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County DHS office to reopen

Luann Hendren and contractor Doug Bowman look over blueprints for the remodel of her building at 724 Ohio Ave. Once completed, the facility will again be home to the  Tennessee Department of Human Services as well as provide an office space for the Tennessee Highway Patrol. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)
Luann Hendren and contractor Doug Bowman look over blueprints for the remodel of her building at 724 Ohio Ave. Once completed, the facility will again be home to the Tennessee Department of Human Services as well as provide an office space for the Tennessee Highway Patrol. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

All it took, according to Luann Hendren, was a little patience, some fortitude, and a willingness to work things out.

“We all had a talk about that, ‘Let’s let the past be the past and start moving forward and let’s get this done,’” she said. “It truly does take a team to make it happen.”

This collaboration between Hendren and state officials has resulted in the return of the Tennessee Department of Human Services office to its former location in Unicoi County after more than a year away.

The office, Hendren said, is anticipated to open around the first of June if not sooner. Renovations to the building the DHS is set to once again occupy are ongoing, and Hendren expects this work to be completed by the middle of this month. From there, it will be up to the state to choose  what color of paint, carpet and tiling they want to see in the office.

“We’re less than a month away of being finished,” Hendren said.

The DHS vacated the office building on Ohio Avenue in late January 2016 after more than two decades at the location. Hendren, who owns the building which was leased to the state, said the state’s decision to temporarily relocate the Unicoi County office to Johnson City stemmed from a lease issue.

Hendren said she was seeking a long-term lease from the state which would allow her to complete upgrades on the building, adding that significant improvement work had not been completed on the structure in more than 20 years. The state, however, seemed content to pay rent on a month-to-month basis after the lease it signed years prior had expired.

“I think they thought that maybe they could find some place that was better or they wanted to see how it would work to merge the Johnson City office and their Washington County office and the Unicoi County office,” Hendren said, “and they decided it did not work.”

Hendren was approached by members of the community who relayed to her that the DHS was interested in returning to its former location in Unicoi County and would be interested in working out an agreement with Hendren.

After receiving this information, Hendren reached out to the state last fall.

“Some members of the community came to me and said, ‘You know, the state’s not happy in Johnson City, the people aren’t happy in Johnson City, do you think you could work something out with the state, would you be willing to let them come back?’” Hendren said. “And I said, ‘Sure,’ so I reached out to them and they called me back, basically, and we started working on it from there.”

Hendren also reached out to State Sen. Rusty Crowe to help expedite the DHS’ return to Unicoi County. Without Crowe’s work, the return would not have been possible, Hendren said.

Hendren added state officials were “very accommodating” throughout the process and willing to make concessions to make the DHS return happen.

“It just took some negotiating with the state,” she said. “We both had to get on the same page and play ball. I wanted one thing, they wanted another, so we just kind of had to put our needs together and pick what we could work out and work it out.”

The state signed a new 10-year lease with Hendren on Jan. 23, the same day Crowe and State Rep. John Holsclaw jointly announced the impending reopening of the Unicoi County DHS office.

This lease, Hendren said, is made up of a 5-year guaranteed period and an option that would allow Hendren to seek a 5-year renewal from the state at the end of the first four years.

“We’re thrilled that they’re going to be back,” Hendren said. “They needed to kind of have some time to look around and see what their options were, as I did, too, and then we both realized, ‘Hey, we’re each other’s best option.’”

Renovation work to prepare the building for the DHS’ return began in early February. This work, which is being completed by Bowman & Sons Construction, has thus far included the installation of new petitions and new walls for conference rooms and office. The Johnson City-based Bishop Roofing put a new roof on the structure, and Newman Heat & Air also worked on the office.

“Once the lease was signed, the ball started rolling,” Hendren said.

Hendren said the office will be one of the nicest, if not the nicest, DHS offices in the state of Tennessee. She said other work has included the installation of new doors and security upgrades, adding the building will be energy efficient.

“We’ve got a nice, new, beautiful state-of-the-art building,” Hendren said, “and it’s going to be fantastic for both the community and the employees. All the way around, everybody wins.”

Hendren described the DHS as a “great tenant,” but this agency will not be the only one to occupy the renovated space. Around 2,800 square feet of the 3,600 square-foot building will be occupied by the DHS, while the remaining space will be occupied by the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Hendren said this move came about after the Tennessee Department of Safety contacted her to see if she had additional space due to the THP’s loss of its space at Erwin Town Hall.

“So I contacted the state and said, ‘Hey, the Department of Safety just contacted me,’ so then everybody got together and said, ‘Let’s get this thing moving and make it happen,’” Hendren said.

In October, 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.

“So the Department of Safety is on one side, and the Department of Human Services is on the other, so we basically just had to remove and rearrange some walls, we moved a bathroom, and we had to move a conference room, some things like that, but the building is practically brand new,” Hendren said. “It has a new roof. It has central heating and air. It has new walls. They’ll have new carpet, new paint, new tile, new cubicles, all that stuff.”

The building that will now house the two agencies was constructed in 1974 and was initially owned by Hendren’s father. For a number of years, the location served primarily as a service station. A florist was located in space adjacent to the service station.

After the service station closed in the mid-1990s, the DHS began its stay in the building, signing a new lease in 2001.

Hendren, who walked the construction site as the structure was built and worked in the convenience store it once housed, is pleased to see that the building will have a continued purpose in the community.

“That building’s very sentimental to me, so I want it to be productive and good-looking and serve the needs of the community,” she said. “That’s why it’s here – to have a community presence.”

The building previously housed the local Department of Children’s Services, but this agency will not be accommodated in the building once it reopens, Hendren said, as the state had advised it requires less square footage than before for the DHS office.

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.

The need for services and programs offered through DHS is great in Unicoi County. She said Doug Bowman with Bowman & Sons Construction advised her that, despite it being closed for more than a year, several people still stop by the Ohio Avenue location daily hoping to get help. Hendren added a number of those who rely on DHS programs lack the resources to travel to Johnson City.

“I’m just glad to get it done so the community doesn’t have to travel anymore and that they get their office back,” Hendren said.

All that stands between the reopening of the building, returning a convenient place for locals needing the services of the DHS, is a few finishing touches.

“It’s going to be something that not only can I be proud of, but the state and the citizens of Unicoi County can also be proud of,” Hendren said.