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County commission endorses Town ‘Courthouse Square’ zone

The Courthouse Square Revitalization and Tourist Development Zone that could result in $400,000 of annual sales tax revenue for the Town of Jonesborough was endorsed by the Washington County Commission on Monday.
“What we have here is a great opportunity,” said Town Mayor Kelly Wolfe, appearing before the commissioners to urge passage of the resolution for the zone. “Jonesborough has struggled to interest the state (in providing tourism dollars).”
If approved by the Tennessee Legislature, the act submitted by the town would provide a method by which the state portion of sales tax generated in the district would be returned to the town for projects in Jonesborough.
State Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) is the sponsor of the pending legislation that includes properties located within approximately 700 feet of the county’s courthouse on Main Street in Jonesborough, plus a public arts facility identified at the meeting as the former Booker T. Washington School.
According to Wolfe, various proposals have been made to get the state to provide more development dollars to the area, including a suggestion that a state park be established.
While the state park idea has been abandoned, suggestions made in an Interpretive Master Plan for Historic Jonesborough as well as in a Branding, Development and Marketing Action Plan indicate the need for major improvements within the zone for which the revenue could be used.
Those include improvements to the Jonesborough Visitors Center, development of a new Visitor Center annex and history museum adjacent to the 1779 Chester Inn, moving the Christopher Taylor Log House to a more suitable location, acquisition and restoration of the Jackson Theater, and the development of a Preservation Field School and a World of Stories Plaza at the International Storytelling Center.
Other possible uses of funding would include the restoration and development of interpretive areas in the McKinney Center at Booker T. Washington School, placement of interpretation panels in the downtown historic district, important landscaping improvements, and development of a Railroad Museum in partnership with the Watauga Valley Railroad Association.
“Jonesborough has a tourism base that is unique,” Mayor Wolfe continued in saying that the development zone would be a further example of County and Town cooperative projects. He cited the construction of rest room facilities and improvement of the parking lot behind the Downtown Courthouse as projects underway that will benefit both governmental entities.
The act as now proposed will not involve any money from the county budget and educational funds in the tax collections will go to Washington County Schools. When asked if the State of Tennessee had agreed to the diversion of the sales tax money, Wolfe answered that “No, convincing the state is about to begin.” He told commissioners that Tennessee has funded six Courthouse Square Revitalization Zones, none of which are located in Northeast Tennessee. Their vote Monday he said endorses the idea of allowing Jonesborough to receive sales tax revenue.
In other commission items, Washington County Schools Director Ron Dykes said work on gym floors at Jonesborough and Boones Creek Schools have been completed and that work is underway on the school roof in Gray. Construction on a new roof at David Crockett High School should begin soon. Dykes told the County Commission that Tennessee may receive as much as $500 million in Stimulus funds because of the “Race to the Top” bill passed recently at a special session of the state legislature. Of this amount, he expects that Washington County would receive $2.8 million for a Title I program and $1.5 million for “at risk” resources. Notification of the amount of the funding is expected to occur in April or May. Commissioner Paul F. Woodby told Dykes in closing that: “I expect you to tow the line (on costs).” Woodby commented that the County Commission had done all it could to meet the funding demands of the school system.
Resolutions were enacted that permit the Tri-Cities Regional Airport to accept grants for projects and asking the Tennessee Department of Transportation to serve Interstates 26 and 81 with “HELP” trucks for the next six months due to the closure of Interstate 40 as the result of a rock slide near Asheville, N.C..
In obtaining approval of the Health Department’s report, County Mayor George Jaynes said moving is underway to the department’s new facility. Also approved was a contract approving the paying of $450 per day for adult or juvenile court ordered evaluations conducted by the State of Tennessee. Failure to approve the contract would have resulted in a per diem assessment of $900.
In a County Attorney’s Report, John Rambo told commissioners he needed authorization to exempt the county from the Blind Commissary provisions of Tennessee law. Sheriff Ed Graybeal agreed that the County currently has a superior delivery system for prisoners needs than those offered by the state at an expenditure of $100,000. The commission approved seeking the exemption to resolve a dispute with the state that has continued for nearly six years.
Health care for county employees cost $5.1 million for insurance during 2008-2009, according to the Commercial, Industrial & Agricultural report given by Commissioner Frank Bolus. He urged the commission to consider some future funding for the Arts Council and Hands On Children’s Museum. The disposal of the Downtown Center Courthouse in Johnson City was a concern of Commissioner Mark Hicks, Jr. Mayor Jaynes told Hicks he could pursue an effort to find out whether The City of Johnson City is interested in purchasing the building. The Mayor said he was going to have a sign made and posted at the site stating the building was “For Future Sale.”
Each commissioner received a thick, multi-page Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009. The report will be discussed at the commission’s next monthly meeting.
Several fund transfers were authorized Monday including $170,000 from unbudgeted revenue received from the County for paving for the Town of Jonesborough. The funds will be allotted as follows: $120,000 for asphalt purchases, $40,000 for rock and $10,000 for fuel oil purchased by the Highway Department. In addition, the department received $25,000 from their fund balance to purchase more salt that might be needed to combat adverse winter conditions affecting county roads.
The Commission voted an additional appropriation of $25,000 to the Animal Control Center to match funding from Johnson City. Commissioner Mark Ferguson urged the Control Center to check out locations in commercial areas of the city for a new animal shelter. Ferguson said he has read material that indicates animals at shelters are more likely to be adopted if the facilities are located in places that receive a lot of traffic from residents.
“Victoria Lee Way” was accepted into the county road system by commission action Monday. The road is 1,230 feet long beginning at A.A. Deakins Road and stopping at a dead end.