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Jackson businessman floats alternative fate for vacant Whittier factory

fr drexelIts 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.

“It’s going to be a place to build modular builds of eco-friendly homes of all different sizes,” Cashiers resident Frank Smith said of his vision for the property. 

In a meeting with Jackson County Commissioners last week, Smith presented his plan to turn the 82,000-square-foot, steel-framed building into a production center for eco-friendly pre-built homes while also housing a music venue, marketplace for local crafts and food products and a business incubator.

“Hopefully (this will) be a prototype that can be looked at on a national level, but the main thing is get this one done right,” said Smith, a retired developer and green energy consultant who would be working through his newly formed Sylva-based company, Naturally Green. 

He’d like to buy the property from Jackson County, paying $500,000 over 10 years and footing the bill for renovations himself. It’s that renovations price tag — $1.7 million to bring the building completely up to current code, according to a building assessment commissioners ordered earlier this year — that halted efforts to transform the property into the Smoky Mountain Agricultural Development Station, a concept that would have kept the property in county ownership and relied heavily on grant funding. 

“They (commissioners) had the concerns about liability and condition of the building and stuff,” said Lynn Sprague, executive director of Southwestern N.C. Resource Conservation and Development Council. He spearheaded the original ag center effort and has been meeting with Smith about his idea. “A private businessman would just go in and fix what needs to be fixed and move ahead, so you take it out of government.”

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But when Smith presented his idea to the board last week, commissioners came back with a resounding … “wait and see.”

They’re still in a holding pattern where the old Drexel plant is concerned after a group of Whittier farmers approached them in August about leasing part of the building. The general idea was to use it to package produce for sale, install large coolers to store crops awaiting shipping and perhaps to house a purchasing co-op and hay storage. But the farmers presented only generalities, motivated to put themselves forward for consideration as quickly as possible due to a perception that commissioners were on the verge of deeding the property to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, though in reality commissioners had only discussed the idea as one possibility among many. 

The farmers asked that commissioners hold off on any decision until after the harvest season ended, so they could have a chance to sit down and work out the details of their proposal. 

Commissioners agreed and appear committed to keep that promise. 

“I appreciate Mr. Smith presenting a proposal, and we’ll take time to evaluate and look at it and see if it’s something the county might be interested in,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. “However, I have given my word to the farmers that we would not do anything until they’ve had an opportunity to finalize their request and place it before us.”

It’s possible the two ideas for the building’s future could work in unison, at least somewhat. The two parties haven’t yet had a chance to fully discuss it. Smith called one of the farmers, Joe Ward, but Ward was in the thick of harvest season and unable to meet — but there’s been talk that the farmers’ needs might possibly fit within the umbrella of Smith’s business plan. 

“It might work,” Ward said. 

“I feel we can make it work,” Smith agreed. “I’ve only had one conversation with the representative there (Ward), so we can have more conversations but they’re mainly busy harvesting now.”

If the farmers took over the building — or at least the one-quarter of it they’re talking about using — the old factory would remain county property, with the group likely paying only a negligible amount in rent. Smith’s proposal involves actually purchasing it, which would mean the 21-acre property would go back on county tax rolls and begin generating property taxes. 

But McMahan said, at least as far as he’s concerned, that doesn’t much enter into the calculation. 

“I’m open to looking at all the options, as long as leasing it would provide an opportunity for people to provide a service or use it in some way to provide a service that would be beneficial to the community,” McMahan said. 

While there might be different points of view on just what would be the “most” beneficial, the prevailing priority seems to be ensuring that the property doesn’t continue to sit vacant — that it goes to work somehow for the taxpayers of Jackson County. 

But until cold weather comes and the farmers have a chance to bring something formal to the table, the question will likely remain an open one. 

“We promised them (the farmers) that we’d wait and see before we did anything,” said Boyce Dietz, a county commissioner and a cattleman, “so that’s what we’re going to do.”



What is the Drexel property?

For more than 30 years after its 1964 construction, the Drexel Heritage Furniture Plant operated in Whittier next to where the Pepsi-Cola warehouse is now. 

But the plant eventually closed, and in the early 2000s the county bought it as part of an economic development initiative. The wood components manufacturer Clearwood, LLC, briefly leased the 82,000-square-foot building, but since that company moved out the property has sat vacant. 

Then the Southwestern North Carolina Resource Conservation and Development Council started working to develop an agricultural center on the site. A master plan, paid for by a $10,000 grant from the Southwestern Commission, outlined the building’s potential to house everything from product processing machinery to concerts to rodeos. But when a building assessment revealed that bringing the building completely up to code would cost $1.7 million — and that the building’s siting on the flood plain and on top of a Cherokee historical site would severely hamper development possibilities — commissioners abandoned the idea and began floating other options. 

Current ideas on the table include giving the land to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians as a cultural site, leasing it to Whittier farmers for an agricultural cooperative or selling to Frank Smith’s company Naturally Green.

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