By Richard Rourk
The new year brings a time of reflection on the past year’s events, but it also calls for resolutions and goals for the upcoming year. For local municipalities, the two items go hand in hand.
The Erwin Record recently sat down with the mayors of all three municipalities of Unicoi County to discuss the successes of 2019 and what lies ahead for 2020. Jobs and an effective ambulance service top the mayors’ lists.
Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely was excited to discuss plans to build upon what the county started in 2019.
“It’s been a busy year and we are looking forward to completing some items especially with the ambulance service,” Evely said. “It was busy at the beginning of the year and then we got Washington County/Johnson City EMS to step in and it’s worked really well since then. We hope moving into 2020 all of the municipalities can move forward with a new ambulance service”
According to Evely, he is most proud of the way that the commission has been able to step up for Unicoi County Schools.
“The county commission worked with Unicoi County Schools to secure $5.1 million in funding for their school projects, including the renovation at Gentry Stadium, updating the sound and lighting at the high school auditorium, major renovations at Rock Creek, updating the track to scale and if there is enough funding, the completion of new tennis courts,” Evely said. “Having spent 20 years on the school board, I have to say that is the number one highlight for me, seeing that everything is updated for our children; they have always been near and dear to me.”
The ambulance service and funding for Unicoi County Schools were just a few of the items that the county took on during 2019.
“Food City was huge; it brought in sales tax that may have gone to other counties,” Evely said. “Foam Products expansion helped create jobs and our commission continues to work with the Unicoi County Joint Economic Development Board to explore more opportunities. Our commission worked hard in upgrading and securing the jail annex. … Our sheriff’s department has had an aging fleet, so we were able to update the fleet of vehicles and set up a plan to keep up to date vehicles in rotation.”
Other items that Evely was proud of for 2019 was the installation of direct deposit for county employees, streamlining of the county waste sites and upgraded security at the courthouse,
“Our commission has focused on forward thinking instead of constantly trying to put out fires,” Evely said. “We were able to give a lot of attention to the county waste sites. We were able to clean up the sites and upgrade them. We are constantly looking for grants to upgrade the sites. We were able to implement direct deposit for the first time for county employees, which will be more efficient and save the county money. We were able to get a security grant to upgrade security at the courthouse.”
Looking forward to the future, Evely has one main focus.
“We are focused on jobs, that is our number one priority” Evely said. “We hope that companies come in and replace others that may have left. With that comes job training and additional resources to come to Unicoi County.”
Along with jobs, Evely is focused on the ambulance situation in Unicoi County.
“We haven’t finished everything we need on the ambulance service. Our target date is July 1. We are working hard to get everything in place to start July 1,” Evely said. “We are really appreciative to the Town of Erwin, on how they worked with us on providing that grant. We couldn’t be where we are today if they weren’t willing to work with us.”
According to Evely, Unicoi County is focused on resolving emergency communication projects that were started in 2019.
“We hope that the communications project will wrap up in the first quarter of this year,” Evely said.
Evely acknowledged that he would also like to see the Unicoi County Commission get the budget turned in earlier this year.
“In the past we have always come close to the deadline. This year we hope to be prepared before June 30,” Evely said. “We will be working the next few months to move that budgetary process up. All of the other office holders have already begun working on their budgets so that will help tremendously.”
According to Evely, the county has a lot to tackle this upcoming year.
“We have a full plate going forward, especially up through July and August, but our number focus has to be jobs – good paying jobs with benefits,” Evely said. “We need jobs where people can work in Unicoi County, but also be able to live in Unicoi County; it’s imperative that we recruit jobs.”
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Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley, like Evely, would like to see the Town of Erwin build off of 2019’s successes for 2020.
According to Hensley, the Town of Erwin accomplished a lot in 2019.
“The new businesses that came to town, that was exciting to see,” Hensley said. “Seeing Food City come to town and the Dollar Tree, as well as several other businesses coming here has been great.”
Hensley also acknowledged that Wayfinding signage that points to area businesses, landmarks and amenities throughout Erwin has been beneficial to the community.
“We have our signage completed in Erwin and are awaiting more Wayfinding signage to be installed,” Hensley said.
According to Hensley, stop signs and street name signs are also going up throughout Erwin.
Hensley is proud of the THDA grants that have totaled $250,000 for home improvements within Erwin corporate limits.
“The home program is one of the best programs we have ever done,” Hensley said. “We have been working on it for 25 years and we have been able to bring a lot of housing up to standard, making it safer and more comfortable for our elderly and disabled citizens. We are really proud of that.”
The downtown facade program has provided renovations.
