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Whittier farmers make an offer on Drexel plant

fr drexelThe future of the old furniture factory in Whittier has been through more than its share of twists and turns over the past year, but Jackson County now has an offer on the table from a group of farmers who want to turn it into a packing and agricultural resource facility. 

“It moves that property into a positive direction,” said Brian McMahan, chairman of the Jackson County Commissioners. “Instead of sitting there vacant and idle and being a negative, it becomes a positive.”

Commissioners and the farmers, working under the name Thomas Valley Growers LLC, have agreed to a five-year lease for the price of $15,000 per year, or $75,000 total, to be paid in cash or through in-kind repairs to the 1960s structure. The agreement would include an option to renew at the same rate. 

But the deal is not yet final. Legally, the county must go through an upset bid process to give anyone willing to pay more than the agreed-upon price a chance to make an offer. The 10-day period began on Thursday, March 24. To outstrip the farmers’ bid, competing offers must be at least $3,800 more than their $75,000 offer, with the county reserving the right to decide not to lease the property to any bidder.

When the upset bid process closes, the county will hold a public hearing before signing the final agreement. 

Though nothing’s final, the farmers are already going full-steam ahead with the planning. They’ve been discussing the idea publicly since September, when they approached commissioners with a roughly sketched-out plan to make the abandoned factory into an agricultural facility capable of housing everything from produce packaging equipment to commercial-size coolers to storage space for a seed and fertilizer purchasing co-op. At the time, commissioners liked the idea but said they needed to see a more specific plan and sort through the legalese of how to do these kinds of agreements by the book. 

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That’s why Thomas Valley Growers formed. The principals in the limited liability corporation, each with an equal share, are five prominent farmers in the Whittier area — Joe Ward, William Shelton, Kent Cochran, Nathaniel Darnell and Bryan Bumgarner. 

If the deal goes through, the first order of business would be to get a pack line installed in time to package this year’s produce, Ward said. They’ve already been meeting with contractors.

“Whenever the county signs the lease and the ink’s dry on it, we’ll be ready to start,” he said. 

Once the pack line is squared away, Ward expects the company will turn its attention to other aspects of its vision for the property, such installing commercial coolers and getting a seed and fertilizer co-op underway. 

“Because we’re getting so close into this year now, we’re kind of under the gun to get this pack line in and then we’ll work on this other stuff during the summer,” Ward said. 

While only five farmers are listed as principals in the company, the facility, once off the ground, would be a boon to growers big and small throughout the region, Ward said. 

“Once it gets up and gets a-going, anyone in the county could take advantage of it,” Ward said. “If you wanted to raise an acre of tomatoes on your afternoons off, now you’ll have somewhere you can sell them.”

The facility will give area growers access to the equipment needed to professionally package their crops as well as the chance to combine their harvest with other farmers to create a more attractive supply for buyers. 

“I’m just looking for really my kids, and I want my grandkids to do a little something here on this old farm and have somewhere to sell it,” Ward said. “Right now there’s nowhere to sell much.”

If the deal goes through, it would put a cap on a discussion that’s been unfolding for years, ever since the building went vacant about 10 years ago. For more than 30 years, the 82,000-square-foot building had housed the Drexel Heritage Furniture Plant, and the county bought the 32-acre property in the early 2000s after Drexel moved out. 

In 2013, the Southwestern North Carolina Resource Conservation and Development Council began working on a plan to make Drexel into an agricultural center housing everything from concerts to a commercial kitchen, but that plan went out the window when a building assessment revealed it would cost $1.7 million to bring the sturdy but aging building up to current code. 

That’s when commissioners began floating other options, including giving the land to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in recognition of the site’s history as home to Stecoah, a major Cherokee town. It was during that time that the farmers first approached commissioners with the processing center concept. 

Now, an upset bid process and a public hearing are all that stands between the farmers and the property. 

“Our local farmers, a very strong segment of our population, are going to be able to benefit from the use of it,” McMahan said. “I think it’s a win for everybody.”

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