By Kendal Groner
The Erwin Record recently interviewed Unicoi County’s three mayors to get their outlooks for their respective municipalities in the coming year.
TOWN OF ERWIN MAYOR DORIS HENSLEY:
As Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley reflects back on the past year, she praises the unprecedented amount of community involvement and volunteerism. as well as the growth of the downtown area.
“I’m very pleased with the growth that has taken place in Erwin, and I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do to encourage that growth,” Hensley said.
As she looks ahead to the new year, forming the town’s own emergency medical system and continuing to support economic development are at the forefront of her agenda.
The Town of Erwin had previously contracted their ambulance services through Unicoi County, who has a contract with MedicOne. Due to the lack of personnel as well as ambulances, MedicOne was failing to meet its contractual obligations, prompting the town to takes steps to establish its own emergency medical services.
A $500,000 Community Development Block Grant was secured by the town in order to purchase new ambulances. Hensley said town officials are currently in the process of putting the budget data together and determining what new equipment will be needed.
“Our wishlist is to have three ambulances, two that are advanced life support and one that is basic life support,” explained Hensley. “In the next couple of weeks we will be looking for an emergency medical director and I think that’s the first item of business we need to take care of. Hopefully we can come up with some EMTs and paramedics in a short period of time.”
She said that she has spoken with nurses from Wings Air Rescue that have shown interest, and while the town hasn’t yet determined a space to house the ambulances, they can temporarily put one ambulance downstairs by the Erwin Police Department and another at Unicoi County Memorial Hospital.
“The new hospital will also be a tremendous asset, not just to Erwin but to the entire community, and I think that can help recruit some new businesses,” she added.
Between now and June 30, the Town of Erwin will be purchasing two new police cars, as well as beginning the tunnel and extension for the Erwin Linear Trail. The construction will make the Linear Trail, a major asset to the town, more accessible by building a tunnel under Harris Hollow Road to link part of the existing Linear Trail to Fishery Park.
Hensley is encouraged by several new businesses locating downtown, and she added that even though there has been some job loss, the economy has remained stable. The Town of Erwin is also in the process of applying for a tourism grant and a grant that would survey the entire town to determine what businesses would best fit the area.
“I think we often take our location for granted, and we think no one has interest here, but this really is a novel area for many people,” she remarked. “This area has caught the attention of people outside the county, and now they are really wanting to move to Erwin.”
The town is trying to take advantage of as many grant programs as possible to improve the downtown area, and is currently working with the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership to designate Erwin as a Main Street community.
“One of my main goals is to become a mainstreet community, and I think we already meet the criteria for one now, but we just need to get that info to the state,” Hensley said.
If designated as a Main Street Community, participation in the program could open up additional funding opportunities to continue improving the downtown area.
“We are always recruiting more businesses and jobs, and hopefully once we get the silo down that area will be site ready and we will have some development interest in the former Morgan Insulation property,” she said.
According to Hensley, there has also been interest shown in the former hotel and Morrill Motors building located on Main Avenue, a prime location for a potential business.
“We are excited about the plans for the hotel downtown, and we have someone looking to maybe do educational training in the bottom and then also the possibility of an upscale restaurant,” Hensley mentioned. “I think that’s another item really needed here is an upscale restaurant in the downtown area.”
Hensley has enjoyed the success of several downtown events that have enticed thousands of visitors to Erwin over the past year.
The Erwin Farmers Market, Erwin Elephant Revival, Unicoi County Apple Festival, Halloween Trunk or Treat and the annual Tree Lighting Ceremony are a few of the larger events that have drawn large crowds to downtown Erwin.
“We would like to create another large event in December, and one of our main goals is to utilize the trail more than we have been,” she added.
Hensley applauded the young professional group, RISE Erwin, for benefiting the town by spearheading a large portion of these events.
“We have had more volunteers than I can ever recall, and the RISE Erwin group has been such an asset, I just can’t thank them enough,” she said. “We wouldn’t have had the growth and successful events had it not been for their volunteerism … once people see all RISE has done, it makes them want to be a part of these things. “We’ve had the millennials, baby boomers, and people from Generation X all get involved … that’s really what makes Erwin unique.”
TOWN OF UNICOI MAYOR JOHNNY LYNCH:
The Town of Unicoi’s appeal to tourists and those seeking outdoor recreation are some of the major assets of the town that Mayor Johnny Lynch plans to continue supporting in the new year. He considers the town’s biggest successes of 2017 to be the opening of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen, the popularity of the Pinnacle Mountain Fire Tower Trail, and the numerous events the town hosted.
“The biggest moment in 2017 to me was the opening of Mountain Harvest Kitchen and the unveiling of the Tanasi Bison carving done by Joe Pilkenton at the Town of Unicoi Tourist Information Center,” Lynch said.
