$270K in state grant money awarded to help renovate former J.W. Woolworth building in Johnson City


JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)- Back in April, Tennessee lawmakers dedicated $4 million to revitalize historic buildings across the state.

The money comes in the form of a grant that funds 30% of the renovation costs up to $300,000.

“The historic rehabilitation grant is based on what investment that you’re making and what the construction costs are going to be,” said Dianna Cantler, the interim director for the Johnson City Development Authority. “This year, Governor Lee decided instead of doing a tax credit, they would do a historic revitalization grant. It was a $5 million allocation as a pilot program in his budget.”

Deer Trail 4, LLC., a development company in Johnson City is one of the 26 who got the grant.

“We actually had four different properties apply and only one received the grant, so we’ve got several other opportunities out there that hopefully, some more money will come available,” Cantler said. “It’s probably one of the biggest elements in the historic revitalization that Johnson City has seen in decades.”

Deer Trail 4 is owned by Joyce Smith and her family. They spent almost a year purchasing the former F.W. Woolworth building.

“It was built in 1907, and it has been awarded historic certification,” said Smith. “It was Pedigro’s which was a dry goods store originally. We think that was the first use. Then it turned into a Woolworth’s at one point, so, it has a ton of history and charm to it.”

They were awarded $270,000 with the grant and hope to renovate the building for mixed-use business.

“The facade, there was extensive damage done when they covered it up. So, this grant is really going to allow us to not have to cut corners and really bring it back to its original life,” Smith said. “We’re guesstimating that the facade will probably cost about $800-900 thousand to bring it back to the original but the building itself, we’re not sure what that’s going to cost yet.”

The Smiths currently live in New Mexico and have corporate housing businesses there and in Atlanta. They have family in the Tri-Cities and plan to relocate. The family also owns the building next door to the Woolworth building where Johnson City Brewing and several other businesses are housed.

“I really would like to bring something that’s going to bring the foot traffic down here to just bring back that energy and bring more clientele to the businesses that are already here,” said Smith.

She isn’t sure how long the renovations will take, but she hopes to recruit businesses to use the top part for office space and restaurants or retail for the bottom.

“We have seven offices. We’re planning on keeping them offices of any size needed, so they’ll be a ‘build to suit,'” Smith said. “We are so thrilled that we were awarded it so we can do what we want with the building and keep it that historical landmark.”

That history- hoping to be turned over through the grant with its guidelines of maintaining historical integrity.

“Not only is it encouraging property owners to invest in their property, it’s encouraging them to do it the right way. To make sure that the investment that you’re making is going to be something that will last for decades to come,” said Cantler. “You may be giving people money, but it’s going to cost them a little bit more to do the project because they’re having to follow a certain standard. Instead of just going in and saying ‘we’re just going to put wood trim up here,’ they’re going to have to go and find a carpenter who can match what is already there, or if there are pictures they have to match what the building looked like at a certain time.”

The grants also encourage investors to renovate the buildings on the front end.

“Instead of sitting on a building and waiting for something to happen, this actually pushes them forward. It gives them the incentive to go ahead and find the money instead of having it sit vacant,” Cantler said. “If you’ve got a piece of property in the middle of a block that is so blighted and is boarded up and there’s not any activity there, it’s very disheartening for the folks that have already invested in their property. It’s also more difficult for us to recruit new businesses.”

Along with bringing jobs and new business to that space, the hope is that other spots on Main Street will follow suit.

“A lot of times what happens is we can do one project on a block and then the rest of the buildings will do maybe some more facade improvements because of the investments that have been made,” Cantler said. “When we have all these buildings that are restored, then everybody wants to be in them. We can bring new businesses in.”

Also in the region, LMD Technologies in Greeneville was awarded $60,000 to rehabilitate a building on Depot Street.

Awards were made on a first-come, first-served basis. A portion of the funding has been set aside until December 31, 2021, for projects located in Tier 3 and Tier 4 rural communities. Johnson City is a Tier 2 community.

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