By Kendal Groner
Unicoi Town Hall was at maximum capacity during the Monday, Jan. 15, Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting. Dozens of community members attended the meeting to voice their concerns and hear the discussion on the fate of the Buffalo Valley Golf Course.
The golf course had been operated by Johnson City and Johnson City commissioners voted to close the course in 2017 to save on maintenance costs after it had not seen much use from Washington County residents. The City of Johnson City has since put the golf course up for sale, and any interested buyers, including the Town of Unicoi has a deadline of Feb. 7 to submit a proposal.
After a lengthy discussion at Monday’s meeting, Vice-Mayor Doug Hopson made a motion that unanimously passed to form a committee that would devise a plan once the panel determined what would best serve the public’s interest. A presentation of any proposal or plan drafted by the committee will be presented during a called meeting for the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen on Feb. 5
“This does have an economic impact on the town and the county, and we do need to take a real close look at these things and see if there’s anyway that we can help to keep this thing going,” said Mayor Johnny Lynch. “Ideally, I’d love to see some person come in and keep that golf course running and just move on like we’re doing, but that may not happen.”
Lynch also said that it if the golf course were to close, there could be a negative impact for the people whose homes are located on the golf course and could lead to a tax adjustment being made on those homes, leading to a potential deficit in county property taxes.
“There’s a lot to this, more than just having a golf course to play golf on,” Lynch said.
Alderwoman Kathy Bullen expressed concern that if the Town of Unicoi was to purchase the golf course, they would be responsible for the strict maintenance regulations.
“In the proposal package from Johnson City … it says that if there was a purchase then the town is responsible to operate and maintain a collection and wastewater plant,” Bullen said.
Aldermen Roger Cooper expressed similar concerns that stemmed from the potential environmental impact of the golf course along with the permits and labor that would be required to operate the course.
“One question is if there has been an environmental assessment on the property,” Cooper said. “A list would have to be put together to see how much money we’re talking about to even get started. The environmental impact could be huge, and environmental cleanup is costly.”
Cooper added that diverting town funds to operate the golf course could deplete the town’s budget and could lead to the town needing to pass a property tax. This was especially concerning to Cooper due to a previous resolution the aldermen passed that pledged to not pass a property tax as long as they were in office.
“I was looking at the financials we received, and if project is close, the Mountain Harvest Kitchen will cost about $100,000 to run it,” Cooper said. “I was looking at it in detail, and I talked to a lot of people. In my opinion, the only way this town could operate that golf course would be to instigate a property tax.”
Aldermen Linville stated that he didn’t have a particular interest in the town running a golf course, but wanted to make sure the town had explored all of its options to assist any other individuals who may be in a position to purchase the course.
“If we are going to be involved at all we need to do something quick. You’re going to have to get this committee going if you’re going to do anything,” Lynch stated. “I know it’s not much, but this is all we can do for now.”
Lynch appointed Cooper and Hopson to the committee for the Buffalo Valley Golf Course, with Linville serving as committee chair. Community members Tyler Blevins, Andy Lander, and Justin Black were appointed to the committee, along with the new Town of Unicoi City Recorder Dustin Thompson.
“If the town happened to decide to take on an obligation of owning the golf course, obviously it would place a contingent liability on everybody that has property,” said Wayne Lewis, community member. “I am just wondering if your committee is properly represented with people outside of the golf course, as well as people that live on the golf course. If we choose to spend the money I would like there to be an equal amount of property owners represented.”
Lynch responded that the committee was open to anyone with an interest in the decision on the golf course and the agenda was amended to appoint Lewis, along with community member Deborah Perry, and Town of Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff to the committee.
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In other business, after recent concerns that Unicoi residents have not been utilizing the Mountain Harvest Kitchen as much as anticipated, the Mountain Harvest Kitchen Committee presented the board with a resolution that would waive the $80 orientation fee and $25 an hour usage fee for up to eight hours of use for certain individuals.
Those fees would be waived for Town of Unicoi residents wanting to use the kitchen for personal and commercial purposes, and who did not intend to sell any products made while using the facility.
The resolution encouraged the Town of Unicoi to set aside $2,800 of scholarship money to fund the waived fees. It also encouraged the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County to match the scholarship.
Bullen expressed concern that she had not been able to get information on the businesses that launched after utilizing the Mountain Harvest Kitchen, even after she explored multiple chains of communication with kitchen staff.
“Why is it so difficult for me to get an answer on this?” Bullen asked.
Lynch responded that no one was intentionally keeping information from her to his knowledge, and he was unaware of any reasons why that information had not yet been divulged to her.
“This is an economic development project. Economic development is not necessarily a money making thing, but rather it creates jobs,” Lynch said. “I have never heard of a business that started and after four months it was doing great.”
Linville made a motion, seconded by Cooper, to move a line item in the town’s budget to fund the Mountain Harvest Kitchen scholarship. The motion passed unanimously.
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A resolution from the Unicoi Business Alliance was also passed to express gratitude to Ike Wilson for providing a location to Clarence’s restaurant after the restaurant lost its building to an accidental fire.
“It is an example of one Unicoi business helping another Unicoi business in need,” the resolution stated.
The resolution also stated that Wilson’s generous act was an example of goodwill, and that the resolution was intended to encourage and promote future acts of kindness.
Linville made a motion to accept the resolution, second by Bullen before it unanimously passed.
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A motion passed to accept a recommendation of Dustin Thompson as the new Town of Unicoi city recorder after the interviewing process among the 20 candidates came to an end.
Thompson is currently a financial analyst for Johnson City, as well as resident of Unicoi County. Contingent on a background and reference check, Thompson will serve as the new City Recorder, and the position includes a $50,000 salary along with medical and retirement benefits and paid vacation time.
“The interviews went really well, and we had two very good finalists in there and it was a hard decision,” said Lynch. “We think that we have made the right decision on this recommendation.”
Hopson made a motion to accept the recommendation that was seconded by Linville before it unanimously passed.