By Jeff Keeling
Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce CEO Gary Mabrey was sanguine Monday morning as he discussed prospects for the former General Mills property midway between East Tennessee State University and downtown.
“The market has changed,” Mabrey told News and Neighbor Monday, six days after jcnewsandneighbor.com broke news that the deal with North Carolina-based Evolve Development LLC was essentially dead.
“We’re going to conclude the market’s changed for the better, and we’re going to work toward that better end result.”
Mabrey isn’t alone in expressing optimism after the deal’s demise.
“There’s been an ongoing interest in the project since we entered into the contract, and we hear there’s interest now that it looks like there’s not going to be an Evolve project,” Mabrey said. “That’s pretty good.”
Conversation about whether the 105-year-old mill building now might avoid the wrecking ball immediately resurfaced in the wake of the news.
In the last eight days, Tommy Burleson, a local contractor, has informally inspected the building at the request of a local realtor (Burleson believes the building is structurally sound and capable of redevelopment). An attorney who lives in the nearby Tree Streets and helped lead opposition to the Evolve proposal, and a city commissioner who voted against a needed rezoning (it passed) have expressed hope for a deal they would find more suitable.
They and Mabrey have agreed on one thing: The market for student housing (Evolve’s plan) may have softened since a state plan to offer free community college and the construction of a complex closer to ETSU, but the property is likely to draw multiple offers.
Mabrey said the Foundation has sent its end of the dissolution agreement paperwork to Evolve and its principal, Scott Austin.
Austin first agreed to buy the property in late 2013, more than five years after the Chamber Foundation paid $400,000 for the 4.8 acres and announced plans to pursue a mixed-use development that would include a new chamber headquarters.
Once the contract is officially dissolved, Mabrey expects the Foundation’s real estate agent, Jerry Petzoldt, to quickly begin vetting offers. Any he deems potentially viable, Mabrey said, will move to Mabrey and a committee of 14 comprised of Chamber Foundation members and Chamber board members. Ultimately, he said, any proposal will go before the entire 47-member Chamber board of directors.
“I’m totally confident we’ll look at it, come up with a result and negotiate in the best interest of the organization, the best interest of the folks who we may enter into a deal with, and obviously, the best decision for the community,” Mabrey said.
Though he opposed Evolve’s final plan, Johnson City Commissioner David Tomita agreed with Mabrey about changes in the downtown market since late 2013. Numerous private and public redevelopment projects have started since then, with some complete and some nearing completion.
“The market may just have shifted, and I think it will have shifted to something we’ll all be satisfied with,” Tomita said. He added he believes mixed use (likely commercial and/or retail plus residential) is the best option.
A mixed-use project could be done in a way that maintains all or most of the original mill building, Burleson of Burleson Construction said Monday. He has been in the building many times over the years as Burleson Construction aided companies operating the mill on construction and maintenance matters.
“Depending on the end use of the building, it’s worth the time to go through and do the due diligence to see if it can be renovated for a particular purpose – that’s my opinion – as opposed to tearing it down and starting over,” Burleson said. Mabrey, too, said no one had outright told him the building couldn’t be saved.
Burleson stressed that not just any end use would be viable, but added, “there’s probably some end uses that, if whoever bought it could make them work, I think would be very beneficial.”
A member of the Washington County Economic Development Council, Burleson said all other things being equal, he would prefer to see the building saved. “With the right buyer, the right end use, I think it would be a great facility to keep in the community.”
Amber Lee, a Tree Streets resident and attorney who has challenged a rezoning and a parking variance on the property both in court and with city boards, was pleased with the news Evolve was out. She agreed with Tomita and Mabrey about changes in the market, and noted that historic renovations frequently qualify for tax credits and other incentives that help offset the often-steep costs associated with them.
“We’ve seen two years of positive changes downtown,” Lee said. “People that had never seen a historic renovation have seen one completely successful one and one in the mix (two former railroad depots just east of the mill), and they’ve seen both public and private dollars go into those efforts.”
Lee said historic preservation was her highest hope now, and a mixed-use development, even if it involved razing the mill building, was an improvement on Evolve’s plan.
“I think they have the opportunity to do something really grand on a prime piece of real estate between ETSU and downtown,” she said of the Chamber Foundation.
Mabrey struck a similar tone, saying of the property, “It’s attracted a lot of interest.
“It’s caused us as a community to think, ‘what do we want to be, where do we want to go,’ and let’s hope we can take that passion – I respect the passion of all and hope we can combine our passions into something that’s good for 100 years.”