JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Johnson City Commissioners are adding some challenging items to their strategic plan after settling on them at a January retreat.

Leaders targeted four new initiatives to go along with seven current ones. They didn’t aim low, getting at some vexing problems that if left unaddressed could hurt the high quality of life that has been spurring growth in recent years.

The new initiatives include:

  • Developing a citywide strategy to reduce drugs and crime.
  • Developing a strategy to address homelessness by collaborating with public and private entities.
  • Focusing on revitalizing and “invigorating” south Johnson City.
  • Creating an affordable housing strategic plan, including finance.

Mayor Todd Fowler told News Channel 11 they won’t be easy but they’re critical to keep Johnson City on the right track.

“I want to make it safe,” he said. “I want to make it a nice place where my kids that have moved away will want to come back here.”

This abandoned shopping center on South Roan Street in Johnson City, Tenn. is among the targets for revitalizing that part of town in a new strategic plan adopted by city commissioners. (WJHL photo)

He said everyone is worried about affordable housing. With both rising interest rates and skyrocketing home prices, the monthly payment on the median-priced home has risen from $927 to $1,600 in just three years.

“Everyone is worried about it. I mean, it goes from the people that own businesses to the people that work for them,” Fowler said. “It goes to the people coming into Johnson City that are staying in hotel rooms trying to find places to stay. So we’ve got a need.”

Ball said one potential strategy would be offering city-owned property for housing redevelopment, “wherein we make the land available at a cheaper price. If the product is put on the market at a lower rent so that it can be used for folks for affordable housing.”

She said that would be income based, but up to higher incomes than typically qualify for public housing or other types of traditional affordable housing programs.

Effectively addressing a visible and growing homeless problem won’t just benefit unhoused people, City Manager Cathy Ball said.

“What I say is homelessness is bad for everyone, especially those experiencing it,” she said. “So if everyone is of the same mindset that we want to get people housed, and the goal is to get people housed so that they’re safe, as well as, don’t create other nuisances within the community and oftentimes create real financial problems for businesses.”

Fowler said commissioners are considering having Ball and the staff leadership hire someone “to be sort of the overseer for the homelessness problem … and get the public and private people together, to come up with a plan on what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.”

Addressing drugs and crime is another addition to the strategic plan.

“There’s drug problems, and we need to get that stuff handled,” Fowler said. “And it’s not an easy thing, so we’ve got a lot of planning to do. The city manager’s working on that right now.

Indeed, Ball said that effort will include work with not just the police department but the community development department as well and even extend to what she called environmental design.

“What can we do within our community in terms of lighting, in terms of other things to make them feel safer,” she said. “I think fundamentally all of us know that in order to have a good quality of life we have to feel safe.

“We’re really want to shore that up, make sure we’re putting the appropriate investments in that so that our community has confidence that we can that they feel safe.”

As for south Johnson City, the home to a large and long-vacant shopping center near exit 24 on Interstate 26, Fowler said that site could see an overhaul soon. Ingle’s bought the 5.3-acre property for $4.1 million in late 2020. It’s not far from the site of an under-construction Dollar General.

“We’re looking at the whole thing and not one section,” Fowler said of south Johnson City. “We’ve heard from citizens that it’s important and we think it is too.”

Ball said that section of the city is flanked by “a beautiful asset” in Buffalo Mountain.

“I think there are opportunities for us to really take an area that has been strained for some period of time and really be able to put some investment into that in order to draw more new development … for the folks who are already there.”

Ball says these aren’t challenges a city can just throw money at.

“They’re hard for a lot of communities right now but I have every confidence that we can come up with strategies for our community that will be successful and that people will feel the impact of what we’re doing to make a difference.”

Fowler said Johnson City must address the issues if it wants to keep thriving. 

“We’re attractive because we’ve been given national attention now,” he said, referring to Johnson City being ranked among top housing markets and receiving other accolades.

“So we’re trying to keep up with the infrastructure, with housing, with the problems that brings with homelessness, with drugs, all those things. It’s a big ticket. It’s a lot of things to do. So we’re putting a lot of pressure on our city manager to make sure we get going the right direction on all those things.

“She’s doing well but she’s got a lot of stuff to do. We have new assistant city managers that we’ve got in place now and they are good people and she’s depending on them a lot.”