Local group proposes changing Johnson City route to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard

Zach Vance • Updated May 30, 2017 at 11:21 PM

Johnson City is the only one of the Tri-Cities without a street named after the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

One local group is trying to change that — and it’s not their first attempt.

The Johnson City/Washington County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, filed an application with the Johnson City Regional Planning Commission earlier this month to rename a section of North State of Franklin Road, or Highway 381, to Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard.

The section runs from Bristol Highway to Sunset Drive.

Ralph Davis, president of the local chapter, held a called meeting Tuesday at the Johnson City Library to gather feedback and ignite support for changing the road name to honor the civil rights leader.

“This isn’t a black thing, this is a community thing. This is what history is about and it’s all coming together,” Davis said.

The roughly 3.5-mile route was chosen partly because of its visibility and partly because of the small number of businesses the address change would affect.

“There’s not as many businesses there and it’s a four-lane thoroughfare,” Davis said. “We want something that’s highly visible, especially to visitors when they come into the city to see that Johnson City is a progressive community.”

Advocate Wayne Robertson, who filed the application, said only two businesses, First Bank & Trust Company and Tri-Cities Skin and Cancer, would be affected by the address change. Robertson said neither business was supportive of the proposal because it would include various costs.

A postal office is also located along the route.

If a change was made, Robertson said businesses and residents would still receive mail directed to the old address for one year.

What Davis and other members of the NAACP do not want is an obscure street in the middle of town named after King, since it wouldn’t get as much attention.

“We don’t want it sat down in the middle of town somewhere where nobody knows where that street is unless you lived in that neighborhood for 20 years,” Davis said.

This conversation isn’t a new one. Davis said the NAACP has discussed naming a street after MLK for nearly a decade.

In 2012, the NAACP filed a similar application to change the name of Legion Street, but that plan ultimately failed after the American Legion expressed concerns. Changing Buffalo Street was another option that proved futile.

“There’s been a lot of work put in in years past,” Davis said. “We’re trying to revive what has been done and generate the interest that needs to be done now to get it started again.”

Another route mentioned during the meeting was a section of University Parkway beginning at Interstate 26 and ending at Market Street, which could be another option if the State of Franklin proposal fails.

No city commissioners were present Tuesday because of a previously scheduled agenda meeting.

Mayor David Tomita said he’s not aware of the City of Johnson City ever changing the name of a road before.

“It’s never been done that anybody can remember. Now it may have at some point in time. We’ve built a street and named it, but to my knowledge, and I could be wrong, I’m not sure that we’ve ever changed the name of an existing street,” Tomita said.

“I haven’t been able to talk to anyone on staff who recalls having this done.”

While he did support the concept, Tomita was wary about prematurely throwing his support behind an initiative without knowing specific details and all the ramifications such a change would entail.

“You have to take into consideration several things. One is the number of impacted addresses. That’s where you’ve got to be really careful in your commercial areas because if you have businesses that have been on a particular street for 50 years, that’s impactful for them to have to change that,” said Tomita, who added he did not want to fragment any major roadway.

Tomita also mentioned various expenses and how the name change would affect 911 dispatch.

“I just caution everyone to be very careful and not turn this into something that it’s not, and it certainly has that potential to do that,” Tomita said.

A 2012 Johnson City Press online poll asking readers “Should Johnson City name a street after Martin Luther King Jr.?” was surprisingly split.

Of the 2,652 respondents, 48 percent said yes, 47 percent said no, 1 percent was undecided and 5 percent said they didn’t care.

Davis plans to get tips about the procedure from Kingsport and Bristol supporters who went through a similar process nearly a decade ago.

In 2008, Kingsport renamed part of Lincoln Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, and in 2007, Bristol, Virginia and Bristol, Tennessee, leaders were petitioned to designate a street running through both cities Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. 

The Planning Commission is scheduled to hear the proposal at its June 13 meeting. Davis encourages anyone who supports changing the road name to attend the meeting. 

Eds. Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Barry Heating & Air Conditioning would be affected by the address change. 

Email Zach Vance at zvance@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP.




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