By Richard Rourk
Members from both the Unicoi County Commission and Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen met with the Unicoi County Joint Economic Development Board for an informational session to discuss incentives to jump start new home construction in Unicoi County.
The joint meeting was held at Square One in Erwin, on Monday, Dec. 2, and included discussion of a proposal to bring contractors looking to build to Unicoi County.
Unicoi County Joint Economic Development Board Executive Director Tyler Engle and Erwin Utilities Assistant to the General Manager Mitch Barton have previously presented the proposed plan to both municipalities about an Infrastructure and Guarantee Fund (I & G Fund) to boost new housing in the county.
Engle acknowledged that the I & G Fund is an initiative that would offer developers a one-time reimbursement grant equal to two percent of the assessed value of a newly built home or vastly improved existing residence. For example, for a new home valued at $195,000, the rebate would be for $3,900 to be paid in equal shares by the town and county governments.
According to Engle, taxes will net $7,179 over 60 months for the town and county governments. “We have looked at this plan with a 2 percent, 3 percent and even a 5 percent rebate; we are flexible,” Engle said.
Engle acknowledged that Unicoi County has three options going forward.
“We can stay the same, we can half-heartedly attempt to attract new residents or we can be forward-thinking,” Engle said. “From the top of Flag Pond to Marbleton we could strive to be the premier spot for housing in the Appalachian Highlands by 2030.”
According to Engle, the proposition for a pilot program has three options.
“We can look at fee waivers, money grants and value floors to attract construction to Unicoi County,” Engle said. “We are looking at an up front incentive and a return down the road.”
“When we start framing these conversations we have to look at what has happened to our region over the last 20 years,” Barton said. “We have been fairly stagnant for the last 20 years.
According to Barton, Unicoi County Schools could drop below 2,000 students in the next five years, if the county stays on the current trend.
“We are looking at less than a single new home per month,” Barton said. “Going back to 2001, statewide we are seeing growth in live births, but here we are not, and those numbers are opposite when it comes to the death rate.”
Barton acknowledged that the workforce of the region is aging.
“As the Baby Boomers retire they will be replaced by the millennial generation,” Barton said.
According to Barton, about 2,800 people that work in Erwin live elsewhere.
“Just imagine if we can get just 10 percent of those workers to move to Erwin and Unicoi County and what impact that will have on our economy,” Barton said.
One concern by the county leaders is a need for affordable housing and renovation incentives. “We need new housing, but we really need affordable housing,” Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely said.
“We are having industry close and those employees are relocating. Instead of new housing, have we looked at upgrading vacated and dilapidated homes? That would help our county tremendously,” Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said.
According to Engle, there are many options.
“We are talking about new housing primarily here, but we can look at working with area banks and grants to address those issues,” Engle said.
Unicoi Commission Vice Chair Jamie Harris questioned if the county should be investing in housing over jobs.
“I would like to see more incentives go into jobs in the county,” Harris said.
According to Town of Erwin Vice Mayor Mark Lafever, Unicoi County offers prospective homeowners a lot with its beauty and natural resources.
“Erwin has a lot to offer; we have the river, mountains and trails. Industry is important, but there are still many reasons to live here,” Lafever said. “People want to live here.”
Town of Erwin Alderman Michael Baker, who is also a real estate agent, agreed with Lafever.
“I see it every day, people are always looking to buy houses here,” Baker said.
Engle is looking at this plan to stabilize the tax base for the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County. “Today is our proposal, we would propose that the program start July 1, 2020, and the program would end by Dec. 31, 2021,” Engle said. “This plan was developed after working with Smart Growth America, it is a Unicoi County Joint Economic Development Board original plan. This is the first of many talks about this subject; we have talked to one of the leading tax firms in the state on this.”
Unicoi County Joint Economic Development Board Chairman Lee Brown expressed the importance of incentivizing new housing.
“We are in a crisis mode, and if we do nothing that is exactly what will continue to happen,” Brown said. “We have a great opportunity and we have to do something or it’s going to get worse. I just ask that we pray for good things and I hope you will think about this; we have to do something soon.”
No follow-up meetings had been scheduled for the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County by The Erwin Record’s deadline.
According to Hensley and Harris, both the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County are seeking public feedback about incentives for housing in the county.