corridor between downtown and the university and make Main Street pedestrian-only.
“The goal is not to be like Asheville, North Carolina; Greenville, South Carolina; or even Knoxville, Tennessee; there are things that make us different from each of those cities,” Cantler said. “For now, instead of comparing ourselves with those other cities, we are developing our own, Johnson City, identity.”