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High cost estimate likely to sideline ag center project

fr drexelA 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 costs add up quickly — $750,000 to repair the roof, $300,000 to strengthen the building to resist earthquake damage, $20,000 to replace the gutters. And then, of course, a sprinkler system. 

“I cannot see spending the kind of money that’s going to be required just to get the building up where you can start doing something with it,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. 

The building, constructed in the 1960s, is in “incredible shape” for a building that’s 50 years old, said architect Odell Thompson. The problem is that the kind of renovation that would be needed to make it useful as an agricultural center would require it to comply with current building codes. Thus, the $1.7 million price tag. 

Further complicating things is the fact that the factory is built on the floodplain, which means that, even were the building to be torn down, nothing could be constructed in its place. 

Add to that the site’s archeological significance to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — due to the artifacts buried there, no equipment is allowed to penetrate more than 18 inches into the ground — and you have a bona fide quagmire of confounding factors present in any plan to revamp the property. 

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“Given all the things already on our plate from a capital projects perspective, I can’t see how that building would rank very high among all the other projects,” McMahan said. 

“This project would be way down the list for me,” agreed Commissioner Vicki Greene.

There didn’t seem to be a lot of disagreement with that perspective in the commissioners’ meeting room last week. The question now is what to do with the building. Tear it down? Clean up the lawn around it and worry about the structure later? Try and sell it to the tribe, who may want the property for its cultural significance? Use it for some kind of recreational purpose that won’t be affected by the floodplain building restrictions? 

Another variable in the equation is a grant that Jackson County Cooperative Extension recently landed to build a cattle-loading area on the Drexel property. 

“I think this could be very helpful to the people that’s in the cattle business,” said Commissioner Boyce Dietz. “Most people do not have the facilities to take care of cattle, especially bigger animals.”

Commissioners are in favor of the project. They’re just not sure if it will be able to go in at Drexel. 

Extension had applied for the grant with the understanding that renovation was likely to move forward at Drexel, but because the building is in the floodplain, the cattle facility can’t go there if the building is torn down. And grant funding is tied to the location, so Extension would have to ask for any changes to its proposal by the end of the month. 

Which gives commissioners a deadline to decide, at least in part, what the future of the Drexel site will be. 

“We promise you we’ll come to some kind of decision this month,” McMahan said. 

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