A Revitalized Downtown Brings Art and Business to Johnson City by Zoe Hill

“30 years ago, I was an ETSU student and downtown Johnson City was not somewhere you went for anything certainly not fun things like live music, local art, good food, festivals or craft beer,” said Leland Friend who was a student at East Tennessee State University from 1983 to 1986.

Downtown Johnson City has always had a large homeless population as well as a Greyhound Bus station. Both of which are still in existence today.

“When I was around Johnson City, downtown had a lot of homeless people that seemed to come in and out from the bus station, plasma and blood donation centers and run down, dilapidated building,” Friend said.

In recent year, downtown Johnson City has experienced a sort of rebirth that has created an environment for business and culture to flourish. The downtown area has gone from a place that frequently flooded with little industry to the center of a town with a growing art industry, a musical hot spot and businesses with open doors.

The Willow Tree Coffee House and Music Room hosts weekly open mic nights, live music, poetry readings and sells painting by local artists. The Acoustic Coffee House hosts similar events and sells local art. Yee Haw brewery and other local bars like Main Street Pizza Company and Holy Taco Cantina also frequently hold live performances.

Aside from Johnson City’s push for increased business, what exactly is it that has created an environment so open to arts? Is it the universities that surround the city, it’s people, it’s location or something else entirely?

“Johnson City is pretty close to halfway between Miami and New York City and Florida and Chicago,” said Joel Palmer who works at The Acoustic Coffee House, “for as much closedmindedness as there is in the bible belt, I’ve found that Johnson City is a very openminded place and when you’re openminded you are more able to see art in different places. It’s music, food and even beer. This town is good at that.”

From the Acoustic Coffee House Palmer sees many different types of people. Johnson City is a college town. It’s in the Great Smoky Mountains close to the Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests.

“We get hikers and river rats in here, but we also have college kids from all over the country and it comes together at the coffee house in this crazy mix,” said Palmer, “there will be angst-y college kids reading poetry at our open mic, people coming off the mountain wanting to jam and then just locals bringing food in here that they want to share just because they made it and they think it’s cool.”

local art for sale at The Willow Tree

Johnson City is an Appalachian town. Ties to that heritage are another working piece of the town’s climate. East Tennessee State University is home to the world’s first Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music studies program.

“Johnson City really has a bluegrass culture,” said Sam Love who has worked at the Willow Tree since it opened three years ago, “we really see a lot of that influence in the different type of art that comes through our doors.”

The Willow Tree Coffee House and Music Room located on Main Street has created a business model around local music and arts. Every Wednesday the Willow Tree hosts an open mic night. In addition to bringing customers in to test out at the stage, the Willow Tree brings bands, instrumentalists, painters and sculptures to their customers. On nearly every wall of the coffee shop there is hand painted canvases or shelves set up with local pottery or prints for sell.

The Willow Tree opened its doors in the midst of downtown revitalization efforts. Downtown used to have flood issues. When it would rain main street and other roads downtown would completely flood making it difficult to regularly conduct business.

In August of 2014, Johnson City opened Founder’s Park which is located downtown on Commerce Street. One purpose of the park was to divert the flood water that frequented downtown into Brush Creek.

The Willow Tree opened a few months before Founder’s Park.

“No one would come downtown because of the flooding,” said Love.

Founder's Park leading deeper into downtown

Today, Founder’s Park is home to a series of sculptures throughout the park put in place by the Public Arts Committee, a field for recreation and a river that patrons walk around and often venture in to. Founder’s Park is also home to the Blue Plum Festival and the Thirsty Orange Festival.

a statue erected by the Johnson City Public Arts Committee in Founder's Park

“Founder’s Park is really symbolic of the town’s commitment to art and the community’s growth and those two things are really tied together,” said Love.

The Blue Plum Festival is a music and arts festival in Johnson City that aims to bring people and business to town. It is held on the first weekend of June every year and kicks off Tennessee’s summer festival season.

“Johnson City is the revenue for the Tri-Cities,” said the Assistant Coordinator of Downtown Festivals for Johnson City’s Downtown Merchants Association, Dean Steward.

