Downtown Johnson City changes with the times

Nathan Baker • Dec 2, 2019 at 10:15 AM

Over the last 150 years, downtown Johnson City has gone through several transformations, from a small railroad outpost to a bustling center of commerce to a ghost town to a historic small business district.

Founder and first mayor Henry Johnson got to work even before the town’s incorporation. He bought a half-acre near the intersection of a main stagecoach road and a new railroad branch in 1856 and built a small home and general store.

Through several expansions, he established a railroad depot and post office, creating a population and business center in the countryside.

After Johnson City’s incorporation in 1869, Johnson was unanimously elected its leader.

The Reconstruction period after the Civil War was kind to the city. Three railroad lines passed through its downtown, bringing mined ore, farm products and passengers to their depots.

The city prospered and attracted investment from industrialists and land developers who built whole neighborhoods on its outskirts.

Though national economic busts stalled some of the planned projects, the city’s population grew, and its downtown remained a retail and business center well into the 1960s.

Current Mayor Jenny Brock worked at the Penney’s department store on Main Street in the late ’60s. She remembers a bustling downtown core.

“It was the center of everything, banking, attorneys, retail, everything was downtown,” she said. “It was a very vibrant and energetic place. During Christmas parades, you could hardly move down the streets it was so crowded.”

As a younger child, Brock said downtown was a place people dressed up to visit. Friends and neighbors would meet at the businesses, creating a social hub there, as well.

Brock moved away in 1969, shortly before downtown Johnson City started a downhill slide.

The ’70s saw a new shopping district established on the city’s north side, following a trend of standalone department stores and shopping malls.

The mall opened in 1971 on North Roan Street. From then through the ’80s, downtown’s retail businesses moved away, leaving empty storefronts.

Without investment and economic activity, the area floundered. Buildings became blighted, and only a few stores and offices remained.

Heavy rains flooded the streets, compounding problems and discouraging business owners.

Brock returned in the ’80s to find a very different downtown.

“When I came back I was heartbroken,” she said. “It was like a desert. There was very little activity and it was rundown looking. It was very sad to see.”

The 2000s brought renewed interest downtown. Other cities were revitalizing their central cores, and officials wanted to follow suit.

The city’s Historic Zoning Commission overlaid a historic district on the area and set to work preserving the old structures.

Work also began on a plan to better manage floodwater from nearby creeks. The multimillion dollar plan established Founders Park and King Commons, providing green space and relieving some of the frequent and costly deluges.

As business owners and investors saw the city’s officials’ commitment to downtown, they too began to believe in its potential.

Developers rehabilitated two dilapidated train depots and moved restaurants in. Long dark storefronts were once again filled with products and customers.

The Model Mill, left empty by the flour company that owned it, is getting new life, and will soon be filled by retail businesses and offices. City officials likewise hope to transform the John Sevier Center into a business hub.

“Today, when I see that vibrancy coming back, it connects me to my fondest memories of downtown,” Brock said. “It’s starting to become very familiar to me, except people complain a lot more about parking, when they didn’t before.”

Still, with new open air retail shopping centers going up in neighboring towns and one proposed in Boones Creek, Brock said efforts should be made to preserve downtown’s vibrancy.

“After what happened early ’70s, the excitement about the mall, I think more could have been done to help retain downtown’s business activity,” she said. “There should have been programs in place to keep businesses from closing and moving. As we think about a new development in Boones Creek soon, we need to be keeping an eye on that and make sure downtown and North Roan stay vibrant centers for activity.”