JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed fiscal 2021 budget includes $5 million for renovation of Johnson City’s historic Ashe Street Courthouse. The item is still subject to passage by the General Assembly, as is the entire budget.
The first-year ask was included in its full amount and has city, Washington County and East Tennessee State University officials bullish on the prospect of converting the 110-year-old building into an entrepreneurial incubator. All three entities pushed for the funding and said the building’s revitalization was a key cog in redevelopment of the Walnut Street corridor between ETSU and downtown Johnson City.
“It’s a big thing for Johnson City, it’s a big thing for downtown, and to see this commitment in the budget for us is exciting,” Johnson City Commissioner John Hunter said Tuesday morning, shortly after the budget was released.
Washington County owns the building, which most recently housed the county’s 911 dispatch operations but has been empty for just over two years. It was built as a post office and became a courthouse about 80 years ago, serving that purpose until the late 1980s.
Vice mayor Joe Wise said the combination of a multi-entity collaboration and strong private and city investment in the Walnut Street corridor helped make a good case for Lee keeping the request in his budget. Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy and ETSU President Brian Noland’s office both submitted letters of support for the proposal.
“I think any time you bring together various regional players and they’re speaking in a united voice, that’s going to be a critical component to success,” Wise said.
“This is a combined effort between Johnson City, Washington County and ETSU to protect and uplift a historic building, with the goal of reinvesting,” Hunter added. “One of the governor’s goals is rural entrepreneurship and growth in markets like ours.”
Mayor Jenny Brock said the city and private investors have poured money into the corridor’s revitalization. A group led by Grant Summers, for instance, is in the midst of a roughly $15 million project to renovate the old Model Mill a couple blocks west of the courthouse building. The city has committed more than $10 million to streetscape and infrastructure improvements that will begin later this year.
Brock said commissioners explained that to Lee in a recent vision to Nashville, reiterating a message they had given him in late 2019. She said Lee’s awareness goes back even further, though.
“When he first started running for office he came to downtown Johnson City and saw what the city had done for infrastructure and how that had promoted growth,” Brock said. “In our presentation to him about the West Walnut Street corridor it was very much the same. It was the city investment in infrastructure and then the private investment in the businesses (downtown) and that’s the perfect combination, and we see the same thing happening here.”
Wise, who serves on a task force that’s spent more than three years working toward West Walnut’s redevelopment and gathered much public input, said the time has come to put “meat on the bones” and “move from theory to practice.” That should begin to include significant new private investment, he said. “There are already businesses locating in the Walnut Street corridor, new innovative uses and exciting concepts. There are more in the pipeline, and the Ashe Street courthouse is just a piece of that bigger puzzle.”
It’s also the only publicly-owned building over a century old, and the risk of another of Johnson City’s historic buildings falling into disrepair essentially started the process, Hunter said. “If we hadn’t gotten to this point early enough this historic building could have seen itself going into further disrepair.”
Instead, Brock said they have “caught it in time” and that she’s looking forward to a day when the public building takes on a new use. It may or may not be a business incubator, but regardless she said it should become a thriving focal point again — hearkening back to several decades as a post office and several more as a courthouse.
“Millions of footprints have gone in and out of this building over time, and we’re going to preserve that and have the building something we can be really proud of, but its purpose will also be something that can contribute in a new way,” Brock said.
Now, Hunter said, proponents will watch the legislative process “to make sure we protect the interest of what could be in the Walnut Street district as it makes its way through the legislature.”