Johnson City builds stronger downtown through grant program

BY KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

Johnson City has taken a new step toward making its downtown strong by offering the first round in a series of grants aimed at helping small businesses wanting to locate there.
A panel of four judges awarded $15,000 in grants from the Downtown Strong program to four recently opened or soon-to-be-opened businesses located in Johnson City’s downtown area. The grants are administered through the Johnson City Development Authority’s (JDCA) Economic Vitality Team.
The grand prize of $5,000 went to the owners of Skillville, a community shop and maker space that will allow customers to take classes as well as rent equipment and shop space for woodworking, metalwork, refinishing and more. Three other companies received $3,300 grants including T-shirt company Boomtown and Co.; Blowtique, the area’s first blow dry bar and boutique; and Barley Waters, a craft beer market opening in the former Tennessee National Bank/Jones-Vance building.
Dianna Cantler, the JCDA’s liaison and downtown development director for the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, said many of the owners of buildings in downtown Johnson City have been investing and remodeling their properties. A nice selection of restaurants and breweries have been opening up in the area, but Cantrell said there is a need to fill some of the ground floors and other vacant spaces with retail.
“We are looking for ways to fill those spaces, so we thought let’s do something that will encourage development,” she said. “We thought if people saw multiple businesses opening at the same time they will see there is activity going on downtown. We wanted to support the type of businesses we have on a wish list, the type of businesses we think will do well and fulfill a need in Johnson City.”
JCDA has been partnering with AccelNow, an organization that mentors entrepreneurs, to offer a nine-week class called Co.Starters. Participants in the most recent cohort of the class were given the opportunity to apply for grants that would help them open up a business in Johnson City’s downtown area.
“We have offered the Co.Starters class before, and we knew that to be an entrepreneur-friendly area we want to offer these classes regularly,” Cantler said. “We put together the grant and one of the requirements is going through the Co.Starters class. We asked them to take it a step further and submit a written business plan. They also have to open their business downtown within the next six months.”
Cantler said the Co.Starter class is not just for those who want to open a storefront but for anyone in the area with a business idea. The program allows prospective business owners to address their market, design products, address challenges to opening their business, and identify whether or not their business will work before they invest money in the idea. The class features speakers with backgrounds in law, accounting, and marketing to share their experience.
“This class really delves down into the challenges you might have, things you might not have considered beyond just making a business plan,” she said. “Plus, it really builds a sense of community. We had nine people in the last class, four of which were already looking at leasable space downtown. They have really become a great support system for each other.”
JCDA wanted to award the grants to businesses that had graduated from the program in the summer so their businesses would open in the fall, historically one of the better times for businesses to open. Cantler said the next Co.Starters class will begin in January with a second round of grants offered for those businesses, which will open in the late spring and early summer, another historically good time for new business openings.
“The goal for this program is that the businesses we open fit into the community well, that they fill a need we feel we have,” Cantler said. “We want these businesses to start out strong.”