Elizabethton downtown makes a comeback

Published 1:05 pm Thursday, November 9, 2023

Incomes are low in small towns in Tennessee, such as Elizabethton, but so is the cost of living compared to larger cities such as Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis. There are some things to be happy about – sales tax income is up, the home occupancy rate is up, and outsiders from other states are relocating to the area because of the low cost of living. People are moving to Elizabethton from California, Florida, Michigan, and other states.
Economists have long voiced fear that rural towns such as Elizabethton were being left behind. The last of the textile businesses, once an economic mainstay, but never a big-paying job, departed in the 1990s. Other businesses soon folded or moved such as East Tennessee Undergarment, Great Lakes Research Corp., Jarl Extrusions, and American Air Filter. Even many of the businesses in downtown Elizabethton closed their doors.
However, new businesses have fueled a boomlet in the area. Our cost of living remains low compared to most areas. While Carter County’s typical household makes $44,280 a year, just over half the national average, the low cost of living allows residents to punch far above their weight in economic terms. According to the U.S. Census, 14 percent of Carter County families still live in poverty.
While the good times are still fragile, there are a number of new businesses downtown. If you haven’t visited downtown lately, do so. While there are no Kress or Woolworth stores downtown, there are a number of speciality shops, furniture stores, restaurants, even bakeries.
The area has a couple of things in its favor. It has two state parks, the Tweetsie Walking Trail, a downtown linear walking trail and parks. Carter County has long drawn tourists for fishing, boating, camping, and hiking, as well as retirees who come from other states to settle among the rivers, lakes, and mountains.
Carter County is home to Milligan University and next door is East Tennessee State University and Northeast State Community College, a branch of which is located in Elizabethton as well as the Elizabethton Area Vocational Technical School, which has a rising enrollment each year.
Elizabethton, like many small American towns, is doing really big things to draw people downtown. In the spring, summer, and fall there is the Elizabethton car show, which brings people from near and far to the downtown. There are First Friday activities, concerts in the park, and now that the holiday season has begun, a number of activities are in the planning.
However, one of the most crucial hidden truths about the downtown comeback is who’s driving it:: Civic-minded entrepreneurs and private citizens.
They are people who have decided revitalization is everyone’s job. They are taking matters into their own hands, and are asking “How can we make our community the best it can be? How can we reinvent ourselves, attract the right kinds of business, and transform Elizabethton into a great place to work, live, and play. Also, credit community organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and Main Street Elizabethton.
The chaos and uncertainty of the past few decades have made us crave personal connections with our friends and family. We want our children and grandchildren nearby (with good jobs to keep them there). And we want lively downtowns with great restaurants, funky stores, cool living spaces, and plenty of fun things to do.
To attract businesses and talent to a community, it must have a walkable, livable, vibrant downtown with lots of great restaurants, shops, fun activities, and trendy residential areas. Young people, in particular, want to live, work, and play in the same area. When you start by revitalizing your downtown, it gets people activated and sparks growth in the rest of the community.
We aren’t where we want to be yet, but it will happen if we keep working at it.

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