‘No easy fix’ as stakeholders grapple with issues in downtown Johnson City

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – The Johnson City police-led “community roundtable” is hosting a question and answer session Thursday at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church.

The topic? Downtown safety. The invite list? Business owners, employees, residents and “all interested stakeholders.”

News Channel 11 has interviewed a variety of people with a stake in downtown since we reported on removal of furniture in a breezeway late last month. All say the challenge, which also came to a head three years ago and spurred a no camping ordinance, offers no simple fixes.   

This extended video includes additional material from the half-dozen stakeholders News Channel 11 interviewed for this story.

Some downtown business owners and others say problems persist with illegal activity and behaviors that could drive customers away. Saturday offered firsthand evidence. As families shopped at the farmers market barely a block away first responders worked an apparent drug overdose right behind me in the breezeway. 

Michael Short, the owner of downtown fair trade store Artisans Village, said he’s not had many issues — but fellow business owners have. “When you’re looking to bring people into a location it has to be safe and if there’s even the perception that it’s not safe that can be problematic,” Short said.  

Joe Wise, Johnson City’s mayor, said this: “The concerns about the misuse and abuse of downtown space are legitimate.”  

Johnson City’s police chief said the issue has prompted numerous communications.

“We’ve received calls, emails from not only visitors from downtown or people who work downtown but also the business owners from downtown,” Karl Turner said. “Complaints from anything about boisterous or loud conversations to people sleeping on the sidewalks. 

Stakeholders say the problem is not with most people who spend large parts of their days downtown – but with law violations. 

“The things that have happened in downtown is really not from our homeless population,” realtor and downtown business owner Shannon Castillo said. “It’s from illegal activity and that’s the things that we really need to differentiate – we need to take care of that illegal activity.” 

Short said fellow business owners have mentioned an array of problems.

“Loitering. Panhandling, certainly of an aggressive nature that does not build confidence in customers as they make their way around downtown.” 

Solutions are elusive as leaders seek ways to provide a good environment for business growth and investment while remaining compassionate toward people – some homeless, some not – who frequent downtown for services offered there or just to hang out.  

“It could be people who do have a place to stay but they enjoy going to downtown or they have other reasons for going to downtown,” Turner said. 

Services, from free meals, shelters and mental health and substance abuse case management, aren’t lacking. 

“They’re people who need help, who need services and so we want to make sure that people know that we’re here and want to provide those services and that assistance to anyone that needs that,” Frontier Health Adult Services Site Director Brittany Mitchell said.  

And collaborative teams from the area’s homeless coalition will resume COVID-interrupted weekly outreach next month, Appalachian Regional Coalition on Homelessness Director Anne Cooper said. 

“Friday was our outreach day and that’s where we had that team composed not only of just ARCH but also some mental health providers, ETSU Day Center staff, Salvation Army, Manna House – all of those providers that we wrap around services.” 

But not everyone wants help – and with mental health and substance abuse issues common, visible behaviors or even folks’ appearances can alarm some people. 

“I’d say any time we see something that may be kind of out of the ordinary or we’re not sure how to interpret it can be scary,” Frontier Health’s Mitchell said. 

Just because something is different doesn’t mean it’s prohibited, though, Turner said. “We can only enforce or take action against people who commit criminal violations and a lot of things that people are concerned with aren’t criminal violations.”  

And it doesn’t mean it’s a threat to people working, eating or shopping downtown, Castillo said. 

“Everybody is doing their own thing,” she said. “We have an active business downtown we have co- workers at Spark Plaza that are here all through the night as well. 

“We want to take care of the people that are part of our community and what we’re seeing is that everybody is staying safe. We have to be street smart too.” 

The city’s mayor says concern about some recent issues isn’t enough to keep him away either. 

“My family and I are regularly downtown and do not have the least bit of concern for our safety and welfare when we’re there,” Wise said.  

But the situations that are problematic draw a lot of attention – and need to, stakeholders say. 

“We need to be considering how we are proactive in addressing those issues or anticipating those issues wherever we can,” Wise said. 

“We need to have a system in place where we have active patrols, where we have our business owners having a community watch and that we need to have that process in place continuously,” Castillo added. 

ARCH’s Cooper said there is a model. 

“We would love to establish what’s known as a HOT team, a Homeless Outreach Team,” she said. “That’s where you have all of the players, not just the social service providers but also for instance police, EMS is a big one too, because there is a lot of drug activity in the downtown area and that just helps overall with that.” 

Those who work in the environment said in the end the biggest danger is to the vulnerable people who are in the downtown environment day and night. 

“They are at times more likely to be a victim of some kind of violent act,” Frontier’s Mitchell said. “I think there’s definitely some safety issues there for them as well.” 

Turner concurred. “Lots of times they are victimized and sometimes they’re victimized by each other and sometimes they’re victimized by other people in society.”

Perception is reality, though, and losing customers or real estate tenants and buyers is always a risk when activity that makes people uncomfortable is on the rise. 

“Between business owners, building owners, our city commissioners and our police department, we’ve managed to come together as a group and to kind of quell some of the issues that we’ve been having downtown,” Castillo said. :”But yes, there have been some people that have been concerned.”  

Michael Short echoed Castillo’s call for active patrols. 

“Police presence has proven in the past to be a huge game changer in this kind of, with this kind of challenge. And that’s the one thing that I would always go to and I would always ask for. I don’t think you can ever get enough of it if it’s feasible do it.” 

Short says protecting people’s dignity and businesses’ investments requires a delicate balance with everyone at the table.  

“Whether you’re a business owner, a building owner, you work for the city, you’re a customer who likes to frequent downtown – we all need to be looking for solutions. This is a very complex problem, it’s not something that you can pass a law or pass an ordinance and make it go away.”  

The challenges may never vanish, but thoughts about how to address them will get full voice Thursday.

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