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Boones Creek project should move forward

Johnson City Press • Jan 16, 2020 at 7:45 AM

Legitimate concerns exist about Johnson City’s path toward an incentive development district off Exit 17 in Boones Creek, but none of them should prevent the City Commission from approving the project’s boundaries tonight on third reading.

The project is too important to the city’s economy to be waylaid by politics and competing interests. Johnson City can either continue to be the region’s economic hub with aggressive tactics or it can sit on its heels and watch other communities in the state continue to outgrow it.

In a last-second Hail Mary, four local attorneys and developers wrote commissioners this week urging them to delay tonight’s scheduled vote on the district’s boundaries. Astonishingly, among the reasons cited was a lack of opportunity for public input. That claim just doesn’t hold water given the time frame and news coverage involved.

It’s been nine months since the state Legislature authorized the zone with a new law in May. It’s been four months since the first set of potential developers drafted a possible mixed-use project for a portion of the roughly 950-acre incentive zone. It’s been a month since the commission approved boundaries for the district on first reading, which was followed by a second reading and public hearing two weeks ago.

The location and scope of the project were identified on day 1. This newspaper has reported the developments each step along the way, usually on page 1.

In the Jan. 2 public hearing, citizens spoke both with favor and with anxieties about the incentive zone. The overriding apprehension appeared to be the project’s possible impact on existing retail centers, such as the Mall at Johnson City, the West Walnut Street corridor project and progress in revitalized downtown Johnson City.

We share those concerns to a degree. As City Manager Pete Peterson stated Jan. 2, no one wants to see an “empty box” somewhere else due to business migration. Indeed, you can expect to see some shift, just as downtown’s commerce moved to north Johnson City in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

But the Boones Creek plan has a major safeguard in a provision requiring any business relocating to the district to increase its footprint by at least 35%. It’s a stretch to think the three anchor stores remaining in the mall — Belk, JCPenney and Dick’s Sporting Good — or many of the smaller shops there would commit to that much space.

Johnson City still has room for new large retailers, as evidenced by the recent arrivals of Hobby Lobby and At Home — soon to be joined by Guitar Center — at the old Kmart location on Peoples Street. Any number of big box stores eventually will eye the Tri-Cities, and Johnson City needs to be in a position to attract them.

From the outset, the project has been described as similar to the Pinnacle development in Bristol in keeping with national trends. Such drive-through developments have become the way people prefer to shop as opposed to indoor malls, and they are more flexible for expansion.

West Walnut and downtown Johnson City are more locally-oriented districts. Such shop owners would bristle at the notion of national retailers competing in the same footprint.

To grow smartly, Johnson City has to focus on all its sectors that have potential. With careful planning, the city can shape Boones Creek’s change while also fostering the momentum in and around downtown. They are not mutually exclusive.

For the last 30 years, Boones Creek has been a major growth sector both residentially and commercially. It’s the natural place for the next big thing. The property just off Interstate 26 is the prime location to make it happen. As the lines between the Tri-Cities continue to blur, Boones Creek and Gray will be Johnson City’s hot spots.

The detractors who wrote commissioners claimed the state law’s description could apply to most if not all the I-26 exits in Johnson City. We agree with city officials that while some other exits might meet a state border distance requirement in the law, only the Boones Creek location has the acreage and economic development prospects necessary to meet the incremental sales tax revenue required.

The letter writers may have a fair point, however, about Vice Mayor Joe Wise’s role in the decision. Wise holds a 12 percent stake in an office complex within the proposed boundary. The vice mayor told Staff Writer David Floyd on Tuesday that he did not see a conflict of interest, saying he would be unlikely to “tear down my office so I can rebuild something that generates sales tax.” Perhaps, but that property’s value is likely to increase just by its proximity to the other developments. Wise should consider recusal.

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