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Town considers purchasing ISC building

Calling the International Storytelling Center “one of the major pieces of the tourism puzzle that brings visitors to Jonesborough,” Town Administrator Bob Browning is keeping a close eye on the ISC’s bankruptcy proceedings in a Greeneville federal court.
And should a “For Sale” sign go up in front of the historic district building, Browning makes it clear that he would hope the Town of Jonesborough would be first in line, with checkbook in hand.
“The town needs to be an active player in any extent possible to the future of the building. It is a critical component,” Browning said. “I think the town should be involved to the extent possible to make sure the town benefits. From the standpoint of buying it, what we would like to do is look at different options to ensure that we would be one of the players talking to Rural Development depending on what might happen in the future.”
Despite what Browning thinks, he is quick to say that the decision is not his to make.
“I can’t speak for the Board of Mayor and Aldermen,” Browning said. “That issue hasn’t been discussed by them and purchasing the building is ultimately a board decision, not mine.”
During a Jan. 31 meeting of creditors in the United States Trustee’s Office of the James H. Quillen United States Courthouse in Greeneville, ISC President and Founder Jimmy Neil Smith told Attorney for the U. S. Trustee Patricia C. Foster, that “the mayor” had suggested putting the building up at its current value of $500,000.
“Our hope is,” Smith said, “that we can re-negotiate a new loan from Rural Development USA,” adding that the Town of Jonesborough has expressed interest in acquiring the building and leasing it to the ISC.
Mayor Kelly Wolfe acknowledged talking with both Smith and Browning concerning the storytelling bankruptcy proceedings and the possible fate of the building.
“No one is suggesting a bail-out from the Town of Jonesborough,” Wolfe said. “This isn’t the federal government – we don’t do those sorts of things. I, for one, would be adamantly opposed to that happening.
“But if the property is foreclosed upon — which I believe will probably happen — we have to think about how to keep that property as a productive part of tourism in Jonesborough.”
Alderman Mary Gearhart said she was “dumbfounded” after reading about Smith’s comments in court in last week’s Herald & Tribune.
“Of course this has been rumored, but I don’t know how I feel about it yet,” Gearhart said. “Conditions would have to be put on it. We would need to look at our financial situation. In case of an auction, we would have to agree on the top amount that we would go. We would have to have a plan.”
Gearhart said the BMA would also have to decide what to do with the building if the town bought it.
“We’d have to decide that,” Gearhart said. “But, of course I don’t want to lose storytelling because it is so important to the town. I don’t want it going any place else.”
Wolfe underscored Gearhart’s remarks, saying that while there is nothing certain for any of the parties involved, in talking with folks in the community, he “is yet to find one person who doesn’t acknowledge the importance of storytelling as an organization to Jonesborough.”
Wolfe said that while “lots of folks” are disappointed with Smith’s management of the organization, he believes most everyone would like to see the long term success of storytelling.
“The fact of the matter is there is a $7 million dollar annual economic impact from storytelling in Jonesborough,” Wolfe said. “The fact of the matter is that Jonesborough is identified internationally as the home of storytelling.”
Wolfe says he thinks “it would be very unfortunate if we, as leaders of Jonesborough, weren’t looking down the road at how to preserve the viability of an activity of that magnitude.”
Browning, agreeing that the fate of the Storytelling Center building is extremely important to the town, said his discussions with the mayor have been focused on being “tuned in when the court determines it might be a possibility…for the town to buy the building.”
“It would seem logical to me, if the town should acquire the building, that it would be leased to the ISC at a rate that would help pay for it,” Browning added.
Browning likened the ISC’s impact on Jonesborough to that of the Bristol Motor Speedway on Bristol.
“We’ve heard over and over again from Claudia Moody (Director of Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association) that when people talk about East Tennessee, it’s almost always the National Storytelling Festival and Bristol Motor Speedway,” Browning said. “If the Speedway was in trouble and someone was thinking of taking it down and using it for some other purpose, certainly people would respond. This should be a very important issue for us.”