2018's top news stories

Johnson City Press • Dec 30, 2018 at 12:35 AM

With elections on everyone’s minds, it was tough to escape politics in 2018, but a number of important area events shared the spotlight. Here are some of the top stories of the year reported by the Johnson City Press.

The president visits
The man who dominated national headlines this year also featured heavily in local media coverage.

In October, President Donald Trump visited Johnson City’s Freedom Hall for a political rally for Republican candidates, primarily U.S. Senate hopeful Marsha Blackburn, who was elected a month later, and himself, who will face a re-election campaign in 2020.

A sold-out crowd of thousands packed the municipal arena and an auxiliary gym, and thousands more stood outside to watch his address on jumbo screens outside. The president was also greeted by crowds at Tri-Cities Airport after disembarking from Air Force One, and his convoy’s route from the airport to the venue was packed with throngs of local residents hoping to catch a glimpse of Trump and his posse.

Of course, the polarizing president also drew his share of detractors, and hundreds stood outside Freedom Hall to protest his appearance and his policies. Trump was the first sitting president to visit Johnson City since Gerald Ford spoke at Freedom Hall in 1976, a historical occurrence for sure.

TriPride brings out thousands
In September, another notable event drew thousands of people to downtown Johnson City to celebrate inclusion, diversity and pride during the first TriPride festival and parade supporting the LGBTQ community.

The attendance and support exceeded organizers’ expectations, with cheering faces jamming the parade route and revelers flooding the concert and vendors set up in Founders Park. Some in attendance marveled at the outpouring of support for a community whose members were regularly ostracized not that long ago. A small group of protesters showed up at the event, but their presence did not garner much attention from supporters.

Ballad merges
In January, Tennessee officially granted a certificate of public advantage to Ballad Health, officially allowing Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System to merge.

The two systems had been working to join together for years, but the state’s approval put in place the regulatory infrastructure and the terms by which the new system operates. Through the rest of the year, Ballad leaders worked at binding the systems, sometimes with positive developments like the opening of the new Unicoi County Hospital, but sometimes the attempts to eliminate the duplication of services were met with opposition.

Ballad’s announcements of plans to downgrade the trauma centers at Holston Valley Medical Center and Bristol Regional Medical Center and to consolidate neonatal infant care unit services to the Johnson City Medical Center were not taken well by some in the community who perceived the changes as removing medical services from their towns.

Ballad is still waiting for state approval for pediatric changes.

High turnout for elections
In August and November, local residents went to the polls to elect representatives to local, state and national offices.

Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties all sent new men to the mayors’ offices. Jenny Brock, who has served on Johnson City’s Commission for several terms, was elected mayor. Statewide, a brutal primary knocked the two frontrunner gubernatorial candidates out of the race, ultimately securing Bill Lee’s win to the executive seat.

Republican Marsha Blackburn became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from the state, and Rep. Phil Roe was returned to the House by his constituents. Once tallied, election officials all over the state said the November election saw the highest voter turnout in decades, as early voting grew in popularity.

The region looks at regionalism
For economic development officials, “regionalism” was the word and philosophy of the year.

The Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership held the first Meet the Mountains festival in Founders Park to showcase the outdoor recreation possibilities in Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties, a plan to entice outdoor-themed businesses and tourists to the area.

In July, the organization claimed success when kayak-maker Pyranha announced plans to bring its North American distribution facility to Erwin. Later in the year, the mayors of Washington and Sullivan counties announced a “blue ribbon committee on regional cooperation” to further entrepreneurial development, regional tourism marketing, existing business development and workforce development.

The Tri-Cities’ three chambers of commerce also signed a joint resolution pledging to work together to aid business advancement in the Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia region. The effort could be branded as “Appalachian Highlands,” a name used in the joint organization’s announcement video.

Locals demonstrate their convictions
The increased interest in national politics lingering after the presidential election two years ago and the midterm elections this year drove unprecedented civic engagement locally.

Johnson City’s Founders park became the site for a number of demonstrations for civic causes, including advocating for women’s rights, opposing parts of the nation’s immigration policies and calling for changes to firearms laws after several mass shootings this year.

Protesters also demonstrated on the steps of Johnson City’s Municipal and Safety Building to encourage city commissioners to vote down a new ordinance banning camping on public property — the commissioners approved it. Rep. Phil Roe left by a side door at City Hall after an event announcing his re-election bid with demonstrators waiting outside to oppose a national policy separating migrant children from their parents at the county’s southern border.

Jonesborough school struggles
Renovation plans for Jonesborough’s elementary and middle schools dominated many of the discussions of the Washington County Board of Education and became an important campaign issue for county voters.

After several meetings and many reconfigurations by architect Tony Street, a split school board decision approved a plan to renovate and add on to Jonesborough Middle School to accommodate 1,000 students and leave the aging elementary school standing.

The board’s plan was delayed by the county commission’s budget considerations and refusal by a neighboring Lowe’s store to approve a use other than retail for a plot of land next door on which the district plans to build a new access road to the school. Recently, county officials said Lowe’s finally approved the school’s intended use.

BrightRidge moves into the future
A year after approving a new name, municipal utility BrightRidge continued plans to roll out public broadband services and broke ground on a joint-owned solar power farm.

The utility intends to begin offering high-speed internet, television and phone services early next year to residents in Johnson City using an expanded fiber optic network and to residents in parts of the county using wireless technology.

This year, workers began installing the infrastructure for those services, which are the first part of a multi-year plan to bring them to much of the utility’s territory. In August, the utility’s officials and leaders from solar company Silicon Ranch broke ground on a 40-acre solar farm outside Jonesborough that will be capable of generating 8 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually.

The farm’s panels should go online early next year, allowing customers access to a sustainable and renewable energy source.

Business anchors aweigh!
Two of downtown Johnson City’s most prominent buildings, the former Model Mill on West Walnut Street and the John Sevier Center in the city’s core, were the targets of development plans in 2018.

Grant Summers of R&G Ventures led officials and interested residents on a tour of the progress at the mill, showing his firm’s work to rehabilitate the century-old structure.

With visible changes at the formerly blighted manufacturing site, Summers announced some of the intended uses for the complex, including retail, office and meeting space. The Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce plans to move its headquarters to the facility next year. At the Sevier Center, the Johnson City Development Agency entered into an agreement to buy the former hotel that now houses more than 100 residents.

In a multi-year plan, the organization hopes to help renovate house elsewhere for existing residents, then find a developer to take on the large residential and retail project. The Washington County Commission is currently considering tax increment financing benefits for the project.

Two mayors gone
Long-serving commissioner, mayor and school board member Ralph Van Brocklin died in September from a heart attack he suffered while exercising. The loss was a sad surprise for his fellow public servants and many of the residents of the community. He led numerous initiatives during his time in public office, including the revitalization of downtown Johnson City, the Tweetsie Trail and the new Washington County-Johnson City Animal Shelter building.

Earlier in the year, Jonesborough Mayor Kelly Wolfe abruptly resigned from his seat on the town’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen. Wolfe said he enjoyed serving Jonesborough and leading the town’s considerable growth over the past decade, he decided it was “time to move on.” Alderman Chuck Vest was chosen to follow Wolfe as the town’s mayor.