By Kendal Groner
On Thursday, Feb. 8, the findings of a comprehensive retail study for Unicoi County was presented by Adam Chandler, an economic development consultant with the Oklahoma-based company, Retail Attractions.
The retail study was funded through the Governor’s Three Star Program and is intended to give town and county leaders an idea of ways to move forward with healthy growth. In his presentation of the study, Chandler highlighted the topics of retail development, residential development, and intangible factors affecting the growth of Unicoi County.
Chandler began by discussing the retail leakage in Unicoi County, and noted that most of that leakage is from spending taking place north of the county, specifically in Johnson City.
“In some ways, Johnson City is a benefit to the area because it’s a retail hub and as it grows some of that will leak into Unicoi County,” Chandler said. “But it’s a detractor right now because it almost has a suction effect by pulling everything into Johnson City.
He also singled out the Okolona Road exit off of 1-26, and while there isn’t much land there suitable for development, he advised to keep an eye on this exit to prevent retail leakage just shy of the county line.
“One of the main strengths of Unicoi County are the exits along 1-26, and the fact that a major interstate cuts through the entire county,” Chandler remarked. “It’s a huge benefit and offers a lot of potential for the future.”
The first few exits are very scenic as is, and could be preserved that way to highlight the natural beauty, Chandler explained. However, he highlighted the exits from Jackson Love Highway and up as having development potential. At the Jackson Love Highway exit, he focused on seven or eight different land parcels, and said that ideally any growth that occurred here would trickle down into the rest of the county.
“It would be great for this interchange to turn into a medical hub, with maybe some smaller retail to support that,” Chandler said.
The main focus seems to currently be the exit that leads to Second Street in Erwin, and he suggested trying to combine land parcels of several different locations.
“This is the kind of artery and gateway into downtown,” he explained. “How difficult it would be to put all of those land pieces together, I’m not sure, but I don’t see a reason, whether it be land or road systems for why that couldn’t happen.”
Chandler also discussed the potential for the former Morgan Insulation Property, but advised that as it is being graded out and demolished, steps be taken to bring it all up to road level.
“It will definitely raise the value of that property and the usability of it,” he said. “Without that being done, it will probably continue to be overlooked by users.”
He suggested that the Town of Erwin have preferred options for the use of the property that they can suggest to exert control over the visual impact.
It was also mentioned for this exit the importance of putting a traffic signal into place and taking care of how individual lots are developed to make sure they help the exit remain visually attractive, which could play a large role in how the downtown area develops in the next five to 10 years.
For the Main Street exit, Chandler said that while it’s a good intersection, it gets caught between two better ones. Although it may not be as commercially appealing, there is strong potential for residential development.
He focused on a seven acre tract that would be well suited for a residential development project, and suggested possibilities for the former Wendy’s building.
“A dead fast food restaurant is a psychological killer for people looking to invest,” he cautioned. “But there’s a lot of possibilities, mainly because this isn’t an old building.”
He suggested a Cookout, Steak-n-Shake, or a Mountain Harvest Kitchen prospect business for the location.
The study found that because of Walmart and the large, flat land tracts, the Tinker Road exit is where most major development will occur in the future. However, Chandler said encouragement and very competitive offers will probably have to be given in order to get land owners to sell.
The exit of Highway 173, where Dollar General and Mountain Harvest Kitchen are in the Town of Unicoi, is the last exit headed north before leaving the county, and may have potential for small office space and residential development.
Chandler said that because of the way some of the larger land parcels have been split up, this area could be limited for larger development.
“In a lot of ways this intersection is a good example of how poor planning can limit options with an intersection,” he said.
Aside from the major interstate interchanges, a secondary retail district was identified. That retail district was classified by older retail with primarily restaurants and office use.
Chandler said that in the Town of Erwin the Food Lion and CVS shopping center, as well as the Tractor Supply Company and Dollar General shopping center were the main anchors for this district.
“This is where changing some code, signage restrictions, signage mandates and building restrictions could make a big difference,” Chandler informed. “Just because there’s a lot of properties in this corridor that have not been kept up to standard.”
He said that one issue that can arise with longer standing retail areas such as this, is there are less incentives for owners to invest money back into the buildings.
The study also took into account that the CVS building lease could expire in the next two to three years, and because of the widespread availability of drugs online, the company isn’t creating many new stores.
“That could change overnight,” said Chandler. “But there is a 50-50 chance that this center could be empty in three to five years. Having a plan in place could definitely prevent that from happening.”
The lack of signage at some old store fronts along North Main Avenue was mentioned as an issue in this retail area, as well as an excessive amount of phone and power lines.
“Over a 15 to 20 year period, if you had a vision for how you wanted this section to look, it would probably be much cleaner,” Chandler said. “This area just needs a lot of planning.”
For residential development, Chandler said that the biggest obstacle is going to be encouraging population growth, and the only way to kickstart that growth will probably be through incentives.
“Population is probably the largest county issue,” Chandler said. “The end goal of all these phases is your population increases, but it’s kind of a Catch 22.”
One issue related to population that Chandler found was that there is a considerable amount of people working in the area, but not living here. For incentives to catalyze population growth, he suggested developer incentives such as subordinated land costs, marketing campaigns in Johnson City to target homebuyers, tax incentives or credits for new homebuyers, and public-private partnerships with local companies to incentivize employees to live within the county.
“I believe new housing will sell here, and the reason it doesn’t is because there’s not much out there,” he said.
The retail study defined the intangible factors most affecting the economic growth of Unicoi County as the natural beauty and the emotional feel of the area.
Several view corridors along I-26 were analyzed and suggestions were given to highlight and preserve the aesthetics of each one. To enhance the natural aesthetics of the area, it was suggested to maintain the area the way it is at the start of the county up to the Town of Unicoi’s Visitor’s Center.
In addition to highlighting the Nolichucky River, the study recommended installing a tree screen on areas across from the new Unicoi County Memorial Hospital site, and to be conscious and aware of any clear cutting that could become an eyesore and damage the landscape.
Lastly, Chandler looked at the metaphysics or general attitude that people have towards the area that have the potential to impact population growth and the likelihood of new investors and developers.
“I go to a lot of different cities, and each one has a tangible feel to it,” he explained. “It’s a lot easier to look at the industrial and retail to come up with a plan of action, but all of those factors come into how it makes somebody feel.”
One thing he pointed out was that to most outsiders who aren’t familiar with Unicoi County and Erwin, the entire county is seen as one area, even though there are three different municipalities.
“It’s even taken me a while to stop calling it one thing, and to really split it up,” he said.
It was also mentioned that many people Chandler spoke with, referred to the area as being cliquish, however some of that could be generated from people that have moved here rather than those that are from this area. He added that the issue could possibly be addressed with online media or marketing.
Chandler concluded his presentation by saying that the bottom line for Unicoi County is that growth will occur, and that there is a chance exponential growth could occur in the next five to 10 years. How fast the growth occurs, and how it happens, will be up to the leaders of the area.
“My impression of this area is that it feels like it really wants to move forward,” Chandler concluded. “That was attractive to me, because there’s a lot of places that have had a rough go of it, and they have quit. I got the feeling that everyone here is trying.”