Editor’s Note: Census data show Northeast Tennessee’s population growing faster than it has in years since the COVID-19 pandemic changed migration patterns. Housing permits are being pulled at record levels. News Channel 11 is spending this year looking at the growth’s impact from every angle.
JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) – Todd and Arielle Magnusson had never even heard of the Tri-Cities a few years ago, but the lifelong Minnesotans knew they were open to leaving the Twin Cities.
As the weather began to warm — though not in Minneapolis-St. Paul — the now-Jonesborough residents took some time out to talk about what drew them here as their daughter Freya and dog Copper played at a Johnson City playground.
“We weren’t too happy living in Minnesota with the cold winters, and it didn’t really feel like a good fit,” Arielle Magnusson said of the conversations she and Todd were having just before the COVID-19 pandemic turned life and work upside down.
“That really was a game changer for our family, because you could work anywhere,” she said of the advent of COVID.
That was certainly true for Todd, an IT worker who got the thumbs up from his company to work completely remotely. The couple, whose daughter Freya was just beginning school, began an analytical search for their best fit in late 2020.
“I started to take a look at … what states are really beneficial for taxes, like low taxes, and then I took a look at different demographics, marriages, crime rates,” Arielle said.
Those weren’t the only factors driving their search, though. Todd Magnusson had traveled to Raleigh, N.C. for a conference a couple of years earlier, and from there he had made it up to the western North Carolina mountains.
“It was beautiful,” he said. “I felt at home, and I hadn’t felt that way in Minnesota my entire life — I don’t know why. I like being closer to nature as cliché as that sounds.”
‘Looking for our soul people’
Arielle Magnusson said even though the couple had begun to look in some mountainous locales, the Tri-Cities still hadn’t entered their minds. That it did was “a complete fluke,” she said.
“I was looking at Zillow one night, and I was looking at homes and I was struggling to see ‘okay, what could we afford. I zoomed out and all of a sudden in the Tri-Cities a house popped up. I told my husband, ‘wouldn’t this be crazy? What if we were to live here.'”
It turned out to be far from crazy. The area checked a lot of boxes, such as a smaller town feel, a safe environment, with the bonus of lots of trails and waterfalls.
The couple also wanted to learn all they could about the area’s people.
“At that time, we were looking for people that have more independent kind of attitude in their philosophy of life but also had a spiritual aspect, looking for church,” Arielle said. “We were really looking for our soul people at that time.”
The couple moved to a Johnson City apartment in May 2021, leaving extended family and all that was familiar behind. They attended a lot of community events in Johnson City and Jonesborough and looked at real estate throughout the area.
“We could partake in those events, and that really helped pull us in a certain direction of, ‘this is where our daughter is going to find friends, we can have community events, meet people.’ My husband can meet other dads.”
The couple took their time, and they also lost out on some homes they wanted in the early stages of what is still a hot real estate market. Eventually, they found a farmhouse on about two acres just outside of Jonesborough, where Freya is now in second grade at Jonesborough Elementary.
Todd reflected on the benefits as he tended to one of the sapling fruit trees he has planted since their move in October 2021.
“I got more for my money,” he said. “We used to live in a rambler, 1950s rambler on a quarter acre. Came out here – we’re able to get almost two acres and a decent house. I’m happy with that.”
He’s also happy with something he’s gained that everyone would like to have more of.
“The 45-minute commutes both ways in a downtown metro, one-way traffic, losing two hours a day, that sort of stuff, I don’t have to deal with any of that. I got more time back. That’s one way to look at it.”
History, hills and howdys
Todd Magnusson said the prospect of endless hiking opportunities was a big draw for him. So far, he’s spent the most time at Carver’s Gap/Roan Mountain and, closer to home, Johnson City’s Buffalo Mountain Park.
For her part, Arielle said the mountains are a delight whether she’s in them or just taking them in. Through the bare trees in their backyard, the spine of the Blue Ridge is visible fading into the distance to the west.
“It’s such an amazing view, and it’s just like down the street, or even in our neighborhood when you’re driving home and you’re getting the mail and you can see mountains,” she said. “And we don’t have mountains in Minnesota, and waterfalls … I can’t even count.”
A fan of history, Arielle said she was also astounded by the region’s abundance of it, from Davy Crockett Park just to the west to Sycamore Shoals to the east — not to mention Tennessee’s oldest town a few minutes away.
“In Minnesota, I was a part of the Daughters of the American Revolution,” she said. “It’s a much different group here. You have a lot more representation here, and my daughter was able to join the children of the American Revolution. As someone who loves history, it’s amazing that it’s right down the road, and this is American like founding history.”
Finally, both Magnussons mentioned how much they have appreciated the people here. Arielle said Freya’s teacher was great in welcoming her and that people are warm and inviting in general as the family has started a new social life.
Todd Magnusson said it may be “outsider naivete,” but he believes people in the region “are more down to earth and don’t run you in circles.”
Checking a lot of boxes
Former Kingsport City Manager Jeff Fleming has long been an evangelist for the region. He said the pandemic may have been just the kick starter for an area that finally started coming out of flat to negative population growth around 2016.
The eight counties grew by about 1,636 from 2016 through 2019, according to the census, after losing an average of 22 people a year in the five previous years.
In 2020 and 2021, that recent growth average more than doubled, to 3,634 a year. While that only represents about an 8% growth per decade, it’s a far cry from the previous years.
Fleming, who now heads “Move to Kingsport,” said people did a “reset” during the pandemic and began putting emphasis on items similar to the Magnussons’ — low taxes, good schools, amenities, affordability.
“They started doing a personal assessment of, ‘what’s really important to me? Do I want to sit in a traffic jam? Do I have to drive into an office every day, can I work from home? Do I want to retire (and) if I do where can that money go farthest longest?’ And that’s here.”
That’s certainly the case for the Magnussons. Arielle said she understands they’re contributing to growth and that means some change. She just hopes it won’t be too much.
“We don’t want it to change here because if we wanted to live in Knoxville, we would have chose Knoxville. If we wanted to live in Asheville, we would have lived in Asheville. We chose Johnson City and the surrounding area as our home base.”