Niswonger Foundation fuels Greeneville revival

The progressive Niswonger Foundation, founded by East Tennessean Scott Niswonger, who made his money with a trucking company called Landair and Forward Air, Inc., is pouring money into making Greeneville a better place to live. The Foundation built a $7 million Performing Arts Center and now has set its sights on making Greeneville “a unique, pedestrian- oriented community where people can live, work and play within walking distance of a vibrant downtown.”

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(Illustration from Rediscover Greeneville Tennessee)

A new website lays out the plans, which make sense for a lot of other Tennessee towns as well. The most interesting part to me is the strategy page, which contains some very good goals. Here are some of those goals and my comments on them:

Create a Region of Villages. Much like Provence or Tuscany, Northeast Tennessee lacks a single urban center. It’s a cluster of villages, which, in concert, forms its own singular, regional identity; like a constellation of stars. As a result, it’s vital that Greeneville’s neighbors, picturesque and historic towns like Morristown, Johnson City and Kingsport, embrace similar programs of revitalization.

This is probably the first time in history that anyone has written “Much like Provence or Tuscany, Northeast Tennessee. . . .” The various towns in Upper East Tennessee often act like the proverbial crabs in an open bucket. Why do none of them escape? Because when one climbs up, the others pull him down. The Tri-Cities, Kingsport, Johnson City, and Bristol have historically acted like fighting children who regard new businesses, et cetera as a zero sum game. I see this the most in tourism. One town will not tell people about attractions or places of interest in nearby counties or towns.

Create a Vibrant Downtown Greeneville. Rediscover Greeneville aims to generate a “critical mass” of businesses, restaurants, theaters, music venues and residential spaces in a revitalized and pedestrian-oriented downtown area of Greeneville.

Rave on! Include bike paths in this as well. Upper East Tennessee has several abandoned railroads, and these would be wonderful bike paths connected towns using the Rails to Trails model. The not so far away Virginia Creeper bike trail is a perfect model that is drawing national attention to Damascus, a tiny town.

Part of creating a “vibrant downtown” that goes unmentioned in these goals is making Greeneville and other towns look better. Small towns in Tennessee and everywhere else tend to be lax on zoning laws and, as a result, often have a hideous hodgepodge of plastic signs. Small businesspeople, particularly those who run franchise restaurants, usually resist any efforts to clean up their act.

Improve Education and Knowledge Recruitment: It’s very important that young people in this region are exposed to a higher level of education and technical training. In addition, Rediscover Greeneville aims to bring in vocational, technical, artistic and administrative expertise from outside the region to train, educate and inspire our young people.

Attempting to change public education is like jumping off a cruise ship and swimming alongside trying to push the vessel into another direction. The shortcut? Found a charter school and run it yourself.

Create Affordable Housing: Obviously, one of the primary factors in any relocation is housing. One of the biggest strengths of the region is that housing is affordable. Rediscover Greeneville plans on significantly assisting in the rehabilitation of existing housing, the growth of single family housing and the creation of new housing such as lofts and condos within proximity of downtown. Our goal is to have 200 more people living with proximity of downtown.

Compared to many places, Greeneville–and most of Tennessee–already has low cost housing. Just ask the many “halfbacks”–people who retired from the North to Florida and, not liking it, move halfway back home to place such as Tennessee.

What turns off many of the people that Greeneville and other towns need is something they cannot control: the negative news stories that periodically come out of Tennessee and the South. When the Southern Baptist Convention leader states that men should be the head of the household, people across the country lay down their newspaper and shake their heads. When the UT president takes the University jet to a NASCAR race, eyes roll. Even a presidential candidate like Fred Thompson, who seems to bumble along, hurts Tennessee.

Promote Tourism: With its strong historic draw, its community events, activities, and wealth of recreational opportunities, Greeneville and the greater Greene County area is an undiscovered tourist’s paradise. The community is very fortunate to have the luxurious, historic and recently remodeled General Morgan Inn as a centerpiece. And with the hotel expanding from 52 rooms to 85 rooms, there is more room than ever to accommodate the regional and out-of-state tourists.

This is my bailiwick, and here are three thoughts.

Greeneville needs to look at Chattanooga’s revival and take a cue from that city’s embrace of the outdoors. River rafting, mountain biking, hiking, and climbing–Chattanooga pushes this sort of thing bigtime. People whose jobs can be done anywhere look for this kind of fun. Subsidize small businesses who can provide kayaks on the French Broad River, bike trips along country roads, and perhaps a microbrewery for a good time at the end of the day.

“Foodies” are getting to be big tourists. Greeneville should encourage and perhaps subsidize good restaurants featuring healthy as well as traditional food. East Tennessee needs a barbecue center. Ridgewood Barbecue near Bluff City is the most famous barbecue place in East Tennessee, and they don’t even serve ribs. See microbrewery comment above.

I have one last word: moonshine. Jack Daniels is known worldwide–this blog gets more hits on “Jack Daniels” than anything else. East Tennessee is one of the moonshine centers in this country. The first place that can build an operating still that can serve white lightning to the public will pull in the tourists and rake in the cash. Greeneville could be that place.

This blog is part of a much larger website, also entitled Tennessee Guy, that contains travel and cultural information about Tennessee. Visit it here.

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2 Responses to Niswonger Foundation fuels Greeneville revival

  1. Take the “Build A Still” idea one step further: let people help make their own moonshine. How long does it take? They could bottle it, name it, and ya-hooo! Drink it.

  2. Bob Cantler says:

    We contacted a number of experts when pulling together the plan for ReDiscover Greeneville but I cannot believe we missed the “Build a Still” concept. Is that kinda like “Build a Bear”? If we incorporate this idea there may be franchise opportunities.

    The response from the presentation has exceeded our expectations and is already creating a buzz in ET even without the moonshine.

    Hope you get a chance to see the progress in Greeneville soon, who knows we may find some home brew!

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