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Future of Main Street Courthouse, Downtown Centre in question

With last year’s opening of the George P. Jaynes Justice Center, both the Downtown Centre in Johnson City and the Main Street Courthouse in Jonesborough have been left empty for the most part.
The county, which owns both buildings, will soon have some decisions to make as far as dealing with what officials have called a “white elephant,” the Downtown Centre, and the historic courthouse in Tennessee’s oldest town.
With current Mayor George Jaynes retiring in August, it is likely one of the three 2010 mayoral candidates will see those decisions made during his term — and likely he will have a hand in the final determinations.
All three candidates ­— former Johnson City mayor and attorney Don Arnold; Jonesborough businessman Dan Eldridge; and James Reeves, who spearheaded the anti-wheel tax movement in 2008 — agreed that the Downtown Centre is “excess property” for the county and needs to be offloaded.
While both Eldridge and Reeves said they didn’t have a preference to whom the building was sold, Arnold said working with Johnson City and the Johnson City Development Authority could turn out best for the county.
“It seems like there is still some interest in communication with the downtown development district about that facility,” Arnold said. “That’s one thing I would want to explore.”
While the facility can’t be “given away,” Arnold said, he thinks the appraisal on the building is unrealistic and too high.
But something does need to be done, he added.
“Right now, it’s draining money out of the county,” he said. “One of the first things I would do is negotiate with someone to sell it, maybe with the city. It’s not something I want to hold onto ad infinitum.”
Eldridge’s plan for the centre begins with a relocation.
“We’ve got two county offices still located there, the Clerk’s and Trustee’s, so we need to relocate them as soon as possible to a conveniently located satellite office somewhere in Johnson City,” Eldridge said.
One of his suggestions was to have the office located near the Mall for convenience.
“Then, sell the Downtown Centre, please,” he said. “We don’t need to own it anymore.”
There are certainly other uses for that property, and it should be put into the hands of someone “who will invest in it,” he said. “I want to see money invested in that property so it will grow in value, that will benefit not just Johnson City but Washington County, too.”
Reeves called the Downtown Centre “a messy thing,” and said he thinks the JCDA would probably show interest in the building, although it might be hard for them to come up with the money for a down payment for the commercial property.
However, with the communication issues between the city and the county, it might be more difficult to strike a deal between the entities.
“We’ve got to get the Clerk’s and Trustee’s offices in a different building,” Reeves said. “But if we make a deal with the JCDA, we might be able to keep those offices in there. The parking is ample down there.”
Jaynes has been silent on his plans for the Downtown Centre, and any move to sell it has been stalled. County Commissioners made a move to officially declare the Downtown Centre in Johnson City “for sale” at their March 22 meeting, but then balked, ultimately deciding to wait on the motion until Jaynes (who was absent from the meeting) was back in town.
Commissioner Frank Bolus got the ball rolling at the end of the commission meeting, bringing up the fact that the Downtown Centre has become a “white elephant” for the county.
“We need to do something with the Downtown Center,” Bolus said. “It’s time to get moving on it. It’s costing us money.”
Two offices inside – one for the County Trustee, and one for the County Clerk – will need to be relocated first, commissioners pointed out.
County Attorney John Rambo said the commission would have to vote to declare the property “surplus” and then sell it at an auction, or sell it by contract to another government. He also said it would be possible to set a minimum price on the building in an auction format.
Ron England made the motion to declare the property surplus so the county could sell it.
However, several other commissioners said it needed more discussion, and a motion was made to table the “surplus” motion until Jaynes returned, which passed.
As for the Main Street courthouse in Jonesborough, all three candidates said it was a historic facility and should not be changed that much, if at all.
“It’s going to stay the way it is,” Reeves said.
With the county commission continuing to meet there, Reeves said the meeting room – an old courtroom – needs to be reconfigured into a real county commission meeting room, including cameras that can broadcast the meetings on TV and the Internet.
Arnold said it was possible that some room might be found inside to house the ever-growing cache of county historic documents.
“Most offices there now will continue to be there, but there’s going to have to be some room found for archives,” Arnold said.
Eldridge said county offices that are spread throughout Jonesborough should be consolidated into the courthouse.
As far as archives, Eldridge does agree that a space needs to be made, but he said he is not sure whether the courthouse is the safest location for them, though it is his “preference.”
“Not that they’ve been mishandled, but we’ve got a lot of historical documents and they need to be properly handled and protected,” he said.