Residents and councilmembers have all had differing opinions on what to do with the 12.7-acre tract it has owned since 2004 — some want to see the town sell it to a private developer for some kind of commercial mixed-use while others want the town to hold on to the property and make it into some kind of park or recreation facility.
An assessment from WR-Martin Management Consulting found that a passive recreational and/or cultural use would indeed be the best use of the property based on a list of factors the board asked the consultants to consider.
The other two potential uses that rated high were land banking — meaning the town just holds on to the property — and a mixed development of housing and commercial businesses.
When considering potential uses, the consultants looked at whether the use would add quality of life for residents, increase the town’s property tax revenue, address the need for more affordable housing, protect existing neighborhoods, potentially create new jobs, historic preservation, complementing the town’s other East Franklin projects and project feasibility.
Consultant Mike Morgan said a passive recreational use wouldn’t add jobs or money to the town coffers but it would meet most of the other objectives the town set forth. Whatever way the town decides to go, Morgan said Franklin had a unique opportunity to development a beautiful piece of land in the middle of town. With the greenway across the street, the proposed river overlay district, efforts to preserve the Nikwasi Mound and the town’s bicycle and pedestrian plans laid out, the Whitmire property could easily tie into all of those projects.
“Even if we go with mixed use, folks would want to live there, especially for that group of individuals looking for condo-style living, that doesn’t want to mow grass but wants to ride bikes and be in the river,” he said.
Morgan also told the board a recreational and/or cultural use would allow the town to apply for a PARTF (Parks and Recreation Trust Fund) grant from the state for up for $500,000 for a particular project. The grant would require a 50 percent match from the town and would require a good bit of community input before an application could be submitted.
While Morgan said the rolling-hill property wouldn’t be ideal for any ball fields or a basketball court, it would work well for walking trails, a large covered picnic shelter that could be used for town events, bouldering rocks for kids to climb on, disc golf course and restroom facilities.
Councilmember Joe Collins, who has been in favor of selling the property to a private developer, asked why the financial benefits of selling the property wasn’t a factor. He said the town being able to replenish its fund balance should have been a major consideration.
“We did look at that. If the town sold the property at tax value — about $1.4 million — but the town is in good financial shape. Your debt ratio is very low and it’s not like the town is needing $1.4 million to go toward a particular project,” Morgan said. “It’s certainly an option, but it would go into the fund balance. As a former town manager, I would not recommend you take a general fund asset like that and put it into your water fund needs. That would not be prudent.”
Franklin doesn’t owe any money on the property and just has to occasionally mow the grass. The town purchased the property for about $1.4 million in 2004 with plans of constructing new town hall facilities there, but that plan fell through. The property was appraised for about $2 million back in 2008, but Morgan said a new appraisal would be needed if the town wanted to sell.
“If you choose multi-use, I’d recommend an appraisal and start actively marketing it for that use,” he said.
Morgan said the town did need to consider a few factors if it plans to market the property for private development. A small portion of the property is in a flood plane and the land is steep on one side, but for the most part, he said the land could be cut and filled without a problem to make it suitable for a private development.
Morgan also pointed out that the town was allowing Franklin Tubular to use about three-fourths of an acre of the Whitmire property for its own personal parking lot.
“It was approved by town many years ago. There’s no revenue — you’ve just allowed them to do it. But that’s part of your best, flattest property,” he said.
Morgan also pointed out that there is an adjoining 3-acre tract for sale next to Whitmire for $299,000. If the town was inclined to purchase that property, he said the site would be open to even more possibilities, including a larger development or even a recreation project. Morgan said the town could possibility use the purchase price as the match for the PARTF grant.
Councilmember Barbara McRae pointed out that the 3 acres — which has been on the market for many years — includes the old Sloan House that is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
The board plans to discuss the Whitmire property and potential uses during its annual planning retreat tentatively scheduled for March 2-3.