A Tale of Two Bristols

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road
on February 16, 2003

When a state line divides your town, you need double of almost everything: two fire departments, two police forces, two city councils, and two school systems. But if you work together as well as the residents of Bristol, Tenn., and Bristol, Va., you also get double the benefits.

“When you live here, you blur the state lines,” says Susan Ojanen, former mayor of Bristol, Tenn. (pop. 24,821). “We’re essentially one community. You have to function that way in order to succeed.”

The town was laid out around the state line in the 1850s, explains V.N. “Bud” Phillips, a local historian. The town’s founder, Joseph R. Anderson, had envisioned a single, unified town, but incorporation laws required the official separation. Anderson did, however, win his battle to keep their names the same.

Because Tennessee has no state income tax, high income-earners often choose to live on that side. But because Virginia has a lower sales tax rate, major shopping venues opt to locate there.

Laws have been designed to equalize the situation. Phillips says Tennesseans who purchase big-ticket items, such as vehicles in Virginia, still must pay their own state’s higher sales tax rate. And Tennesseans pay city and county property taxes, while Virginians pay only the city tax—perhaps balancing the equation for some.

Bristol, Tenn.’s population has outgrown Bristol, Va., mainly because of more liberal annexation rules on that side of town, says Doug Weberling, mayor of the Virginia town of 17,367. But because Bristol, Va., doesn’t have the space to continually develop new subdivisions, the city is able to put more money into improving its older neighborhoods.

This glass-half-full mindset appears to be the norm in Bristol, regardless of which side one lives or works in. When Terrie Smith, director of the department of public venue administration in Bristol, Tenn., helped plan the first annual Rhythm & Roots Reunion—a new festival celebrating Bristol as the official Birthplace of Country Music—she and the rest of the committee made presentations to both city councils. Despite the extra work, she says, “It was nice because it gave us an opportunity for both sides to work together so it wasn’t looked upon as a Bristol, Tenn., festival, but as a community festival. That’s very important for us to do everything like that.”

Ojanen points out more positives.

“We have double congressmen and double state legislators,” she explains. “When we have any situation, issue, or concern, when we need help from either state or federal legislators, we’ve got both states to go to and they will rally together … to help us get things accomplished.”

For a few, the distinction can be confusing, however. Weberling, who works as a local optom-etrist in addition to his mayoral duties, recalls a pharmaceutical salesperson who took an order from his staff, then called later to say he thought he’d been in Tennessee and, unfortunately, wasn’t authorized to sell in Virginia.

But such inconveniences are nothing compared to the benefits. In addition to the natural beauty of nearby mountains, a lively downtown strip, cultural opportunities, and friendly people, Phillips, who moved to Bristol in the 1950s, says one of the most delightful advantages is the simplest: “I live on the Virginia side, but I can see Tennessee hills from the front porch. You’d think the thrill would wear off, but I never cease to marvel at that.”