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Courthouse development, tourist zone could help Jonesborough

A ‘Courthouse Revitalization and Tourist Development Zone’ for the downtown historic district in Jonesborough is a great idea.
Residents of Tennessee’s oldest town have tried to think of ways to get increased funding for a heritage district centered around the Washington County Courthouse.
The Jonesborough idea has received the backing of the Washington County Commission. “What we have here is a great opportunity,” said Town Mayor Kelly Wolfe appearing before the commissioners on Monday, Jan. 25.
“Jonesborough has struggled to interest the state (in providing tourism dollars),” he said. If approved by the Tennessee Legislature, the Act would allow the state portion of sales tax generated in the district to be returned for projects in Jonesborough.
State Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) is the sponsor of the legislation that includes properties located within about 700 feet of Washington County’s Downtown Courthouse plus a public arts facility – identified at the meeting as the Booker T. Washington School facility.
The act also states: “The governing body of a municipality may designate the boundaries of a courthouse square revitalization and tourism development zone by adoption of an ordinance or resolution.”
Wolfe told the County Commission that various proposals have been made to get the state to provide more developmental dollars to Washington County, including a suggestion that a state park be established, an idea that has since been abandoned. Major improvements within the zone for which the revenue could be used include: improvements to and expansion of the Historic Jonesborough Visitors Center; development of a new Visitor Center annex and history museum interpretive facility adjacent to the 1779 Chester Inn; moving the Christopher Taylor Log House to a more suitable location in Heritage Park near the one room Oak Hill School House; acquisition and restoration of the Jackson Theater; 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 he said endorses the idea of allowing Jonesborough to receive sales tax revenue.
“What we can do is create a district around [Main Street] courthouse and get taxes back that can be used for improvements,” Jonesborough Town Administrator Bob Browning explains.
Browning believes Jonesborough can convince state representatives and senators to require the State of Tennessee to invest sales tax revenue that it would normally keep back into Main Street heritage and history projects as an economic development tool.
Under the proposed legislation, the amount of money generated over and beyond what has been collected in past years, based upon a certain time period comparison, is given back to the locality.
Jonesborough officials hope to combine the notion of a ‘tourist development zone’ with “courthouse square revitalization” to capture almost all of the sales tax revenue generated by local merchants.
“That’s what we’re really interested in,” Browning explained to Herald & Tribune Assistant Editor Kate Prahlad. “We’re creating sort of a combination thing.”
“The justification to the state is that we’re the oldest town and a serious tourist destination,” Browning said. He continued: “The state funds state parks that have tourist components to them, but it doesn’t happen in Jonesborough and Washington County. We don’t get any ongoing state allocation like other counties.”
What do readers think?
E-mail your ideas to [email protected], fax the newspaper at 423-753-6528 or write a “Letter to the Editor” addressed to the paper at P. O. Box 277, Jonesborough, Tennessee 37659.