Bring back downtown’s big retail row

Johnson City Press • Jul 7, 2018 at 8:00 AM

Johnson City has yet another opportunity to restore a bit of downtown’s former glory, capitalizing on the recent progress made possible by stormwater mitigation, new parks, renovated depots and local entrepreneurs.

And a little inspiration from the past wouldn’t hurt.

In downtown’s prime, JC Penney, Woolworth and Sears sat side by side just east of South Roan between Main and Market. Along with Parks Belk, Kress and such down the block, the national retail row was a major retail anchor on downtown’s east end. Having the big boys downtown drew shoppers into the district by the droves, increasing traffic to local businesses along the way.

Of course, the big stores fled for the mall in north Johnson City in the 1970s, leaving downtown a shell of its former self for decades.

For 30 years, though, the row was occupied by the children’s venue Hands On! Regional Museum, one of the first entities that lifted downtown toward revitalization. Now, Hands On! also has fled north, joining with the East Tennessee State University at the Gray Fossil site to create Hands On! Discovery, and the row is again vacant.

After the museum announced its departure, the city of Johnson City bought the Hands On! (Woolworth) building for $500,000 and leased it to the museum until it could complete its relocation. The city expects the museum to clear out by summer’s end. The city already owned the two bookends (Penney’s and Sears).

As Staff Writer Zach Vance reported in Tuesday’s edition, City Manager Pete Peterson recommended that the City Commission engage a real estate agent to market the row to “some folks who will have some interest in moving in downtown.”

Perhaps you can see where our wheels are turning.

Of course, Penney’s, Woolworth, Sears and the like are never coming back. Woolworth is long gone, Sears is teetering on extinction, and Penney’s has closed scores of locations. But that doesn’t mean another retail row couldn’t be in downtown’s future. Retailers are abandoning the malls for strip centers like the Pinnacle in Bristol, while some are establishing in downtowns around the country. Johnson City has been trying to lure a Mast General Store over the mountains from North Carolina for at least 25 years.

As we’ve stated before, more retail anchors are the last major piece of the puzzle in downtown’s revitalization — whether they be local or regional businesses.

With all the improvements in our downtown, the 300 block of East Main Street could be an attractive draw. The city’s efforts to make downtown a mecca for outdoor-oriented businesses could fit right in, given the row’s proximity to the new Tannery Knobs Mountain Bike Park.

We agree with Peterson that a real estate agent would help. So should the Johnson City Development Authority and the city’s Chamber of Commerce. Renewing the life of the East Main Street row should be a major priority for all stakeholders in downtown’s vitality.

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