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Whittier farmers likely to set up shop in Drexel building

jacksonA group of Whittier farmers hoping to turn the vacant Drexel factory into an agricultural resource got a nod of support from Jackson County commissioners this week.

At their work session Tuesday, commissioners delivered a consensus that they want to move further down the road to a formal agreement with the farmers, who first approached commissioners with the idea in August. At that time, the idea had been a rough concept more than an actual plan, brought to commissioners’ attention somewhat hastily when the farmers heard that the board was considering giving the property away. 

As it turned out, such a decision wasn’t on the immediate horizon, but the farmers wanted to bring themselves to commissioners’ attention as an option. The August discussion ended with an agreement to wait until the harvest season was over and farmers had some planning time before making decisions on the property’s future. 

That’s what Joe Ward, a cattle farmer who’s been working for years to steer the property toward a productive future, had in hand when he approached commissioners this week. 

“We hope to have it up and running for the 2016 growing season, which is getting closer than you’d think already,” Ward said. 

The “it” in question was Thomas Valley Agricultural Producers, LLC. The five Whittier farmers with a stake in the company — Ward, William Shelton, Kent Cochran, Nathaniel Darnell and Brian Bumgarner — would do the work and foot the bill to remake part of the building as a place to house equipment for packaging produce for sale, and for storing produce for wholesale to retail outlets. The site could also host agricultural events such as tractor pulls and fairs, as well as educational and cultural opportunities. The group would look at forming a nonprofit alongside the LLC to carry out some of those functions not related to agricultural operations, Ward said. 

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Commissioners told Ward they support what the farmers were trying to do but thought they should revise the organizational structure before moving forward. In particular, they said, it would be best for them to forget the LLC idea and make the whole thing a nonprofit. 

“As a commissioner looking at this, I think you need to go back and name yourself the Thomas Valley Agricultural Producers — forget the LLC and we’ll expect to hear back from you as a nonprofit,” Commissioner Vicki Greene told Ward.  

It’s simpler for the county to work through a lease — especially, at $40 per year, a discount lease like the one Ward proposed — with a nonprofit, and the grant-seeking process will be easier that way. 

The proposal asks for a 10-year agreement with an option to renew for another 10 years, also asking for an early termination option. Commissioners were in favor of the early termination question, bringing up the point that if some great economic development opportunity came their way that hinged on use of the Drexel plant, they’d want the chance to get that space back. 

“Is 10 years the magic number? Could it be five?” asked Commissioner Mark Jones. 

“It could be, but five is real short because when you’re doing something like this you have so much lead-in time, then you have a little time here to see if it’s going to work or not,” Ward said. “Five would be the minimum.”

So, there will be some details to iron out before the two parties reach a final agreement, but all five commissioners indicated that they’d like to keep moving down this road with the Thomas Valley group. 

Which is significant, because the farmers aren’t the only ones to have expressed interest in using the old factory. 

In September, Cashiers resident Frank Smith approached commissioners with his vision for a for-profit enterprise that would purchase the property — which includes the 82,000-square-foot building and 21 acres — for $500,000. He would foot the bill for renovations, which are estimated at well over $1 million, and create a production center for eco-friendly homes, a music venue, business incubator and marketplace for local crafts and food products. Because the property would then be privately owned, it would go back on county tax rolls and generate property tax. 

But commissioners told Smith he’d have to wait for an answer until they’d heard back from the farmers. 

“I gave my word to the farmers,” Commission Chairman Brian McMahan said. 

Smith had said that he didn’t see his plan and the farmers’ as mutually exclusive — he likely wouldn’t need all the space at once and would be open to leasing some of it to the group. However, as Smith’s proposal involved purchasing the property and the Thomas Valley group is now talking through the particulars of a lease from the county, commissioners won’t consider Smith’s proposal any further unless something falls through in the agreement with the farmers.



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. But cost issues — a building assessment revealed it would cost $1.7 million to bring the structure up to code — coupled with restrictions due to the property’s siting on a flood plain and atop a Cherokee historical site — sidelined the effort. Since then, discussion of alternative futures for the property has abounded. 

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