Drawings for one of those projects, a 100-acre mixed-use development sandwiched between Boones Creek Road and Bart Green Drive, came to light in September. At the time, plans showed room for multiple restaurants, a 150,000-square-foot wholesale retail space, a minimum of one hotel and 212,000 square feet of residential space.
First reported by the Tennessean in July, the development group behind the proposal — Mark Larkey, Bryan Sangid, Bucky Mabe, Clarence Mabe and Joe Wilson — donated a combined $45,000 to a PAC called People Working for Reform, belonging to State Rep. Timothy Hill.
The money supported State Rep. Matthew Hill’s bid for Speaker of the House in summer 2019. Each member donated $10,000 apiece except for Wilson, who donated $5,000.
Donations to PAC
The donations occurred between May 25 and June 25, according to a September 2019 campaign finance report. Hill, who said he drove across the state during his push for Speaker, said the money was used for expenses like gas, hotels, meals and donations to candidates.
Hill said the the donations did not influence his decision to push for the Boones Creek legislation, which he said were made after the legislation was passed.
According to the bill history on the General Assembly website, the legislation was filed for introduction in the House on Feb. 4. It passed the Senate on May 2, and the last House vote on the bill occurred on the same day. The bill was transmitted to the governor’s office on May 16, and Gov. Bill Lee signed the bill into law on May 24.
“There’s no connection there from a timeline perspective,” Hill said.
In a statement issued Monday, Larkey said that, when the bill authorizing the Boones Creek district passed the House, neither he nor anyone else knew there was going to be an opening for Speaker.
Former House Speaker Glen Casada announced his intention to resign on May 21, the day after a secret ballot showed a majority of the state’s Republican caucus had no confidence in him. Hill announced his intention to run for the speakership on May 22 during a Johnson City Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast.
“My support to the PAC was directly related to the opportunity for Representative Hill to support our region at a higher state level which is an opportunity that didn’t even exist when the bill was passed May 2,” Larkey said. “Who in our region wouldn’t be proud to support one of our own for such a high level of state leadership.?
“History will prove this is one of the most impactful pieces of economic development legislation for Johnson City and Washington County,” Larkey continued.
Hill called the idea of a quid pro quo “offensive.”
“Not only does it not line up with the timeline, but that’s offensive because I don’t do that,” he said. “And these gentlemen never ever talked to me about anything remotely like that.”
Hill said the development group approached legislators about carrying a piece of legislation that created an incentive district in Boones Creek. The legislation is modeled off a 2011 law that led to the creation of a retail tourism zone in Bristol, which helped set the groundwork for the Pinnacle.
“They stepped up, and I thought they just did a great job for Johnson City and Washington County,” Larkey said of local legislators.
Compared to the acreage considered on prior readings, the boundaries of the district that commissioners will consider Thursday have been slightly expanded, which will accommodate another possible project in the zone. The district is now roughly 947 acres.
The district now includes two acres of undeveloped property at 1022 Quality Circle that the owners of the land, Alice and Gary Alexander, are hoping to use for retail. Gary Alexander said he has letters of intent from two potential tenants. During the commission meeting on Jan. 2, the Alexanders asked the city to consider slightly increasing the footprint of the district to include their property.
He said he can’t identify the clients but noted that neither currently have a location in Washington County or at the Pinnacle. Between the two businesses, the companies would bring in 50 to 60 employees. Alexander anticipates the two stores together would bring in between $8 million and $10 million in sales per year.
Before hearing about the district, Alexander said the couple was planning on building an 80,000 square foot, three-story climate-controlled storage facility on the property. After hearing about the incentive district, Alexander said he and Alice determined there could be a better use for the land.
“The property is too valuable to put a storage facility on it now,” he said.
At large, Alexander is optimistic about the effects of the Boones Creek incentive district, pointing to the impact of the Pinnacle on Bristol.
“I envision this will help downtown Johnson City and will help the entire retail environment in Johnson City,” he said.
Request for clarification
During their regular meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at City Hall, 601 E. Main St., Johnson City commissioners will vote on third and final reading on the boundaries of a retail and tourism district in the Boones Creek area around Exit 17. If approved by the City Commission, the district boundaries would then move to the state for final approval.
Johnson City attorneys Donald Spurrell and John Wood sent a letter to commissioners on Tuesday asking for clarification on the location requirements of the district.
The legislation says some boundary of the district must be “no more than one-half mile from an existing federally designated interstate exit” and be “no more than twenty miles from the state border of two neighboring states as measured by a straight line.” The entire district must also require $20 million in capital investment, attract one million visitors a year and generate $2 million a year in state sales tax revenue.