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What is the county going to do with the ‘white elephant’?

Sale of the Downtown Centre Courthouse in Johnson City is high on the to-do list for Washington County Mayor George Jaynes as he begins his final year in office. The placement of a “For Future Sale” sign on the building is an indication of the challenges facing the county in disposing of the building.
Built as a parking garage with revenue sharing funds from the federal government, Johnson City never found an acceptable use for the facility dubbed by many residents as a “White Elephant.” The title seemed appropriate since the building was large and had a white exterior. The term “White Elephant” is also an idiom for a valuable possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth.
Washington County is now experiencing the latter as it pays for the upkeep of a building that houses only two offices, the County Trustee and the County Clerk’s Office. While it seems unfair to require Johnson City residents to drive to Jonesborough to obtain licenses or pay taxes, a much smaller facility would adequately meet these needs. In fact, a drive through facility such as those maintained as branch banking facilities would be ideal.
Commissioner Mark Hicks said at the January County Commission meeting that he would inquire whether Johnson City wanted to “buy back” the Downtown Centre. The building was dedicated for county use in 1987 and continued to function as a courthouse until 2009. Washington County did receive value by using the facility for more than 20 years until settlement of ground under the building caused concern about the structure’s safety. Apparently, the foundation of the parking garage (but not the floor on which the county offices and courtrooms were located) after an engineering study is now considered sound. Now that Jonesborough is housing all the courts in the new “George P. Jaynes Justice Center of Washington County” officials feel the Johnson City building may be worth as much as $2 million.
From time-to-time, Hicks has also mentioned that an 1891 Act of the Tennessee General Assembly established separate law and chancery courts in Johnson City. The County Commissioner does not think the law has been repealed and wonders what will happen if a court challenge is made claiming trials for Johnson City residents must be held in their community.
Suggestions for use of the Downtown Centre have included utilization as Johnson City Juvenile Court, a headquarters for the Downtown Development District, and additional office space for the City of Johnson City.
The City of Johnson City announced in late January that it has ambitious plans for downtown. A $3.5 million project will establish “The Warehouse Commons,” the first of nine planned phases for downtown Johnson City flood control and redevelopment. The concept includes a “Warehouse Park” to be constructed in the redevelopment proposal.
As many as $30 million could be expended in this long-term initiative. Inclusion of the Downtown Centre in the city’s planning seems logical. However, Washington County should not be expected to wait for months or years until Johnson City decides whether it will include the Downtown Centre in the redevelopment.
With several candidates running for County Mayor to replace Jaynes, it will be interesting to see if they have proposals concerning what to do with the building.
The candidates, along with interested readers, are invited to write a Letter to the Editor concerning their views. The newspaper can be contacted by mail at P. O. Box 277, Jonesborough, TN 37659, by e-mail at [email protected], by fax at 423-753-6528 or during office hours Monday through Friday at 702 West Jackson Boulevard.