“The downtown facade program has brought improvements to two buildings and we still have funds available for two more businesses,” Hensley said.
The traffic signal on Second Street in front of Food City, which started in 2019, will be permanently erected in 2020.
“The permanent traffic signal will be installed in the coming weeks, in place of the temporary one,” Hensley said.
The Morgan Insulation Site, which was declared pad ready at the end of 2019, hopes to draw interest in 2020.
“We are in the process of getting the land appraised and at that time we can start negotiating with prospects,” Hensley said.
Unicoi County EMS has been a project that Hensley is proud of and looks to carry into 2020 with.
“Working with the county to get the ambulance service off the ground was a big accomplishment for us working together,” Hensley said. “This year we will be looking forward to bringing the service to a close and bring the people a professional and quality ambulance service that the community can be proud of and depend on.”
In 2020, Hensley is also hoping to bring jobs to Erwin.
“We are still doing everything we can to bring jobs here. We continue to work with the economic board to bring jobs to Erwin,” Hensley said. “We are always open for new jobs that come along. Erwin needs all kinds of jobs, with retail there are career jobs with good benefits that bring in tax dollars, and with industry you have skilled labor with competitive pay; no job is insignificant.”
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Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch, like Hensley and Evely, is excited to see what 2020 will bring.
“We accomplished a lot in 2019 and we hope to build off of that for 2020,” Lynch said.
According to Lynch, many of the projects that were started in 2019 and ones that will be started in the future have come from grants.
“We were able to build a pavilion with a Health Access Grant of $85,000 and that did not cost the town anything,” Lynch said. “It’s a no-brainer when you are able to get grants and not have to spend a dime.”
A TDH Health Access Grant of $20,000 will build a natural playground at Snider Park at the Pinnacle Trail head.
According to Lynch, many of the town’s successes centers around new faces in Unicoi.
“We welcomed a new director of communications and programs, Ashley Shelton, who brings 13 years experience in communications and marketing and we also welcomed City Recorder Deborah Kessler, who previously worked in the Elizabethton clerk’s office for more than 13 years,” Lynch said. “We are happy to have both onboard and they have done remarkable jobs.”
Some other new faces in the Town of Unicoi are that of inaugural Town of Unicoi Police Chief Andy Slagle and investigator James Elliott.
“We have been looking to establish a police force in the town for sometime, and we finally accomplished that last year,” Lynch said. “We swore Police Chief Andy Slagle in at our town’s 25th anniversary celebration, and he has hit the ground running,” Lynch said. “We established the department to enforce the town’s codes, traffic control and public safety and Chief Slagle and his auxiliary officer have done a tremendous job with this.”
According to Lynch, the town has already received $2,000 in violations to benefit Unicoi residents.
Lynch is also proud of the addition of the Clinchfield 1111 Caboose that was gifted to the Town of Unicoi by the Clinchfield Railroad Museum Board of Directors by way of CSX Transportation. “We are very proud to keep Unicoi County heritage alive, and for railroaders this is a big deal,” Lynch said. “That caboose will be a draw and railroaders and history buffs will come see the caboose. They will head over to the Clinchfield Railroad Museum and they will head over to Jonesborough for the Chuckey Depot Museum, and while they are here they will eat, they will get gas, so it will have an economic impact.”
According to Lynch, bringing the caboose to the town was estimated to cost $9,150.
“We have received $4,347 of donated equipment and materials,” Lynch said. “We have received another $1,000 in an anonymous donation, so we are now looking at a total cost of $4,803 and we are still receiving donations of both time and money to the project.”
Like Hensley and Evely, Lynch hopes to see all three municipalities working together to provide the best option for ambulance service available for the citizens.
“We have been very careful with this; it is important for our citizens to have quality and sustainable ambulance service and our board has done our best to make sure that our citizens get the best,” Lynch said.
Lynch is excited for upcoming annual events like the 25th anniversary of Fiddlers and Fiddleheads coming to Unicoi on April 25, the Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival on May 16 and the weekly Farmers Market beginning on June 2.
“We have so many great events coming up and we are always looking to add more,” Lynch said.
A new event will be the Fright Night at the Farm event that will take place at Farmhouse Gallery and Gardens on Oct. 30.
“Ashley (Shelton) has been instrumental in creating new events for the community to come out and enjoy,” Lynch said.
Lynch joins Evely and Hensley in hoping to bring in more jobs for the area.
“We would love new business to come here,” Lynch said.
One business that Lynch hopes would consider Unicoi is a gas station.
“We have several spots that would be ideal for a gas station if the landowners and any fueling companies would be interested in making a deal,” Lynch said. “I’d love to see a gas station come, especially given how close we are to the interstate.”