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Nibbling at the elephant: Plan to flip abandoned factory into community center inches forward

fr drexelThe 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.

“Vandals were taking the metal in here, stealing it and selling it for scrap,” said Gerald Green, Jackson County planner, as he stood at the entrance to the vast, dark expanse inside the factory. Sunlight from the big truck entrance behind him could reach only so far into the 82,000 square feet of steel and concrete ahead.  

A couple years ago, one of those vandals’ vehicles caught fire while on the site. That, Green said, was when the county ‘first started saying, ‘We have to do something about this.’”

Originally built in 1964, the plant shut down in the 1990s and passed to county ownership in the early 2000s. Clearwood, LLC — another wood products company — leased the building for a few years after that, but that company soon closed down. For the past five years, the Drexel factory has sat vacant. 


Momentum for renovation 

Located just outside of Whittier and along the Tuckasegee River next to the Pepsi-Cola bottling plant, the hulking industrial building isn’t something that’s easy to overlook. For now, that visibility is a liability. The building is an eyesore, and the unoccupied grounds present security concerns. But momentum is growing behind an idea to transform the old building into a vibrant community center focused on agriculture and recreation. 

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“We’re really excited, or we wouldn’t be this far,” said Lynn Sprague, executive director of the Southwestern N.C. Resource Conservation & Development Council and spearheader of the project. 

The idea’s been through three community meetings — the most recent was in March — and a commissioned master plan for the site, paid for by a combination of scrap metal sales from the factory and a grant from the Southwestern Commission, was released this spring. 

Potential uses for the site are many, ranging from concert venue to farmers market to roller derby rink, so one of the challenges going forward will be to figure out which uses are most compatible and how to make everything work together so that the building pays its own bills and fulfills the community’s needs. 

The overall focus of the development project, however, has always been agriculture.  

“The Smoky Mountain area, they’re growing in agriculture,” Sprague said. 

“With the Canton livestock facility,” he added, giving an example, “we are seeing an increase in livestock.”

Agricultural production is strong and strengthening in the western part of the state, with much of the push behind that trend coming from small producers. One of Sprague’s other projects is a StrikeForce campaign — the federal program aims to alleviate rural poverty by assisting agricultural startups, among other initiatives — which has resulted in more than 100 individuals acquiring heated hoop greenhouses, called high tunnels, in the western counties. The goal is to help individuals supplement their diets and income with agricultural production. 

An extra $5,000 or $10,000 a year from agriculture can mean a lot to a family, Sprague said, but in order for new producers to see any profit, they need to find a market for their products. That can be an intimidating task. 

“To market that much agricultural stuff, we need to be reaching out for markets,” Sprague said. 

In his vision for the Drexel building, Whittier becomes a center for collaboration to find those markets, or even an incubator for a business to transform the products into something more sellable to local buyers. 

“This place may provide a business, for instance, that takes the produce from the farmers and puts it in bags and does the slicing and dicing for the school or hospital,” Sprague said. “That flows with their management style.”

The building could also house equipment that might be too expensive for an individual to purchase on his or her own but could be shared between farmers. A commercial kitchen, for instance, to create value-added products like jams and jellies, or instruments to support another of the area’s burgeoning industries — beekeeping. Hand-extracting honey from a beehive is tedious, messy work that substantially limits the number of hives a person can feasibly keep. 

“To extract honey, you have it all over your kitchen, so to have a central location with an extractor in it, a person who had two hives can have 10,” Sprague said.

Maybe the producers could even sell their wares right there. The old factory’s open floor plan provides ample space for virtually any use, and the Whittier area does not currently have a farmers market. A spur line of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad runs feet from the building’s edge — why not route the train that way and let riders off for a 15-minute bathroom and shopping break? They’ve floated the idea to the railroad, Green said, discovering that, while the unused spur line needs some cleanup, it’s in pretty good shape.

Other ag-related events could be held there, too — what about a rodeo, or cattle shows? Currently, Sprague’s working on a grant application to fund a livestock yard after the county gave him the OK to do so — that shows things have forward momentum, he said, though County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan cautioned that there are still plenty of questions about the project’s feasibility. 

Joe Ward, a 68-year-old farmer who’s been working the same 200-acre property his whole life, is hoping to see the Drexel makeover pan out. He’s just a mile or two down the road from the old factory and has been on the steering committee behind its renovation since the idea took root. 

“My grandkids and my great-grandkids, I’d like to see them get involved in some agriculture, showing cattle, showing hogs, a lot of different things like that,” he said. “We need to get our young folks involved with agriculture, let them know what it is and how to do it, because food does not come from a grocery shelf.”


Not a done deal

Of course, something has to pay for all of that. Right now, it’s county property. The county has invested some personnel time and taxpayer money into the planning process, but all told, the project could well end up totaling a few million dollars. Taxpayers can’t foot that bill.

