Elizabethton has a unique downtown that is more than just retail

By ROZELLA HARDIN
STAR Staff


George Holder comes downtown because because that's where a lot of his friends are. According to Don McKeehan of David-Lynn's. George comes "eight days a week after breakfast." He finds a chair at the front of the store, where he scans the morning paper and chats with whoever comes in. Photo by Jason Harville

   Try having "an Elizabethton kind of day" without circling the Veterans Monument downtown.
   Or strolling down Elk Avenue without a peek at some antiques.
   The picture of today's downtown has changed in the past 50 years. Most downtowns, including Elizabethton, have been fighting, and in some cases losing, a raging economic battle against the mega stores.
   However, Elizabethton absent the five and ten cent department stores such as Woolworth's, Kress and Eagles, and chain stores such as JC Penney's and Parks-Belk which drew people downtown 25 and 30 years ago, continues to attract people. The town is unique in that it is located at the base of a mountain, has a river flowing through it, has a Covered Bridge, parks and even a Monument in the town square. It also has canopies over its sidewalks on Elk Avenue and has a historic district downtown with attractive old houses.
   Elizabethton can boast one of the most scenic of main streets in the region, with the historic Covered Bridge located in the east end of town and a park adjacent to it. The park provides an excellent place to sit and watch the ebb and flow of both the Doe River and daily life. The town provides a pleasant place for a stroll on a summer day or a quick lunch out of the office. Its parks and tree-lined Elk Avenue is a soft reminder of a gentler, and most would argue, a better time.
   Several years ago Elizabethton was accepted into the state-sponsored Main Street program to help small towns rebuild and recover. One of the helps offered by the program was the consulting services of a state architect to downtown business owners, and many downtown businesses at that time did redo their store fronts.
   David Pinckard of the David-Lynn Men's Shop downtown said Elizabethton is similar to many area towns in that it has taken some economic thumpings over the past few decades. "But we've been able to overcome and we have a great little town here," he said.
   "I think one of the pluses of our town is the variety of merchandise you can find here. We have a lot of people from other cities and even other states who come over on the weekend. They will visit the antique stores, the eateries, and often come into our store and buy maybe a shirt, a tie or something. Our little eateries in the downtown are great and they draw a lot of people to Elk Avenue," he said.
   Pinckard, who was active in the Main Street organization, said the program was good for the downtown. "I would like to see downtown merchants get organized, stay open longer during the Christmas holidays and have some fun and promotion events for people who come to the downtown," he said.
   "It's a clean town, a friendly town, and in most cases, I know my regular customers on a first-name basis. I not only know their names, but I know their taste, their color, and their sizes. This is something you can't find at the mall," he said.
   Pinckard said being a small-business owner isn't always easy. "You have to try to attract the 'mall shopper,' who's used to discount prices and a big selection of merchandise. We try to make our store people friendly by offering good service," Pinckard said.
   He has done just that as his store is very popular with locals, who find it a good place not only to shop, but to meet up with friends, drink coffee and discuss sports, politics, or whatever is happening in town. "We have a lot of people who come by two or three mornings a week just to drink coffee and chat," he said.
   "I think that by focusing on service and specialty shops, we, as a town have been able to survive and thrive," Pinckard said.
   Downtowns. At their best, they are diverse and thriving places where people live and work, shop and socialize. At their worst, they are neglected, decaying centers with boarded-up storefronts.
   Before World War II, main street was the hub of commerce, nightlife and professional and government services, points out the National Main Street Center.
   Then creation of the interstate highway system and suburban growth changed the way people lived and worked. Downtown businesses closed or moved to the mall, and customers followed.
   "There's just something about our downtown that is beautiful, and it has a completely different atmosphere than the Mall," said Pinckard. "I also think that our merchants downtown are people -- many of whom have been here for a long time -- who have a deep appreciation of the town and its people. They love it. They not only have businesses downtown, but they live here, attend church here, and are involved in the community in other ways," he said.
   Pinckard noted that each season brings something beautiful to the downtown. "Downtown is beautiful at Christmas with the lights, the Fraser Fir and greeting from Lynn Mountain. We have a spectacular view of the mountains in the fall when the leaves change color, and in the spring the Bradford Pears are blooming. We just are unique," he said.