Fleming retires, cites great changes in Kingsport over 35-year career

J. H. Osborne • Jun 21, 2019 at 8:30 PM

KINGSPORT — Friday was Jeff Fleming’s last day with the city of Kingsport, bringing to an end 35 years of service to the Model City — the last five at the helm as city manager.

The 57-year-old Kingsport native grew up on Cherry Street, he pumped gas for folks on Wilcox Drive and got his fair share of paddlings at John Sevier Middle School. In 1984, he walked into City Hall as an intern from East Tennessee State University. In the years since, Fleming has held a number of positions within the city, including planner, superintendent of public works, GIS manager, and assistant city manager.

Fleming announced in April he would retire effective June 21.

“I never dreamed I would go from intern to city manager over a 35-year period. It’s really been the honor of my life to do that,” Fleming said in April. “It’s just closing a chapter and opening a new one.”

Fleming is one of Kingsport’s biggest cheerleaders and is affectionately called “Mr. Kingsport” by some. Some would argue the Dobyns-Bennett High School grad is as much a fixture of Kingsport as any landmark or notable building.

As the Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting ended earlier this week, marking his last as city manager, Fleming said it had been a “great ride” and commented on how things have changed during his time with the city. He also posted similar and additional comments on his Facebook page Friday afternoon.

Some of what he said or wrote:

• In 1984, Kingsport’s population was 32,027. There was great concern that the total population had only increased by 89 people in the 14 years since the 1970 census.

• At 67 years old, the Model City was in a mid-life crisis.

• Windows were missing from the train station and pigeons flying in and out and roosting inside. A blue and white metal Lowe’s store partially obstructed the train station. The pillars had rotted off the old Bank of Kingsport and the Homestead Hotel had just been demolished. The 100 blocks of East & West Main Street were under threat of demolition due to neglect, collapsing roofs, and general disrepair. Sears, Penney’s, Miller’s and Parks-Belk had moved to the mall 8 years earlier, leaving a downtown without an anchor store.

• Eastman Road was two lanes, lined with dilapidated apartments and trailer parks. Rather than make the decision on their own, the BMA asked residents to vote on a bond referendum to fund improvements. It failed. So a benevolent Eastman Chemical Company voluntarily allowed portions of its plant site to be annexed in order to provide tax revenue to pay for it.

• The road was rebuilt and Fleming was the young planner assigned to write the plan.

• Today, The Chop House stands where deteriorated housing once stood. Indian Highland Park replaced Maplehurst Apartments and trailer park — an address well-known to local police. Professional offices replaced another trailer park opposite the D-B campus. Modern Bakery became Starbucks & Panera and Kingsport Mall was reborn as East Stone Commons. Suffice it to say it is very different today than it was in 1984.

• Fleming said, in his opinion, the Eastman Road project — and the construction of the Justice Center — marked a turning point in the BMA’s view of its role. “It’s the first time I recall the Board took a leadership position and said, ‘There are things we know as professionals and as a Board that need to be done and you can’t turn every question over to the general public.’ You have to show some leadership.”

• At 77 years old, the Model City began having chest pains as Eastman spun off from Kodak. They didn’t have as much time to think about developing the community and they stopped nudging employees to run for office. Kingsport was being kicked out of the nest.

• “I think until that time, we believed that Kingsport was this Norman Rockwell Americana town, immune from the outside world. Businesses were benevolent to an extreme. Jobs were plenty. Life was good. Fun Fest was a free event and the Fun Fest director was a loaned executive.”

• Then in 1999, the Model City faced a major heart attack. The 5-year-old, newly independent Eastman was faced with major layoffs and many of the original industries either closed, downsized, or were taken over by a different company that was fiercely competing in a global economy just to stay alive. Mayor Jeanette Blazier called an Economic Summit. The community rolled up its sleeves and decided that Kingsport was a community worth fighting for. In the darkest of times, we dreamed, we invested, and we began to remodel the Model City.

• The Census Bureau just released the 2018 population and we’re now at 54,076 — that’s a 69% increase over 1984.

• “To be able to stay here and be a part of that journey … I can’t find words to describe the feeling. I’ve had the opportunity to do a job I love in the place that shaped every aspect of my life. And now I’m sharing it with my adult children and grandchildren. I just can’t think of a better script. And Kingsport’s looking pretty good at 102 years old.”