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Whittier farmers float idea for vacant factory’s future

fr drexelIdeas 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 group of Whittier farmers has hatched its own plan and hopes to get commissioners on board. 

“This site could provide a great facility for local farmers,” Joe Ward, a longtime Whittier cattleman, told commissioners at an August work session. 

The opportunities are many, the farmers told county leaders who came to tour the facility with them last week. The building could house packaging equipment to allow producers to get their crops ready for sale to large buyers, like grocery stores. It could hold commercial-size coolers, giving farmers more time after picking to sell the crop before it goes bad. It could provide storage space for bulk purchases of seed and fertilizer, allowing farmers to form a purchasing co-op. 

“There’s potential there to enhance agriculture,” said William Shelton, a prominent Whittier farmer and former county commissioner who’s a proponent of the idea.  


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The backstory

The property, which housed the Drexel Heritage Furniture Plant for more than 30 years after its 1964 construction, has been county land for about a decade. The county purchased it in the early 2000s as part of an economic development initiative, briefly leasing it to Clearwood, LLC. Since that company moved out, the property has sat vacant, with no sign of another commercial occupant on the way. 

This isn’t the first time someone’s tried to make something out of the hulking steel-framed building. Since 2013, the Southwestern North Carolina Resource Conservation and Development Council had been working to develop an agricultural center on the site. As the council’s executive director Lynn Sprague envisioned it, the 82,000-square-foot building could host everything from business incubation to product processing machinery to concerts. Rodeos, farmers markets, a commercial kitchen, collective marketing for small producers — the list of potential uses went on and on.  

The idea progressed as far as a master plan, which a $10,000 grant from the Southwestern Commission paid for, followed by a $10,000 building assessment the Jackson County Commissioners ordered to get an idea of how much the renovation might cost. 

But that’s where progress stopped. It would cost $1.7 million to bring the sturdy but aging building completely up to code, the building assessment results showed. Any other renovations to outfit the building for its new purpose would pile on top of that. Commissioners balked at the price tag and decided to abandon the ag center plan. 

“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,” County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan said at the time. 

That’s when commissioners began floating other options, among them the possibility of giving the land to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Before its destruction by Gen. Griffith Rutherford in the 1700s, the site was home to a major Cherokee town called Stecoah, which archeological finds show had been settled since 6,000 B.C. The grounds of the 21.5-acre property still hold artifacts, and to prevent their destruction it’s not permitted to pierce the ground deeper than 18 inches, which is the depth to which it’s already been disturbed as former farmland. 

That’s not the only restriction on the property. The Tuckesegee River runs right through it, placing the Drexel property squarely in the floodplain. That status severely limits what kind of construction is even allowed there and has been another factor in dampening commissioners’ enthusiasm for developing the property. 


A plan with potential

The Whittier farmers believe that their plan could allow the property to become a resource for the county’s most productive agricultural area while dodging some of the issues that eventually sidelined the Smoky Mountain Agricultural Development Station project. 

“Basically, the cost of the improvements to bring it up to code was pretty much left up to the county, and that was when the county drew the line in the sand and said, ‘Hey, we’re not willing to spend that kind of money,’” Shelton said. “And that’s totally understandable. But if you had an organization come in and the county were willing to lease at a nominal fee and that entity would assume responsibility for improvements, I don’t know the county would have a beef with that.”

What the farmers are considering, he said, is asking for an inexpensive, long-term lease — Ward had put out the idea of leasing 20,000 square feet of the building for 10 years, at $10 per year — but taking care of all the improvements and liability themselves. The original $1.7 million estimate doesn’t scare them. 

“There’s some grants out there right now for this type of thing, and then there’s also agricultural low-interest loans, and we’ve got to put some money into it ourselves,” Ward said. “I don’t see any problem in coming up with the money to bring the building up to code for what we’re going to be doing with it.”

A hefty portion of that $1.7 million estimate — $750,000 — was to install a new roof, and another $300,000 was to bring its structure up to current seismic standards. The full scope of work included in the $1.7 million estimate, said the county’s Building and Code Enforcement Director Tony Elders, would have brought the building completely up to current codes, but that’s above what county ordinance requires. 