Downtown’s newest restaurant and bar Wild Wing Café just made a $50,000 donation to the festival. Blue Plum is a not for profit organization and their festival is not just about music and having an enjoyable time. It’s about bringing business into Johnson City.

“Businesses make big donations to our festival because they know the return on their investment is going to be huge not only for them but for the community at large,” said Steward.

The Blue Plum festival is the biggest festival the city hosts and brings vendors from as far away as Alaska. Another goal of the festival is to showcase Johnson City as a viable and profitable place to do business.

“Really, we’re using music and festivities to sell Johnson City real-estate,” said Steward “for example, Yee Haw Brewing is actually out of Sevier County but has found a thriving home here in Johnson City. I like to think Blue Plum had a role in that and now we have a continuing symbiotic relationship with the business and growth of the town through the festival.”

The effort of Blue Plum isn’t solely to bring business in to town. Blue Plum is aware of the homelessness in the downtown area and the number of organizations downtown that work to help those people like One Acre Café, Haven of Mercy, Appalachian Regional Coalition of Homelessness and Good Samaritan Ministries Incorporated.

“Homeless people live in Johnson City and specifically downtown,” said Steward, “at the end of the festival we divide up all the money we made and give back to organizations that need it.”

Another festival held at Founder’s Park is the Little Chicago Festival which will be held August 11 and 12.

“Besides our Appalachian influences, moonshine and prohibition brought a lot of people to Johnson City back in the day,” said Palmer as he commented on cultural influences in the community.

The Little Chicago Festival gets its name from Al Capone’s mob activity in Johnson City during prohibition as this was a stop along the liquor running road to Chicago and other larger cities. This is another event put on to bring business and arts and essentially revenue into the city.

ETSU’s Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music studies department plays a role in the festivals because bluegrass and folk music is a piece of what brings people in to Johnson City. Live performances for students is part of the program’s requirements.

“The school’s country and bluegrass pride bands usually play at all the festivals and other community events like 5ks,” said Molly Jones who is a bluegrass, old time and country music studies minor.

In addition to the school’s involvement in the community’s events, Johnson City is taking an investing role in the school’s art programs. A new fine arts building is scheduled to be built on State of Franklin Road by June of 2019.

“The city gave us a lot of money for the completion of the new fine arts building,” said Keith Maultbay who is a theater student at ETSU and Vice President of the Patchwork Players which is a student run theater organization.

“As part of the money they’re granting our school they’ve added a 1,200-seat theater for touring productions like Broadway shows that would come to Johnson City and be in there and that’s great for the city but sometimes we have difficulty filling a 300-seat theater with people for our shows so I’m worried about that for future theater students,” said Maultbay.

In addition to a 1200-seat theater, the proposed art building will have a 602-seat recital hall, a studio theater, green rooms and rehearsal rooms. Whether the needs of the university’s art departments are being met is a heavily discussed topic for students with opinions going back and forth. However, the aid given to ETSU from Johnson City speaks to the direction the city is moving.

Gordon Garber is a local land surveyor, ETSU alumna, entrepreneur and lifelong Washington County resident who has worked with multiple local businesses and developments in the downtown area.

“Once Founder’s Park was built Joe baker, who owned Old Smoky Moonshine in Gatlinburg, bought the two old train depots that now house Tupelo Honey Café and Yee Haw Brewery, business really started to come in,” said Garber.

Garber is currently working on the area around the Atlantic Ale House on McClure Street between West Market Street and West King Street. The renovation of this area of downtown is part of the continued effort to bring in people and business.

“Eventually the area around the ale house is going to look like Founder’s Park and the Farmer’s Market,” said Garber.

Founder’s Park was a concentrated effort on the part of Johnson City and its business owners to revitalize downtown and bring in business. That effort has mixed with the Appalachian Culture of eastern Tennessee and a large student population to create a much different downtown district than what existed 30 years ago.

“When I go downtown now, I can’t believe it’s the same place,” said Friend “There are breweries and festivals and interesting businesses like C.S McCullough’s Barber Shop and Fizz Soda Bar. All of this growth is a very deliberate effort on the part of the city and business owners to make downtown a happening spot and it’s really rocking.”

As the downtown district continues to grow and Founder’s Park continues to expand, it could be interesting to see what kind of town Johnson City is in another 30 years.

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