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County invites new retailers to area 

Jill Penley
FREELANCE WRITER

When discount retailer Fred’s Inc. filed for bankruptcy protection in Sept of last year and shut down all its stores, Johnson County was left wondering when and if another retailer would take its place. While the 17,000 square foot privately owned building remains vacant, Johnson County Mayor Mike Taylor has been touting the location to several retailers hoping to entice them into opening a Mountain City store.

“I can confirm there is interest in the location,” said Taylor, “and there are ongoing conversations.” From all indications, there would need to be some upgrades to the building before any contract could finalize.

The Pioneer Village Shopping Center has been a hub for local retail in past years, with the former Fred’s location housing several retail chains in its history. Variety Wholesalers, Inc., which operates over 350 stores in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions under trade names Roses, Roses Express, Maxway, Bargain Town, Super 10, and Super Dollar, had a Mountain City location at one time. A look at the company website shows exactly what the county mayor and others hoping to lure a new retailer here frequently encounter.

The company’s “site criteria” includes second and third generation neighborhood shopping centers, & freestanding buildings, at least 25,000 square feet, a trade area population greater than 20,000, and a $30,000–$50,000 median household income.

In 2017, Johnson County, TN, had a population of 17.8k people with a median age of 45.7 and a median household income of $32,994, according to DataUSA, putting the county just inside the desired income bracket, but slightly below the population requirement. These criteria, though, fail to consider any potential retail move to the area that would be well-received and utilized due to the scarcity of such stores.

“I’d like to see someplace come in that people actually want to shop,” said local resident Robert Sutherland. “We need some places locally where we can purchase quality clothing, shoes, etc. without having to drive out of the county.” Sutherland says local sales equal local tax dollars accumulated, “but if there isn’t anything here that people want to buy, then other cities are getting the money and tax dollars to go with it.” Janie Nelson agrees. “I shop dollar stores, and I shop dollar tree when out of town,” said Nelson. “I would just love to have a store that you could go to and buy a man’s dress shirt or a ladies nice blouse or slacks for both genders, without driving out of town.”

While many residents shared the opinion that a department store would be ideal, many others indicated they would like to see a Dollar Tree, Ollies, or Big Lots locate here. The lack of variety of retail is further exacerbated by the lack of sit-down, non-fast-food restaurants. While Johnson County does have some several locally-owned restaurants serving quality food, many locals end up dining in the out-of-town restaurants while they are there for other items unavailable locally.

Many locals also point to the need for something for children to do. “Chuck E. Cheese would be great,” said Rebecca Dowell. “All the Kids in the county would have a blast playing there.” Denise Rhymer agrees. “We need something for the children to do,” said Rhymer, “like a bowling alley, a skating rink, or a theater.”

The former Fred’s store is not the only building needing occupants. The downtown area is plagued with empty storefronts. In many instances, creative entrepreneurs and community leaders have demonstrated success in reusing buildings to the betterment of the entire county and beyond.