Mainspring started tidying up East Main Street in 2015 when the nonprofit purchased the former Duncan Oil site next door to its office. Knowing the old abandoned gas station property had caused some level of ground contamination, and since it was so close to the banks of the Little Tennessee River, Mainspring decided to buy the 1.5-acre property to clean it up.
It was a complicated and labor-intensive project to take on, but Mainspring acquired a brownfields agreement through the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and secured grant funding from the Cherokee Preservation Fund and $300,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to make it happen.
“We finally wrapped up the clean up in summer 2016 — we installed a storm water system, through generous donations of material and labor we were able to plant almost 50 native trees, and did our first round of landscaping to create green space,” said Mainspring Executive Director Sharon Taylor. “So the Duncan property is basically finished but we’ll continue to move forward to make it our front yard.”
The extra space to the left of Mainspring’s office has made more room for a gravel parking lot and grading work was done behind the office to make the river more visible from the picnic tables and small walking trail. Visitors to Franklin are already utilizing the green space.
“We had thru-hikers eating at the picnic tables and using our green space so that’s exciting,” Taylor said. “Our future plan is to include a pavilion and we’re finalizing some plans to reuse the tanks — maybe some kind of public art project.”
With one project completed, Mainspring is moving on to the next brownfield project across the street from its office. Mainspring set its eye on the Simpson property — another abandoned petroleum distribution center similar to Duncan Oil that sits on one side of the Nikwasi Mound. Taylor said Mainspring was able to get a contract to purchase the property last summer and is currently working to get property enrolled in the brownfield program and secure EPA funds just like it did for Duncan Oil to fund the clean up.
“It’s just part of creating more green space adjacent to the river, the greenway and lands in the neighborhood of (Nikwasi) Mound,” Taylor said. “It’s also an economic benefit for the town to have a nicer entrance to the town — encourage people to spend more time here.”
Lastly, Mainspring has a contract on the former Dan’s Auto property on the other side of Nikwasi Mound. Taylor said the hope is that the Nikwasi Initiative group will soon obtain its official nonprofit status from the state and can own the Dan’s Auto property.
“We have a contract but the intent is for it to be part of the Nikwasi Initiative,” Taylor said. “We’re hoping to get buy in from the town, county, Eastern Band of Cherokee and Mainspring.”
Ben Laseter, associate director for Mainspring, said he has also applied for funds through the Appalachian Regional Commission for a feasibility study to determine the best use of the building sitting on the Dan’s Auto property. With its proximity to the mound, he said the building presents a great opportunity to offer more cultural education about Nikwasi and Cherokee history.
Franklin Alderman Barbara McRae is a member of the Nikwasi Initiative and was excited to give the town board an update on the progress at a recent board retreat.
She said the Dan’s Auto building could be perfect space for a museum annex for Cherokee history or a Franklin visitor center.
“We’re looking for grant funds — the estimated start-up costs would be about $50,000,” McRae said. “I hope the town will be a sponsor since this is a vital part of revitalizing that part of town. The possibilities of what it could bring to Franklin is incredible.”
With buy in from the town, county, EBCI and other community partners, McRae said, it would be easier for the Nikwasi Initiative to secure grant funding.
“If the town could invest $5,000 to $12,000 to get this funded, it would show that we’re all partners on the project,” she said.
Once these revitalization and cleanup projects along East Main Street are complete and the North Carolina Department of Transportation completes the bridge replacement project in front of Mainspring’s office, East Franklin will be well on its way to becoming a more welcoming entrance to downtown.
River overlay district
Town Planner Justin Setser also has an idea to improve the aesthetics of Franklin by creating a new river overlay district zoning designation along the Little Tennessee and Cullasaja rivers.
“About six months ago I was thinking about more ideas to create more recreation and economic benefits along the river valley,” he told the town board recently.
With all the revitalization happening in Franklin, Setser said the rivers running through town are an asset the town board hasn’t fully tapped into for economic development.
“There’s a lot of building with the new bridge and the brownfield work at Mainspring — Currahee Brewing Company is the first business to incorporate the river into their business plan,” he said. “Having a river the size of the Little Tennessee running through the center of town is a valued asset that many towns would love to have.”
The proposed district would work to promote responsible development along the river and prevent storm water runoff, soil erosion and flood damage.
The town board voted unanimously to send the idea to the planning board for consideration. Setser said the planning board would hold a public input session before bringing back recommendations to the board aldermen.