Both the grand opening of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen and the reveal of the Tanasi Bison wooden carving took place on the same day. The Mountain Harvest Kitchen opened in August, and is a commercial grade food kitchen that individuals and businesses can utilize for food processing.
Some of the amenities include commercial-sized equipment, a research and development lab, a receiving area, walk-in refrigerator and freezer, a dry storage area and office space.
“We’ve got several new classes with agricultural extension series, ETSU, and various other organizations that we’re partnering with to present everything from entrepreneurial classes and business classes to food related demonstrations on preparation and safety,” informed Lynch.
The second phase of development for Mountain Harvest Kitchen is getting ready to begin, which will include the installation of filling equipment so people are able to come in and prepare a shelf-ready product.
“We managed to purchase a piece of property between the visitor’s center and Mountain Harvest Kitchen this year, and that was important to us because in our five year plan, we want to have a farmer’s market pavilion and a small amphitheater located on that property,” Lynch said. “That’s been in our strategic plan before, and now this past year we were able to take that first step in the planning process by purchasing that property.”
Lynch said that he wants to have the farmer’s market pavilion incorporated into the entrance to the amphitheater. Plans for a community garden are also underway, which will be wheelchair accessible and will provide a unique learning opportunity for local children.
There are also aspirations for the community garden to be incorporated into educational classes at the Mountain Harvest Kitchen. The groundwork has been laid out for more grants, such as one for a Pinnacle Mountain Fire Tower Trail extension and additional kitchen equipment.
The Town of Unicoi is currently in the process of expanding the available parking spots to give people better access to the trail as well as using $10,000 that was set aside to construct a rustic inspired playground for children.
“We have had a great continued use of the Pinnacle Trail, and it has been amazing this past year how many people have used it,” said Lynch.
Last year a multitude of outdoor enthusiasts participated in the annual Hunger Hike at Pinnacle Mountain Fire Tower Trail and raised $1,000 as well as canned food items to be donated to Second Harvest Food Bank.
“We are also planning a trail extension down to Maple Grove through a power grant and partnership with Erwin and Unicoi County.”
Lynch was also pleased with the numerous events sponsored by the Town of Unicoi, such as the Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival in May and the 21st annual Fiddlers and Fiddlehead Festival in April that was sponsored by the Unicoi Business Alliance.
The Bogart-Bowman Cabin was once again a popular spot for events and outdoor recreation for residents of the Town of Unicoi as well as outside tourists. The Town of Unicoi History Committee hosted a variety of events at the historic cabin, some of which included Heritage Day, Christmas at the Cabin, and regular Monday and Wednesday night ‘Picking on the Porch.’
“We have to have economic activity, but we know our best bet is tourism here and the events we have really keep that cycle going and keeps people in this area,” Lynch said. “The biggest thing that comes to my mind is the regular Monday and Wednesday night picking events, and those have been a huge success. … We really value outdoor recreation, and so we have soccer fields at the cabin as well as walking trails that we have maintained this past year.”
On Monday nights, local bluegrass and country music musicians can be found playing on the front porch of the cabin. Wednesday nights are dedicated specifically to the bluegrass genre.
“Future plans with the history committee include the creation of a cantilever barn, which is an original barn design from the 1700s,” Lynch explained. “It would fit the time period of the cabin, and there’s only one other barn of that type in Unicoi.”
In the coming year, the road systems will be evaluated through TTAP, a division of TDOT to determine any needed improvements. Several road improvement projects were completed in 2017 that included paving, striping, and bridgework.
“This coming year we are also supposed to complete the road beautification project on the interstate that puts out native species of wild flowers and plants to enhance the overall aesthetics of the 1-26 corridor,” Lynch said.
In addition to encouraging some retail development at exits 32 and 34, Lynch said that addressing concerns with the Buffalo Valley Golf Course is also at the top of his agenda.
“One of our biggest concerns right now is with the Buffalo Valley Golf Course, and we feel like losing that will be an economic drain, and although right now I don’t have any concrete solutions, we are gathering more information.”
The Buffalo Valley Golf Course, operated by Johnson City, has not been seeing much use by Johnson City residents, and Johnson City commissioners voted to close the course earlier in 2017 to save on maintenance costs.
The Town of Unicoi is also in the process of securing high speed internet through Comcast for its residents this year. The Town of Unicoi Tourist Information Center could become a new charging station for electric cars in 2018. There are hopes that installing the charging station would increase tourism by drawing ecology- and environmentally-minded people to the area. It would include the Town of Unicoi in a nationwide database of charging locations.
“We really try to do things that project pride in our town,” Lynch stated. “We always want to help the community in educational ways, and we’re here to serve. That’s the bottom line.”
Lynch added that many of the successes for the Town of Unicoi in 2017 were due to the help of numerous volunteers that made the area’s community pride really stand out.