“There’s a lot of old buildings in our county that don’t meet the current codes,” he said. 

Code requirements kick in piecemeal, triggered by certain kinds of repairs or alterations, Elders said. 

“They (the farmers) definitely could do it for a lot less money than what the commissioners were looking at,” he said. 

Besides the fact that the farmers are asking to use only about one-quarter of the building — the original estimate was for the entire structure — they could save money by patching the roof rather than replacing it and skipping the seismic reinforcements. They’d need to install only two restroom units rather than the 30 to 40 commissioners were planning when considering the site for holding large events. They would have to bring the plumbing and electrical systems up to code and patch the roof, but those jobs would cost far less than $1.7 million. 

Commissioners aren’t totally sold on the idea, but they’re interested. 

“I think it could work,” McMahan said. “It’s going to take some planning. It’s going to take some work on their (the farmers’) part.”

“I’d say that the community that knows about this, 90 or better percent would like to see this developed,” Commissioner Charles Elders said. “We do have support to do what can be done to preserve this old building and put it to some use.”

“If they could use it, it may come into something that would be better than what it is right now,” said Commissioner Boyce Dietz, a cattleman sensitive to the needs of agricultural producers.


Laying out the options

Some issues certainly remain, principal among them liability. Commissioners want to be sure that, if they did lease the property for this purpose, they wouldn’t be responsible for anything that went wrong on the site and wouldn’t see the project leaders come back with open hands if the undertaking proved more expensive than anticipated.

Those are definitely concerns for Commissioner Vicki Greene, and while she said she’s open to talking with the farmers about their plan, she’s clear on her primary desire for the property. 

“I would like to give it back to the Native Americans,” she said. 

She said she doesn’t necessarily see the two ideas as mutually exclusive. The Eastern Band could own the land but still allow an agricultural packing facility to go in the building. Or, the county could own it but still allow the Eastern Band to develop some interpretive facilities there to showcase its cultural value. 

“To me it doesn’t matter who owns it,” Greene said. “If it could be used as a produce packing facility, I would think that the tribe could be interested in that, or the tribe could have other ideas of what the best use of that building could be.”

McMahan had also expressed an interest in reaching out to the tribe, but support for exploring that option is not unanimous. Dietz, for instance, had a simple answer to a question about whether he’d be in favor of giving it away: “No.”

“It’s taxpayers’ money that bought that, and we can’t just give it away,” he said. “If it is [given away], I’d say there’d be a lot of people standing in line.”

But it’s important to remember that all the ideas floated thus far are just that — ideas. 

“One comment I keep hearing from people in the public is ‘Y’all are going to give away a piece of property,’” McMahan said. “No, we never said we’re going to do that. It’s an option.”

Right now, he said, commissioners are in the process of “laying all the options on the table,” and as of yet, the proposal presented by Ward is the only one that’s actually been sent their way. Community members have expressed interest in other uses for the land, but none of those ideas have been formally presented. 

And even the current iteration of the farmers’ proposal doesn’t quite qualify as a formal presentation, Ward and Shelton agreed. It was pretty much a hastily thrown-together summary of an emerging idea, because the farmers had been under the impression that commissioners were actively pursuing an agreement with the Eastern Band. 

“We’re just saying, ‘We’re here as a possibility,’” Shelton said. “Before you unload it, take a look at it.”

From the farmers’ perspective, this is hardly the time to sit down and come up with a detailed plan. Crops are ripening, the harvest rush is on and there aren’t too many minutes to spare for that kind of thing.  The farmers would rather wait till the cold weather sets in before developing anything concrete. 

And even if commissioners were ready to strike a deal with the Eastern Band — which they’re not, not having even reached out to anyone in tribal government about the concept — it wouldn’t make sense to do so now. This week, Cherokee will elect a new chief, vice chief and Tribal Council. There wouldn’t be much point in pursuing anything until the new leadership is seated in October. 

“Over the next couple of months into the winter, I think from my viewpoint it would be time well spent as a group to sit down and say, ‘What do we want to do? What’s the first step?’” McMahan said. 

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