By Brad Hicks
When he took the job of town recorder for the town of Unicoi around eight-and-a-half years ago, it marked Larry Rea’s first foray into government work.
“It was a very interesting educational experience,” Rea said. “I learned a lot of things that, before I took that job, I never even thought about working with and knowing. I never really worked in government before and always enjoyed learning new things, and that certainly was something new and different for me.”
And Rea is now looking forward to retirement. He worked his last day as Unicoi’s town recorder last Wednesday.
Rea moved to the area from Pennsylvania around 33 years ago. Prior to beginning his work for the town of Unicoi, Rea worked in the industrial field. He said his regular duties in this job helped prepare him for his daily responsibilities as town recorder, which included accounting, payroll and being in charge of a variety of projects.
“I was responsible for budgets and I was responsible for heading up projects, so managing construction projects was kind of second nature to me when I got to the town of Unicoi which helped with the rebuilding of the cabin and the Visitors Center and those kinds of things,” Rea said.
Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch announced Rea’s hire in January 2008.
“It doesn’t seem like it,” Rea said of the duration of his stint. “It seems like it was not that long ago that I was starting up there.”
Unicoi was a budding town when Rea took the town recorder job. The municipality was less than 20 years old at that time, having been incorporated in 1994. Walmart had opened just before Rea went to work for the town. At the time of his hire, Rea joined the late Linda March, who served as the town’s public relations director, as Unicoi’s only employees.
Rea said the growth the town has experienced since his hire coincided with the 2009 re-introduction of the Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival. He said one of the students from an East Tennessee State University Public Relations class helping to put the festival together remained onboard with the town as an intern, and this student and Rea worked to finalize the re-christened event.
Things, Rea said, have snowballed in a good way since that point.
The town has seen a fair amount of growth in terms of its population over the years, Rea said.
“It’s a town that has plenty of space for people to build single-family homes, and there’s been quite a few of those built in the eight-and-a-half years I’ve been here,” he said.
Increasing the number of attractions to bolster the local quality of life was another priority for Rea. One effort in which he was involved was the restoration and renovation of the Bogart-Bowman Cabin.
“We converted that into a very usable park and cabin for the general public,” Rea said.
Other successful projects include the conversion of a house into the town’s Visitors Center, which is located off Exit 32, and work to bring the Mountain Harvest Kitchen to fruition. Rea said the first phase of the kitchen project, which allows farmers markets to clean and sort produce, has been completed. Construction on the second phase, which includes renovating and opening up the rest of the facility, should begin by the end of the summer and be finished by the end of this fall, Rea said.
Another project in recent years that has proven to be a boon for the town is the completion of the Pinnacle Tower Hiking/Biking Trail and the trailhead. Rea said the town worked with the U.S. Forest Service to get the trail put in and to see the aging Pinnacle Fire Tower reconditioned. The town built the trailhead on the property known as Jack Snider Park.
The trail has become a popular local destination.
“It’s a good draw,” Rea said. “Sometimes, there’s hardly any place to park up there with the people using that trail. So that’s a great thing.”
In addition to the annual Freedom Fest Fourth of July celebration, the town has also grown its list of festivals, events and activities since Rea’s hire. Along with the rebirth of the Strawberry Festival, the town also holds its Heritage Days event in October and hosts activities regularly at the Bogart-Bowman Cabin and Visitors Center.
“It’s been real interesting seeing that grow,” Rea said of the festivals and activities.
The town of Unicoi’s staff has also expanded over the past eight-and-a-half years. Since then, the town has added positions to include a parks and recreation/community development director, an administrative assistant, maintenance personnel, an AmeriCorps Volunteer Coordinator and a part-time assistant to help other staff as needed.
The town also has in place the man who will fill Rea’s shoes. Mike Housewright was recently hired to serve as Unicoi’s town recorder. Rea said he worked with Housewright to help bring him up to speed.
“We were planning this for a while to find somebody to take my place that would be with me for a while and get a feel for all the things that are going on in the town,” Rea said.
As for his retirement plans, Rea said he and wife Donna, recently retired herself, plan to do some traveling, visiting family and friends.
And Rea said he wants to see the town of Unicoi continue to grow.
“I would like to see them continue on the course they’re on right now and get some more businesses in for sales tax and do some more activities and so forth,” he said.