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Farmers lease old Drexel factory in Whittier

jacksonAfter years of sitting empty, the old Drexel Furniture factory in Whittier will now enter a new phase of useful life as home to the recently formed Thomas Valley Growers, LLC.

Last week, Jackson County commissioners officially voted to lease the property to the group of Whittier-area farmers, marking the end of a years-long debate about what to do with the aging, abandoned building. The 82,000-square-foot structure, owned by the county, hasn’t attracted any interest from the private sector in years but had proven too expensive for the county to renovate for any public purpose. 

“I just wish them a lot of success,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. “I’m glad to see that property is going to be utilized for something positive. Hopefully it will help create some jobs, it will create a small revenue source coming into the county.” 

Over the life of the five-year lease, which includes an option to renew for another five years, the group will pay the county $75,000 for use of the property — $15,000 a year. The agreement, commissioners hope, will inject new life into a derelict property that has, in the words of Commissioner Boyce Deitz, become an “albatross” to the county, without cutting off the possibility that some large, job-creating entity might one day want to use it. The county would retain ownership of the property and would have the option of getting out of the lease should such an opportunity arise.

“I wish we could say there’s some big company that wants to put a factory in there and hire 300 people, but that’s not going to happen,” Deitz said. “And I think we got someone in there that can do something positive with it.”

The group of Whittier farmers that is now Thomas Valley Growers first approached commissioners about the idea in September, after word got out there was some interest in simply deeding the land to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The farmers felt like they could turn the property into a vital agricultural resource, housing components such as a commercial packaging line for produce, a seed and fertilizer co-op or commercial-size coolers. 

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Commissioners were interested in the plan since the beginning, but it took a while to fine-tune the terms and format to an agreement that would work for both parties. With the ink now dry on the final contract, the farmers have their work cut out to make the vision come true. The first goal? To get a commercial packaging line in place by harvest season, which would take produce from freshly picked to grocery store ready. By pooling resources to buy the equipment and preparing the produce in a central location, the thought process goes, small producers would have a better chance to sell to larger buyers.

“I’m working on a really tight timeline, and there’s a lot of things that have to fall into place, but I’m shooting for this season,” said William Shelton, one of the five principals in Thomas Valley Growers. 

Once the pack line is in place, the group will likely start exploring some of the other ideas thrown out in the initial phase of pitching the idea to commissioners, such as a seed co-op or a rodeo.

“I think we’re up to the challenge,” Shelton said. “I think that if we didn’t feel like we were well positioned to handle it, we wouldn’t have taken the leap.” 

Time will tell exactly how the venture turns out, but both Shelton and the commissioners are hopeful the end product will be a win for both parties.  

“We’re basically willing to take this on as a project and relieve the county of the responsibility of enhancing it while at the same time keeping it in the county’s hand yet revitalizing it in a positive way,” Shelton said. “It’s a win-win for the county and then for the growers.” 

“Hopefully we can quit calling it the Drexel property and call it the farmers co-op property,” Deitz said. 

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