“We’re very much attuned to creating economic development, but given the assets we have, we would be fools to not utilize that and promote tourism and outdoor recreation,” he added. “We don’t have a lot of land suitable for industrial development, but we do have these mountains and these streams that people come from afar to see because they truly love it.”
UNICOI COUNTY MAYOR GREG LYNCH:
Despite the closing of the CSX Erwin railyard in 2015 that led to the loss of almost 300 jobs in Unicoi County, Mayor Greg Lynch is pleased with the area as it continues to recover and remains optimistic regarding future economic development opportunities.
“Although it’s not something that’s measurable, I feel like we’ve come a long way for economic development,” Lynch said. “As we look back, I believe this will be a crucial time for the history of Unicoi County.”
Lynch stated that the loss of jobs with CSX seemed to act as a catalyst for a number of state grants that will come to fruition in the following months.
Unicoi County merged with Washington and Carter counties to join NTREDP, the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Development Partnership, that seeks to combine the economic development efforts of all counties involved to benefit the region as a whole.
Since joining NTREDP, a number of grants have become available to the county, one of which is a $20,000 State of Tennessee Tourism Enhancement Grant that will be used to devise and implement a strategic tourism plan.
A $750,000 Housing Rehabilitation Grant that was awarded to Unicoi County and the Town of Erwin will provide $500,000 in funding for low income homeowners in Unicoi County by the third quarter of this year.
“That grant will really benefit elderly or disabled residents and those who qualify as low income by allowing up to 10 houses to be rehabbed, and my understanding is that there have already been several applications,” explained Lynch. “I feel like the series of events that took place after the closing of the railyard will really benefit the county, and I think we’ve been at a crossroads since the layoff of the workers.”
Lynch added that all of the additional funding the county received following CSX closing has served as the state’s way of helping them arrive at their next destination. That state funding assisted with the opening of Mountain Harvest Kitchen and also furthered the development of downtown Erwin.
“I think we’ve had some leaders really step up that are wanting to invest in the economic development of Unicoi County,” he said.
The use of a capital investment plan created by the Unicoi County Joint Economic Development Board is encouraging to Lynch as he sees the potential of that plan to incentivize new developers to come into the county, thus bettering the economy and creating additional jobs.
“The capital improvement plan shows that we are ready to sit down at the table and offer some incentives to people,” Lynch stated. “It’s a matter of showing people seeking industrial sites that we are competitive and we have a livable community.”
In the coming year, Lynch is excited to continue furthering efforts to improve the Unicoi County Education System. Some of those efforts include working on specific goals after being designated as a ACT Work Ready community and utilizing the partnership with The Ayers Foundation.
In order to reach ACT Work Ready status, a community must demonstrate that they have an approach with a public-private partnership to align education with workforce development and effectively match people with jobs. After becoming an ACT Work Ready community, the county can participate in additional initiatives that further aid the progress of generating work ready citizens.
“We are continually working on the goals for ACT Work Ready communities, and it’s preparing our kids to take standardized testing and acquire jobs,” Lynch said.
The Ayers Foundation, which provides funding to students throughout Tennessee for post secondary education, announced a partnership with Unicoi County High School in 2016.
Through the partnership, the school received a counselor to assist students with finding and applying for funding for their post secondary schooling. The Ayers Foundation has shown to greatly improve the graduation rates and the number of graduates continuing their education in the high schools it has partnered with.
“We’ve seen success with a number of kids entering college, and these things are really important for our future workforce,” Lynch remarked.
Lynch also sees the increasing popularity and usage of Rocky Fork State Park as another important asset for the county. Plans are currently underway to construct a new visitor’s center at the park in addition to the roadwork the Unicoi County Highway Department is doing to improve access to the area.
“The stars really kind of aligned on Rocky Fork State Park, and a lot of people have worked really hard to make it possible,” Lynch said.
With funding from a Community Development Block Grant, Unicoi County and Erwin Utilities, a Rocky Fork waterline extension project, valued at over $1 million, will be under construction this year and will include the installation a new 8-inch line from the end of Erwin Utilities’ line at Clear Branch up to Rocky Fork Road along Old Asheville Highway.
“That’ll help with catalyzing economic and tourism development and help out that entire area by getting that waterline installed,” Lynch added. “I am excited to see the entire Rocky Fork State Park project continue to build up and materialize, and it will serve as a strong catalyst for local sales tax revenues and new entrepreneurs.”
Overall, Lynch has an optimistic outlook for Unicoi County in 2018 and he says that the main focus for the year will be for the leaders of the county to come together to devise a formula to keep the area on the right track for continued growth and development.
“We’re at a point where we kind of have to reinvent ourselves, but on the other hand it’s not so much that we need to change Unicoi County, but rather find new ways to grow this economy,” he advised. “It’s important that we know the people of Unicoi County are confident and comfortable with what’s going on, because this is their county.”