County licensing branch to remain open

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   As late as midmorning Tuesday, Carter County's driver's license testing center on West Elk Avenue was ready to shut its doors at the end of shift today as the Tennessee Department of Safety's lease on the building expired. But as the day progressed, the testing center received an eleventh-hour reprieve.
   Tom Moore, deputy commissioner, said two weeks ago that the closure of the Carter County division was not permanent; however, at the time he did not have a definite date for its reopening.
   Carter County Commissioner John D. Snyder, 6th District, said at the April 21st commission meeting that the general feeling in the community was that, once the licensing bureau closed its doors, temporarily or not, it would not reopen. Snyder suggested commissioners send a letter to the state's Department of Safety protesting the closure.
   At 10 a.m. Tuesday in Nashville, Moore said there had been no change in plans to close the Carter County office today [April 30], when the lease expires, and to reopen it when work is completed on the new location near Big John's Closeouts.
   However, in a second interview conducted Tuesday afternoon, Moore told the Star: "In looking at it and talking with the owner ... the new property will be ready in such a time that it is not financially feasible to take the equipment out and ship it and store it. So we're going to leave the station open."
   Ground work on the new site has not yet begun, and won't for the next 60 to 90 days, with business, local and state governments, and weather cooperating. Currently, on days the licensing branch is open customers often have a minimum three-hour wait.
   With the closure of Johnson County's testing center nearly two weeks ago, the Carter County licensing office anticipated a larger volume of business from the Mountain City/Shady Valley area.
   The city and county may also benefit economically from the Johnson County closing since those who visited the office might also patronize other businesses. For an area that has seen more businesses going than coming, neither the city nor the county would be quick to turn away additional revenue.
   If the Carter County office closed there would be increased traffic through the county and city as drivers traveled to Johnson City and Blountville, where the two closest testing bureaus remaining are located.
   Like Johnson County, part-time testing centers in Unicoi and Greene counties will be closed permanently by July 1 as their leases expire. This will further add to the client load at the Johnson City and Blountville offices, where parking already is reported to be a problem.
   But with Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen proposing $363 million in cuts to the state budget, every state agency is having to make tough decisions. Closing part-time licensing bureaus which account for less than 10 percent of total activity is one of the results of tough economic times, Moore said recently.
   Fortunately for the part-time office in Carter County, the economics that were playing a role in its demise Tuesday morning suddenly became an overriding factor in its salvation Tuesday afternoon.
   Moore said the owner of the building where the licensing bureau now is located is also the person the state has contracted for the new building. The owner, who wished to remain anonymous, told Moore - "we can get it open within a reasonable amount of time. Considering the logistics involved and the cost, it's not going to save any money to shut it down."
   "We'd have to ship or store everything. We don't have a place up there, and I don't want to have to rent storage space. Storage space [in Nashville] costs more than it does to rent that building in that area," he said, "so, it's easier to do it this way."
   When the Carter County facility opens in its new location, it will convert to full-time and will offer more resources. Until then, it will continue operating at its current location, 419 W. Elk Ave.
   According to the builder, the new licensing facility will be located to the left of Big John's and will be approximately 19,050 feet, with 130 to 140 parking spaces. In comparison, the builder said, the current office is approximately 1,300 square feet.
   The new facility will not only house the licensing branch, but also the Carter County offices of the Tennessee Highway Patrol, Department of Human Services and Department of Children's Services. The building also is situated so that it can be easily expanded to accommodate future growth.