‘It’s time’ – Johnson City, ETSU leaders collaborating on development of 60-acre “Innovation Park”

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Nearly 20 years after an earlier “master plan,” 60 acres in a prime Johnson City location is about to get the infrastructure leaders say should jump start development.

“Now is the time,” Johnson City City Manager Pete Peterson told News Channel 11 about the land called “Innovation Park” that’s owned partly by the city and partly by East Tennessee State University.

“Technology is moving even more swiftly than it ever did. We have a number of students and graduates at ETSU that are leaving this area because there aren’t employment opportunities available for them.”

The land is a stone’s throw to the west of Johnson City Medical Center and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. It’s bounded by West Market Street on the north, McKinley Road to the south and the CSX rail line to the west.

A sign marketing Johnson City’s 30-acre portion of Innovation Park along West Market Street.

For Innovation Park to reach the greatest potential, Johnson City and ETSU leaders will need to work hand in glove — each owns 30 acres of adjoining property, which a new road will roughly bisect.

“I think the city and the university are cooperating in ways that we never have decades ago,” ETSU Chief Operating Officer Jeremy Ross said.

Peterson agreed.

“I’ve been here 31 years now and the level of cooperation between the city and the university has been at different levels across the years,” he said.

“Right now I feel like the cooperation with the university is at an all time high. Things work really well together.”

City leaders recently approved a $346,500 contract for an engineering firm to design infrastructure on its 30 acres. That land, formerly home to a National Guard Armory, has no buildings on it.

ETSU’s adjacent property, which backs up to Fresh Market and several medical facilities, has a couple of clinic buildings on it but a large amount of remaining acreage. It was once home to Marine Corps operations.

Leaders’ goal for the land is to attract research, medical and business uses that yield high-paying jobs.

ETSU COO Jeremy Ross

“If we could have an outcome it would be that,” Ross said. “Better health care, better research, better academic infrastructure and higher quality jobs and an economic enhancement for the region.”

The concept has been batted around for years. Goals in a 2003 master plan for the “middle anchor” of Johnson City’s Med-Tech corridor were to “develop a high quality mixed use innovation park for research, education, office and ‘flex tech’ uses.”

Financial goals back then? “Grow uses that will employ and house people in high quality high paying jobs” and “recognize that long term return is more important than short term return.”

Peterson said the need for long-term vision remains, but hopes that “long-term” is finally in sight.

“There’s going to be a lot of opportunities come forward quick that need to be vetted, some of which probably aren’t the best long term investment,” Peterson said. “And there’s going to be those times when we’ll have to say ‘no’ to some offers to wait for a better deal for the community.”

Still, he calls development — which is being guided from the city side by the Public Building Authority — a “given.”

“It’s going to take some time. But with the state of the economy locally and the advancement of technology and the interest of people relocating here I think the time is really right that there will be a tremendous amount of success there in a reasonable amount of time.”

A long time coming

Innovation Park is, or will be, the “middle anchor” of Johnson City’s Med-Tech Corridor.

Med Tech Park and Millennium Park are the corridor’s northern and southern anchors, respectively.

A very preliminary design showing some potential buildout of the park. State of Franklin Road is at the top of the frame, with Johnson City’s 30 acres in the darker colored area and ETSU’s 30 acres above it.

“The northern and southern anchors are now complete and extremely successful in promoting and enhancing job creation and the provision of health care and the extension of education into our community,” Peterson said.

The middle anchor became possible in the 1990s when Johnson City and the U.S. government agreed to relocate the Marine Corps Reserve and Tennessee National Guard Armory buildings into a new facility in Gray on property the city had purchased.

“In exchange the 60 acres that’s known as Innovation Park was to come to the city,” Peterson said.

But the federal process determined education was a high priority and the 30 acres once home to the Marine Corps property went from the federal government to ETSU.

Tennessee controlled the other 30 acres. Nearly 20 years ago Peterson and then-ETSU President Dr. Paul Stanton agreed that land would come under city control “in recognition of our investment to make that property available for other uses.”

“We are bound by that agreement to jointly agree on a master plan and development of the Innovation Park site, which is the 30 acres to the west.”

ETSU’s Ross said the two entities will work closely and also collaborate with Ballad Health.

“We’re in this ‘what if’ stage,” Ross said. “What if or should this type of land use happen and on which tract of land.”

While medical, research and academic uses will take priority, he said some “mixed use” — including retail and housing — are possible.

“I would say the housing, the other pieces would be on the city piece of property and the university’s would be tied more to medical, educational, research initiatives,” he said.

Ross said once roads, fiber optic cable, stormwater and other infrastructure begin to be completed, buildings may begin coming out of the ground soon after. And he foresees that infrastructure being put in place “in the very near future.”

“I think we’re absolutely at the point in the next 24 to 36 months to have more buildings in the ground.”

Key players from the ETSU side will be the state – it owns the property and helps pay for buildings – and the College of Medicine, health programs and architects and engineers as land use is planned.

Ross said ongoing close collaboration with the city will be critical.

“I think the city and the university are inextricably linked,” he said. “So the land use and how it supports each other’s initiatives has to move us to the same goal.”

He said moving forward at long last is very exciting.

“Where can you have a piece of property in the urban core that has fiber, roads, stormwater and is ready to develop? So I think it will be unique. I think demand will be high.”

If it keeps talented graduates in the area and helps jump start new business development, Peterson said the concept will have succeeded.

Johnson City City Manager Pete Peterson

“We’ve got money to redevelop the Ashe Street courthouse and what we’re planning to do there is to make an entrepreneur center, a center for startup businesses and small businesses where they can come together and develop sound business plans and get involved with investors,” he said.

“They’re going to need a place to actually house their businesses so the Innovation Park property is a natural location … that small and start up businesses could occupy and be able to grow into as their businesses grow.”

Might some of those entrepreneurs or medical/technical professionals live within the park? With a lot of retail amenities nearby and the ability to hop onto bike trails and reach other parts of town, Peterson said it’s possible.

“What’s being envisioned now is a mixed use type of development to where you could live in close proximity to where you work,” he said.

The bottom line, of course, is the community’s bottom line. Peterson and Ross said that’s why Ballad Health and the VA will be at the table as well.

“ETSU, the VA and Ballad Health are kind of our three-legged stool,” Peterson said.

“That is the majority of our local economy and we need to work together and support each other and cooperate with each other to ensure the success of all of those who live here in Johnson City.”

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