By Jeff Keeling
The local Chamber of Commerce’s quest to sell the Model Mill property will broaden beyond discussions that have focused on entrepreneur Joe Baker’s interest in buying and restoring the building, though Baker told News and Neighbor he remains hopeful that restoration is a possibility.
In a news release issued Monday night, the Chamber of Commerce serving Johnson City/Jonesborough/Washington County said through CEO Gary Mabrey that its foundation, “has now opened the door to negotiations with in and out of town developers interested in the organization’s General Mills property.”
The release stated that decision was, “made after more than ten months of discussions with a local developer about their interest in the gateway property.”
The release didn’t name the “local developer,” but it is Baker, a Gatlinburg native and Asheville, N.C. resident who has been the principal in the renovations of the historic CC&O and ET&WNC (Tweetsie) railroad depots that sit just east of the mill. The CC&O depot is home to Tupelo Honey Café, and the Tweetsie depot, which was renovated in 2015, houses Baker’s Yee-Haw Brewing Co., along with White Duck Taco.
Last May, after a contract that would have resulted in razing of the mill and construction of apartments on the 4.8-acre property fell through, Baker expressed his interest in trying to put enough pieces in place to successfully redevelop the century-old structure. (See that story here). At that point, Chamber leaders said they would focus their efforts on Baker’s offer.
Tuesday, Baker reiterated his personal interest in the mill. “I personally would like to see the mill repurposed and salvaged because I think it offers the best way to contribute to the revitalization and planned growth of Johnson City, the celebration of the history of the town, and really a connection between (East Tennessee State University) and downtown,” Baker said.
The Chamber’s news release quoted Mabrey as saying the Chamber shares, “a vision for transformation of the property.
“Our organization has collaborated with a local developer and others during this time to help them realize that vision through numerous scenarios. However, we were unable to secure a commitment from any interested parties toward a purchase. We look forward to any future interest from those parties, but we must now be open to inquiries from in and out of town developers who have a vision for the property and are willing to commit to closing the transaction.”
Baker said he and his real estate team have recently garnered “verbal commitments from some key community partners” related to leasing and use of the mill building, were it to be purchased by him and renovated. He added, though, that he had always understood no binding commitments were in place between him and the Chamber.
“We’re aware that the Chamber continues to market the property, and certainly we respect their right to sell the property in whatever timetable meets their needs,” Baker said Tuesday. “We have worked diligently over the last many months to determine that much of the original space is salvageable.
“With a property of this magnitude and size and a redevelopment of this magnitude, there’s just a lot more work that’s going to have to be done to finalize commitments and actually make it happen.”
The Chamber’s foundation purchased the property in 2008 with the intent of relocating the Chamber’s offices there, “as part of a revitalization of properties linking ETSU with downtown,” the Chamber’s news release noted. (The previous contract for apartments was not going to include relocation of the Chamber’s offices to the property.)
Mabrey said in the release that the Chamber will remain careful in its vetting of any potential additional offers on the property, which it bought for $400,000 in 2008 and which is bounded by State of Franklin Road and Sevier and Walnut streets.
“The chamber foundation understands the importance of the General Mills location as a gateway between downtown, ETSU, State of Franklin Road, and the redevelopment of Walnut Street,” Mabrey said. “Any developer who approaches the chamber foundation about the property should consider how their ideas will complement the positive progress now under way for Johnson City and its neighborhoods.”
For his part, Baker said he has approached the potential purchase from a broader perspective than he might on a raw piece of land.
“While I’m interested in it on an investment level, I have worked more in a role as a facilitator to bring public and private partnerships together to examine it and try to make it happen.”