After years of sitting empty, the old Drexel Furniture factory in Whittier will now enter a new phase of useful life as home to the recently formed Thomas Valley Growers, LLC.
The future of the old furniture factory in Whittier has been through more than its share of twists and turns over the past year, but Jackson County now has an offer on the table from a group of farmers who want to turn it into a packing and agricultural resource facility.
Its future has been envisioned as an agricultural center, a recreation facility, a Cherokee cultural site, a farming co-op and an empty field. Now there’s a new twist in the plot toward settling the future of a defunct county-owned factory building in Whittier.
Ideas surrounding the fate of a vacant factory building in Whittier have been swirling since Jackson County commissioners started taking a serious look at its future earlier this year. Turn it into an agriculture center? Make it a recreation park? Deed it to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians? Demolish it?
A plan to turn the old Drexel furniture factory in Whittier into a Mecca of resources for small-time farmers and agricultural producers in Western North Carolina is likely dead in its tracks after a building assessment found it would take $1.7 million to get the building up to code.
The old Drexel furniture factory in Whittier isn’t producing much these days, unless you count bird nests and ivy vines as products. Tall grasses wave across the 21-acre property, obscuring the wood pallets strewn across the yard and reaching into a crumbling woodshed offset from the main building. Vines spider across the building’s brick exterior, and swallows dart and dive in the grasses.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail had been in the back of Andy Smith’s mind for a while, ever since a coworker at Cherokee Hospital, where he was chief of physical therapy, told Smith about his 1989 thru hike. As 2014 dawned, Smith was 15 years retired and approaching his 65th birthday. He got to thinking that maybe it was time to try a thru hike.
“I really didn’t have a solid reason,” Smith said. “It wasn’t like a long-term goal that I’ve always wanted to do it. It’s something that’s been of interest, so I decided to do it.”
The former Drexel manufacturing plant site in Whittier is a step closer to its future. Jackson County was recently awarded a $10,000 grant, which will be put toward the preparation of a master plan for the site.
A rural sewer system in Jackson County is headed toward bankruptcy unless it can drum up 200 customers in the sparsely populated Whittier area.
It’s a tough sell though, witnessed by the paltry 40 customers along the sewer line now.
Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe was stripped of his appointed role to render thumbs-up or thumbs-down assessments of businesses wanting to sell alcohol.
Jackson County commissioners, who had initially appointed Ashe to the role, voted this week to instead make County Manager Chuck Wooten the go-to local official in the permit process.
Ashe indicated in a written statement last week that he didn’t really want the responsibility anyway.
The vote Monday to relieve Ashe of the position was a 3-2, down party lines. The two Democratic commissioners voted to keep Ashe, also a Democrat, in the position.
The issue of revoking the job from Ashe was originally not scheduled for discussion at the meeting. However, complaints from the community prompted the board to add the topic at the last minute.
Commissioner Joe Cowan acted surprised when Chairman Jack Debnam asked for a motion to swap Ashe for Wooten as the county appointee regarding alcohol permit matters. Cowan asked to put the vote off for another couple of weeks.
“Could we possibly postpone this item until the next meeting to give us time to read these?” asked Cowan. “I just got these resolutions, and I have not had time to read them or study them.”
Cowan then made a motion to postpone the decision until the board’s next meeting. Commissioner Doug Cody retorted that the resolutions only take a moment to peruse.
“These resolutions are about one page in length. I mean, how long does it take to read them?” Cody said.
Cody, Debnam and Commissioner Charles Elders voted against delaying the matter, and the three then succeed in pushing through the resolutions. Both Cody and Debnam previously expressed a desire to oust Ashe as the county designee following complaints from business owners.
Commissioner Mark Jones sided with Cowan.
“On the quick read, I disagreed,” Jones said, adding that he felt there was no need for a change since all the applications were processed in a timely manner under Ashe.
Specifically, Ashe’s role was to render an opinion on whether the owner and location of an esablishment wanting to sell alcohol was appropriate. If Ashe approved, that business could get temporary permit to sell alcohol while it waits for the much longer process to get a permanent permit from the state ABC Commission.
In a statement written May 30, Ashe stated that processing the permit applications, which requires background checks, interviews with community members and a visit to each location, is time consuming, and a change in appointee would allow his office time to conduct other duties.
“It would be more beneficial to my office to allow the county commissioners to assume the responsibility as the designee for the local government opinion form,” Ashe wrote. The statement wasn’t specifically addressed to anyone but apparently had been sent to commissioners.
Wooten will now take on the responsibilities of the county designee, though he has the option of appointing his own designee. Wooten indicated that if the applications became overwhelming, he would consider naming Gerald Green, the county planner, to the position.
Almost a month ago, Jackson County voters approved the countywide sale of alcoholic beverages by nearly 60 percent. And soon after, business owners rushed to file their applications for alcohol permits.
One of the first stops in the paperwork trail is to secure the blessing of Sheriff Jimmy Ashe.
However, Ashe filed unfavorable opinions about six of the 12 businesses that have applied so far. Those businesses have since gone over Ashe’s head to temporary permits directly from the state.
Four of the six that got a thumbs down from Ashe were in Cullowhee. Ashe didn’t like their proximity to campus for fear it would encourage underage drinking. One in Cashiers was turned down because of the applicant’s criminal record.
The sheriff also turned down Catamount Travel Center convenience store on U.S. 441 just outside Cherokee, citing its proximity to Cherokee, which is dry. Ashe did not deem it fitting for a gas station just over the line in Jackson County to start hawking beer and wine on Cherokee’s doorstep, particularly when Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voted a resounding “no” to the sale of alcoholic beverages in a ballot measure of their own in April.
Despite Ashe’s opinion, the state ABC Commission rather promptly issued the gas station a permit to start selling.
“Sales have done real well,” said Jamie Winchester, whose family owns the travel center. “It’s been really good.”
Who has it so far:
In Cashiers, Cornucopia Gourmet, Cornucopia Cellars, Cashiers Farmers Market, Ingles grocery, Orchard Restaurant, and Cork and Barrel. In Cullowhee, The Package Store and Sazon Mexican Restaurant. In Tuckasegee, Caney Fork General Store. In Whittier, Catamount Travel Center.
Who’s still waiting:
Bob’s Mini Mart, Mad Batter, Rolling Stone Burrito and the Catamount Travel Center, all in Cullowhee.