Robert Williams, president of the Johnson City Development Authority Board of Directors, announced on Friday that the board had voted to enter into a contract to purchase the John Sevier Building, which can be seen over Williams’ right shoulder. PHOTO BY DAVE ONGIE
By Dave Ongie
When the Hotel John Sevier opened its doors back in August of 1924, the building quickly became the hub of a thriving downtown. It served as a beacon of culture and the focal point of social and business activities in Johnson City.
City leaders are hopeful the restoration of the John Sevier Building to its former glory can help spur on the renaissance of the downtown district. To that end, the Johnson City Development Authority Board of Directors voted on Friday morning to enter into a contract to purchase the John Sevier Building from the East Tennessee Limited Partnership for $4.1 million.
While JCDA board president Robert Williams was quick to stress that the deal is not yet done, he is confident an agreement will be reached.
“Today we agreed to make a formal offer,” Williams said. “We have been talking with the sellers, and I think we’re pretty close to having a final agreement.”
The redevelopment of the John Sevier Building will not happen overnight. Williams said the first priority of the JCDA will be to ensure the current residents of the building are successfully placed in affordable housing that is clean and safe. Upon the finalization of the sale, the JCDA will work with the city, HUD and local developers to make sure the relocation process is a win-win for all involved.
“The plan is this,” Williams said. “We would purchase the building, and really for the next two or three years, the tenants will remain there. We’re going to do some necessary upgrades that need to be done, and then we’re going to work with some developers from multiple sites that would either be new or repurposed facilities to relocate the current tenants. That process is going to take some time.”
Once that process is completed, the plan is for private investors to present proposals to transform the John Sevier Building into a mixed-use facility that will help drive further investment and commerce to the downtown district. Williams said the JCDA has the full backing of Johnson City, and city manager Pete Peterson’s reaction after the board’s vote on Friday morning supported that statement.
“This is huge,” Peterson said. “This is really a huge step in what Johnson City will be going forward.”
Peterson noted that the city has done a lot to restore a downtown that had fallen into a state of disrepair in the years after the retail sector relocated to North Roan Street. The projects at King Commons and Founders Park as well as redesigned streetscapes illustrate the city’s desire to create a more welcoming climate for private investment downtown.
But Peterson said “people generators” – such as hotels, high-end apartments, regional banking centers or courthouses – are hallmarks of most successful downtown revitalization projects, and those aren’t easy to come by.
“A lot of the very successful redevelopments of downtown areas have centered around a project very much like the John Sevier Building, where you can go in and do a variety of uses, whether it’s business, residential, retail or office,” Peterson said. “I see this as another step in the rebirth of the vital downtown corridor of Johnson City.”
Williams seemed to be on the same page as Peterson. When it comes time to hear presentations from private investors, Williams said he’s hoping high-end condos and apartments, restaurants, retail space and perhaps a boutique hotel or a coffee shop become part of the finished project.
Time will tell what the redevelopment project ultimately entails, but Peterson is confident a refurbished John Sevier Building can once again draw people to a prosperous downtown.
“I think this is a great opportunity to take that building back to where it started, to where it really is a significant piece of the business and cultural interactions of the community,” Peterson said.