By Brad Hicks
Nearly a full 17 months has passed since the facility closed but, according to property owner LuAnn Hendren, community members dropping by continues to be an everyday occurrence.
All who visit the closed office on Ohio Avenue are seeking help. Many, Hendren said, inquire about the reopening of the building.
“Anytime there’s a car out front, they come and knock on the door,” Hendren said. “It was the same when they were remodeling. People have been asking all the time.”
But the days of turning clients away from the local office and directing them to Johnson City for assistance are almost over, and officials now have the answer to the question of when the Tennessee Department of Human Services office in Unicoi County will reopen.
Hendren said the expected reopen date for the local DHS office is Tuesday, July 18.
“I’m tickled that it’s finally going to happen and we have a date we can pass along,” Hendren said.
The DHS vacated the office building in late January 2016 after more than 20 years at the location. Hendren, who owns the building leased by the state for its Unicoi County DHS office, said a lease issue prompted the state to temporarily relocate the local office to Johnson City.
Hendren previously said she was seeking a long-term lease from the state which would allow her to complete renovations to the building, which had not seen major improvements in more than two decades. The state, however, wished to rent the building on a month-to-month basis after the lease it signed years prior had expired.
But when Hendren received word the state was interested in returning to its former location in Unicoi County, she reached out to state officials and the two sides went to work on a new agreement.
“They needed to kind of explore other options, which I totally understood,” Hendren said. “I needed to explore other options, and then we decided we were the best for each other.”
The state signed a new 10-year lease with Hendren on Jan. 23, the same day State Sen. Rusty Crowe and State Rep. John Holsclaw jointly announced the upcoming reopening of the Unicoi County DHS office. Hendren said she reached out to Crowe to help expedite the DHS return process, and she credits Crowe with helping to make the office’s reopening possible.
With the new lease agreement in place, Bowman & Sons Construction was brought in to begin renovation work on the facility. That work began in February.
Hendren said the renovations and upgrades on the building included the moving of some walls, new windows and doors, new roofing and a new central heating and air system, as well as new ceiling tiles, new carpeting and a fresh coat of paint.
Hendren added her family and friends supported the effort, in particular crediting Tim Yates for his “undying work ethic” on the fine details, such as painting and cleaning, necessary to ready the office for its reopening.
With these renovations and the addition of more natural lighting, greater energy efficiency and enhanced security, state DHS officials will return to a better office than the one they left, Hendren said.
“It’s something for Unicoi County to be very proud of,” she said.
Bowman & Sons by May 1 had completed the work necessary for the state to begin its move-in. Hendren said the state will likely begin moving in its furniture and workstations, along with setting up Internet access and installing office equipment, throughout the end of June and over the first couple weeks of July.
“So we’re basically waiting for furniture, computers, the data setup, all that sort of stuff,” Hendren said.
Hendren said the state should have everything needed for the operation of the office in place by Monday, July 17, the same day a final walkthrough of the building is to be conducted. State officials were in Unicoi County on Wednesday, June 14, to complete an initial walkthrough of the office.
According to information provided to Hendren by the state, the personnel count at the Unicoi County DHS office will be 10 once the office reopens. Hendren said state officials indicated less square footage was needed than before as the state wants DHS representatives to spend more time “out in the field.”
And the DHS will not be the only tenant of the newly-renovated building. The same day the DHS moves into the facility, the Tennessee Department of Safety will move Tennessee Highway Patrol personnel into a portion of the building.
The THP will occupy around 800 square feet of the 3,600-square-foot building, and its side of the facility will include three offices. Four troopers will share two of the offices, and a sergeant will utilize the remaining office.
Hendren said the public will not have access to the THP’s portion of the building.
The steps to bring the THP to the building began after the Department of Safety contacted Hendren to see if she had additional space available due to the THP’s loss of its office space at Erwin Town Hall.
In October 2016, a letter signed by Erwin Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff on behalf of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen was submitted to the THP’s District 5 Headquarters requesting that the THP vacate its space at Erwin Town Hall. Erwin officials cited the town’s growth and need for additional space as the reason for the request.
Hendren’s building also previously housed the local Department of Children’s Services office, but she said that agency will not have a presence within the building once it reopens.
The facility that will once again be home to the local DHS office and will now house THP personnel was originally constructed in 1974 and initially owned by Hendren’s father, Joe. For years, the location served primarily as a service station. A laundry mat and later a florist was located in space next to the service station.
After the service station closed in the mid-1990s, the DHS began its occupancy of the building.
The Tennessee DHS offers information and assistance to its clients through various programs, including Families First and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It also offers assistance with a number of rehabilitation and community and social services.
Hendren said she is glad the DHS is returning to Unicoi County, adding community members in need of the help offered through the agency’s services and programs will welcome the fresh start.
“It really inconvenienced the town, so I’m thrilled that’s been lifted and they’re going to have to drive just a few short minutes to be able to get their needs taken care of,” Hendren said.