By Jeff Keeling
Against slim odds, the white-hatted cowboy I mentioned potentially entering the scene in a late December column rode in and made an offer to restore the old General Mills building. Now, the damsel holding the keys to said mill must choose – as far as she’s letting the audience in this drama know – whether to accept the cowboy’s offer or instead, possibly, run into the arms of a sharp-dressed fellow who’s in town on behalf of some corporation or other that would raze the historic mill building and construct something shiny and new.
The damsel is the local Chamber of Commerce. She’s been sitting on the old mill building and its 4.8 surrounding acres at 500 West Walnut Street for seven years now, ever since purchasing it in the hope and expectation that its sale and transformation would help this old railroad town’s moribund downtown revive. More to come on those seven years and on the damsel’s distresses through them, but first, to the cowboy.
His name is Joe Baker – a good cowboy name if ever there was one – and he is a successful entrepreneur cast in the mold of the John T. Wilders and George L. Carters who helped build Johnson City in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was Carter, in fact, who backed the initial construction in 1909 of what was then called the “Model Mill.”
Along about 2011, Baker first rode into town from down Gatlinburg way. His best girl, Mrs. Baker in fact, had taken a notion to change her profession from lawyering to doctoring (this is a modern melodrama). She was going to attend the medical college here in Johnson City – an outgrowth, coincidentally, of the 100-year-old normal school that the self-same George L. Carter had played a critical role in bringing to Johnson City in 1911.
Joe Baker took a shine to Johnson City’s downtown as he rode around looking for houses before finding one in the Tree Streets (once called the “Carter Addition” for you-know-who). He asked about a crumbling railroad depot just down the tracks from the old mill.
It was the former depot of the Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio, a rail route first envisioned in the 1830s and finally completed in 1909 largely through the vision, drive and means of, you guessed it, George L. Carter.
Since backing renovation of the depot, now beautifully restored and home to Tupelo Honey Café, Cowboy Joe has seen his main enterprise based in Sevier County thrive. His interest and investment in downtown Johnson City has continued apace, with another historic depot, the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, now beautifully renovated and several other historic buildings in various stages of restoration.
Meanwhile, the damsel just up the railroad tracks has gone through a breakup with her first serious suitor. Evolve Development came to town in late 2013 wanting to build apartments after tearing down the mill, and entered a contract with the Chamber.
Many nearby townspeople were, shall we say, less than impressed with Evolve’s plans, even to the extent that lawsuits ensued. Other folk expressed the “tear the eyesore down if someone’s willing to put something useful there” opinion. A “Model Mill Johnson City” Facebook page dedicated to the building’s preservation emerged. Media online comment sections played host to debate.
In April, the damsel allowed as to how the final breakup with Evolve was pending. A month later, Baker told News and Neighbor he wanted to buy the mill, restore it, give the Chamber space inside rent free for 15 years, and work toward bringing ETSU’s vaunted bluegrass program and its public radio station to the premises. (See jcnewsandneighbor.com/prospective-buyer-would-restore-old-mill/) The Save the Mill contingent cheered lustily via social media.
If other suitors exist, they’re unlikely to have the motive or the means to restore the old mill. Joe Baker is that rare breed whose ventures have provided him the opportunity to self-finance projects large enough to have a significant impact on a small city and whose interests tend to lie in a melding of historic preservation and viable business ventures.
Baker, in a short period, has had an undeniably positive impact on Johnson City’s downtown. In true white-hatted style, he remains relatively self-effacing about it all, pointing to the investments made by City government and the investments of other businesses as proof that downtown’s revitalization cannot be a one-man show.
Were he to obtain the mill property, Baker’s track record suggests he would make good on his commitment to restore the structure and make something intriguing happen there. To the casual observer looking forward 10 years, such an outcome seems more likely than any other to leave the property a showpiece and a point of civic pride, and to spur additional business growth around it.
The curtain has risen on what may be the final act in this Model Mill melodrama. The heroine, it is rumored at least, has an important decision to make regarding sale of the mill and property. Suitors other than Baker, if they’re out there, are likely to have legitimate offers that wouldn’t keep the building, but might put more scrip in the damsel’s purse up front.
If such offers include viable end uses for the property – even if those uses aren’t quite as appealing as Baker’s vision – then any significant difference in purchase price is a critical factor for the damsel to weigh in the balance. That building has been sitting on her books for a long time, and property insurance, interest carry and the like don’t just pay for themselves. There are other uses that, in this Tree Streeter’s opinion, could benefit the community, though perhaps not as much as Baker’s plans probably would.
The property does belong to the damsel, so it’s her call as to its ultimate disposition. This last act should be a doozy.