Downtown -- it's moving in the right direction - 150 thriving businesses


STAR Staff

Elizabethton is a unique town in that is located at the foot of a mountain, has a river running through it, has a Covered Bridge and a monument located in the Courthouse Square at the east end of town. It is also a town that you can picnic in. The above picture was taken as you enter the downtown from the west, looking east toward the Monument. Photo by Jason Harville

   From retailers to restaurateurs, the downtown business community seems to agree Elizabethton's original commerce hub isn't as bullish as it once was or perhaps should be.
   But are we moving in the right direction? You bet.
   Are we there? Not yet.
   Downtown isn't the retail center it once was and probably won't ever be again, most agree. Some blame shopping centers. Others call it a typical business influx. Whatever the reason, the downtown has changed.
   "We are a changing town with different types of businesses, and I am excited about what is happening in the downtown. The streets are busy, and more and more people are discovering that the downtown has a lot to offer," said Cleo Reed of WBEJ-Radio.
   "More and more people from out-of-town and out-of-state are dropping by. I think the historical aspect of our town is drawing a lot of people and tourists. I see a lot of people doing the walking trail downtown," she said.
   From 9 to 5, suits and sneakers tell all: Downtown is the financial hub, the government hub, the legal hub, and basically, the general business hub of Elizabethton.
   So, locating smack dab in the middle of the city makes sense when trying to draw both employees and customers from a 360-degree radius. And as long as people are downtown, they need everything from food to services.
   For instance in one block of Elk Avenue, there are five antique stores, two small restaurants, two furniture stores, two consignment clothing shops, a financial business, an optometrist's office, an office supply store, a place to work out, an art supply store, a cosmetics business, a home decorating center, a place to buy baseball cards, a ceramics store, a women's clothing store, a cell phone store, and a fabric shop among other businesses.
   Even so, many are of the opinion that more restaurants and more stores are needed in the downtown.
   "I think people that express that sentiment would be amazed at what is downtown if they would only come downtown and walk down the streets and really look at what is there," said Reed.
   "More and more people are becoming acquainted with downtown because they walk downtown in the evening and window shop," exclaimed Reed.
   Randall Birchfield, who has a real estate office on E Street, proudly offered: "I'm a downtown person. I was raised downtown."
   His office at the corner of Pine and E Street was the first bus station in town. To Birchfield, who has an interest in local history, downtown is a place "where you can still go by the windows and see the merchandise."
   Some of the pluses of downtown as seen by Birchfield include access to parking. "You can park and not have to walk a mile to a store like you do at the mall, and also, downtown stores are usually not crowded like the mega stores are," he said.
   "Elizabethton is fortunate because unlike Bristol and Johnson City, the downtown did not die like these towns did when their anchor stores moved out. Elizabethton gradually changed over to a downtown of specialty stores. People now are looking for down home stuff, and things that are more personalized, and that is a plus for our town," exclaimed Birchfield, who yearns for the good-old days when there were cloth canopies, soda fountains and the like.
   Also, Birchfield noted that one of the reasons he located downtown was that real estate in the downtown is cheaper than in shopping centers and malls.
   Some businesses are old-timers in the downtown, such as Carter County Bank, Barnes-Boring Hardware, Southern Restaurant, Ritchie's, Security Federal, Elizabethton Federal, Dino's, Coleman's, Estep Coal, etc.
   "Most people love downtown," Reed said. "When it comes to businesses, owners can't locate downtown because they love downtown and they can't come downtown because they feel nostalgic about it. Let's face it, they have to make a living. But if they are willing and able to adapt, retailing downtown can work," she exclaimed.
   "I see new faces all the time," Reed said. "Elizabethton is the prettiest place in East Tennessee. We have a lot to offer, even to picnicking in the downtown. The little Mill Race Park is a big attraction to picnickers, and of course, the Doe River ducks are just as big an attraction as anything we have in town," opined Reed, who is an active Chamber member.
   She also noted that the downtown is an industrial center as well. "At one time when the Main Street Program was active (in the early nineties), we did a survey and found that over 800 people were employed in downtown businesses on Elk Avenue from the Monument to what was once Paty's. This also included E Street businesses as well. That's quite a number of people," Reed exclaimed. A survey of the downtown this week revealed approximately 150 businesses in an area from the Monument to Lynn Avene, taking in Elk Avenue, E Street and F Street and the side streets of Sycamore, Pine, and Main.
   "I envision good things for our downtown. We have people moving in all the time. New businesses, new faces, they are becoming a part of our downtown," she said.
   People are talking -- people like Cleo Reed, Lisa Bare, Mary Shepherd, David Pinckard, Joe Alexander, Lisa Bunn. There's excitement and hope -- all good signs that downtown Elizabethton is alive and well.
   The downtown -- it's safe, well-lit, attractive, has plenty of parking and a wide variety of businesses.