“The concept has merit and a lot of thought has been put into what can we do with that facility, and I hate to see it just sit there and do nothing but just rust away, so it would be nice to do something with it,” McMahan said. “But at what cost, and that’s where we really need to take a close look at what it is going to cost us to rehabilitate that building to the point where they could even use it.”

Commissioners put $10,000 toward a building assessment to see what kind of work the building might require, but McMahan said he doesn’t see any substantial, county-funded renovations happening in the near future. 

“It’s not a priority right now among all the projects we have,” he said.

“If we do anything right now,” he added, “it would be purely cleanup of the site and maybe look at is it feasible to even do some of the things outside that we need to do with the cattle loading area.”

It’s no surprise to project proponents that county funds for the project will be limited. The plan is to pursue grants to pay for all sorts of project costs, everything from construction to equipment purchases to start-up operations costs. 

The project has already secured some such funding. The Cherokee Preservation Foundation awarded Jackson $9,000 to develop a walking trail and interpretive signs to walk users through the site’s pre-Drexel history. 

Before people had even invented such a thing as a furniture factory, the place was home to the Cherokee town of Stecoah, a settlement major enough that it even appeared on English maps in the 1700s. Later that century, Gen. Griffith Rutherford would destroy the town and its inhabitants — a place that, archeological finds show, had been settled since 6,000 B.C. 

Through the Preservation Foundation grant, the county will work with the Tribal Historic Preservation Office and Cultural Resources Office to gather community input on the project and develop educational signage to educate visitors on the site’s significance. 

Sprague also hopes to eventually use some county recreation funds to aid the project. The county’s parks and recreation plan has already identified Whittier as an area that needs recreation facilities; currently, the community has none. The relatively flat riverside property would provide plenty of space for playing fields or possibly even a dog park. 

“It’s a natural fit, which brings you parks and recreation funding to this side [of the county],” Sprague said. 

Of course, that all depends. Though the property is flat, it’s also in the floodplain, and that could prove problematic. 

“There are some questions about whether we can even do anything outside of the shadow of the building,” McMahan said. 

And what about operational expenses once the building is ready for use, if it ever comes to that?

Well, the farmers who use it should bear a lot of the expense, Sprague said, but the cost structure would take some effort to work out. Should they pay an overall membership fee? What about a charge per head of cattle or per use of the honey extractor machine or per night of produce storage in the coolers? Who would keep track of these payments — would the revenues have to support staff positions as well?

It could prove difficult for such an ag-focused operation to be self-sustaining, Sprague said. That’s just part of the reason why he says the Smoky Mountain Agriculture Development Station could well be just one component within a much more diverse list of users at the Drexel building. 

What if the building also served as an event venue? Though it’s possible the building assessment now being conducted could say otherwise, Sprague believes it would prove quite easy to tear out the walls from a portion of the building — the roof is supported by steel beams — and develop an open-air concert hall that could double as space for a farmers market or even a basketball court. Concerts, fiddling contests, conventions — such a space could generate a lot of income to support the agriculture side of things. 

“Are you going to get a crowd for that?” said Sprague, bringing up the obvious question. “I think if it’s done right, it’s highly feasible.”


A long-range plan

But whatever the future holds for Drexel, it’s not going to happen overnight. 

“We can’t take taxpayer dollars and do a wholesale renovation,” Green said. “We have to get funds and do a section and get funds and do the next section.”

And before that section-by-section work can begin, they’ll have to see what results the building assessment brings.

Sprague and Green are hopeful that the assessment will reveal an old yet sturdy structure capable of housing all the uses they dream of. But McMahan is more cautious. 

“When we [the commissioners] saw [the building], it just magnified what we had been told about what would have to be accomplished to make the building usable,” McMahan said. 

Even if everything comes back great, it could take 10 years to complete the fullness of the vision. Sprague said he hopes to start working on it by the end of the summer, but even if renovations began that soon, it would be a piecemeal process, focusing on one small piece of the project at a time. 

But that doesn’t mean the building would have to wait for a ribbon cutting to start giving back to the community, Sprague said. After all, it is 82,000 square feet. 

“We could bulldoze down part of this building — we’d still have a big building,” he said. 

The first order of business will be a renovation of the office, which is still strewn with the debris of bygone business operations. A floppy disc sits casually on the old desk, a half-empty bottle of Pine-Sol on the all-in-one kitchen installed in the wall. Cleaning that space up would offer a headquarters for renovation operations as well as a place to showcase plans for the future of the building. Public restrooms would likely also be part of the initial phase.  

From start to finish, it’s a long road. To get anywhere, steady progress is the name of the game.  

“We’re continuing to nibble on the elephant,” Green said. 

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