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Town expected to buy ISC building

During their July 9 meeting, members of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen were expected to consider — and it appears likely accept — a proposal to purchase the International Storytelling Center building for $1 million from U.S. Rural Development.
On June 29, ISC Board of Governors Chairperson Jim Reel issued a statement saying the organization was unable to come up with the necessary money to retain its headquarters in downtown Jonesborough.
The announcement came just days after the ISC emerged from Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, a process that lasted more than a year for the organization and resulted in a financial restructuring that did not include holding onto its building.
ISC leaders had hoped to come up with a way to raise the money — somewhere around $1.3 million — to buy the building from Rural Development, the lien holder on the structure.
When Jonesborough Mayor Kelly Wolfe learned the ISC would not be able to buy the building, he worked out a deal with Rural Development and the ISC that would allow the town to buy the building for $1 million.
Rural Development has also agreed to loan the $1 million to the town to buy the building.
The amount would be rolled into a current application for funds from Rural Development for the town’s new senior center.
As it is proposed, the town would then turn around and lease the structure back to the ISC at a cost of approximately $45,000 per year for 20 years. The annual lease payment would cover the town’s loan payments to Rural Development.
In addition, the town would take over the gift shop portion of the ISC building to create a downtown visitors center annex as well as office space for a director of the Main Street Program.
The ISC would continue to conduct its operations at the building, including activities, rental space, workshops, conferences and portions of the annual National Storytelling Festival.
Leaders were already weighing their options last week after learning about the proposal.
Vice Mayor Terry Countermine said he spoke with Town Administrator Bob Browning about the possibility of buying the building earlier this month.
“The idea is that it wouldn’t cost the town anything because we’d be charging rent for the cost of our payments,” Countermine said. “Plus, the town would get space in the building.”
Citing the economic impact storytelling has on Tennessee’s oldest town as well as the already struggling businesses in downtown, Countermine said the proposal is one he would support.
“Storytelling brings revenue into town. The teller-in-residence program, even if it only brings in 75, 80, 100 people, that helps downtown businesses. And then there is the festival,” Countermine said. “Anything we can do to help downtown businesses, I think we need to consider. I would support it. It’s a risk worth taking.”
Alderman Mary Gearhart agreed that it may be a necessary risk for the town, but expressed disappointment in the $1 million price tag.
“I definitely don’t want to go that high. I’m just furious that it had to come to this,” she said. “I knew that the Storytelling group was having trouble coming up with the money and I thought, ‘My God, we may have to do this.’ That’s the truth. We may have to. If it is for the good of the town, I don’t know how I couldn’t try it.”
Alderman Chuck Vest admits he is worried to some degree about the ISC being a town tenant, given the organization’s recent financial struggles.
“Yeah, it worries me a little bit,” Vest said. “But no more so than probably any other tenant would have. You have no guarantee with any tenant beyond probably five years or so.”
In fact, Vest said he is taking storytelling “completely out of the equation” when considering whether he will support the purchase of the building by the town.
“Tenants sometimes come and go. So that’s way you have to take them out of the equation,” Vest said. “We need to have a vision ourselves of what we want happening down there. Downtown needs to start generating sales tax revenue to take some pressure off the property tax.”
Vest hopes Jonesborough residents will also remove storytelling from the equation and not consider the purchase of the building by the town a bailout of the ISC.
“If (storytelling) wasn’t part of this, would we still be interested in the building? I think the answer is absolutely,” he said. “It’s really just a great deal for the town. If somebody else would buy that property, you have no guarantee what would happen to that building.”
Alderman Jerome Fitzgerald did not return calls from the Herald & Tribune.
Even before Monday night’s meeting, it appears some local property owners were not sold on the plan for the town to buy the building and lease it back to the ISC.
In a letter to Jonesborough elected officials dated July 7, Tony Bright, president of Bright & Associates, accused members of the BMA of “picking winners and losers in the private trade” by trying to buy the building.
“I just wish that you elected officials had the respect of the vendors that got stiffed by ISC, make them right first,” Bright wrote. “Or you elected officials use your own money instead of taxpayers’ (money) to pay your buddies back.”
Bright goes on to offer the town a “more suitable office building” that could be used by the ISC for half the price. His property, located on Highway 11E, “has been on the market now for four years and is not in bankruptcy,” Bright noted.
“I want to bet my offer in front of the rest of the business owners that have been sitting on property in the town,” he wrote. “I can imagine and think if the town pours more taxpayer money into the ISC, then I think the town can help all business owners.”
It seems there is at least one thing both Bright and Vest probably agree on. In his letter, Bright reminds the elected leaders that “the legacy of the Town of Jonesborough is not storytelling.”
It is the legacy of being the first and oldest town, Bright wrote, that will “far outlive storytelling.”
In considering the purchase, Vest said he does not see storytelling as the only thing going on in Jonesborough, citing its historic character as a major draw to town.