By Jeff Keeling
With a previous contract for a controversial development project now legally dissolved, the local Chamber of Commerce is back in due diligence mode, with leaders currently weighing offers on the 4.8-acre former General Mills property its foundation owns at 500 W. Walnut St.
The Chamber announced the news Thursday, two-and-a-half months after jcnewsandneighbor.com first reported that a contract with apartment builder Evolve Development was in the process of dissolution. Evolve’s plan to build more than 200 units of rent-by-the-room apartments using the Chamber property and the former Mize Home and Garden site had dragged through more than a year of controversy, lawsuits and neighborhood opposition prior to April’s news.
Friday, Chamber CEO Gary Mabrey told the News and Neighbor the Chamber’s leadership will begin vetting any offers in earnest. The first group to consider information includes 14 people – seven executive committee members each from both the Chamber proper and the Chamber Foundation.
“In the next couple of weeks, we will have conversations with interested parties,” Mabrey said. “That will be the next step that we will take, those conversations. Where they lead will be derived from how those conversations go.”
In Thursday’s release, Mabrey was quoted as saying the Chamber, “can now review the deals that our real estate firm, TCI, has received over the past few months and actively market the property for sale again.”
Mabrey didn’t offer much in the way of details about any offers – current or pending – and suggested the process will remain low-key for the foreseeable future.
“We’re asking them (any offerers) to be confidential, and we’re being confidential,” he said. “Anything that’s out there, it’s out there.”
What is “out there” is the gist of an offer that would restore the mill, made by entrepreneur Joe Baker, who has overseen renovation of two historic railroad depots just east of the mill. Baker and East Tennessee State University representatives discussed that offer – which envisions, potentially, a new home for ETSU’s bluegrass program and public radio station in a May 6 News and Neighbor article.
The offer also includes 15 rent-free years of unfinished “shell space” for a new Chamber headquarters – an element contained in the Chamber’s plans when it purchased the property for $400,000 in late June 2008. The article on the offer is at jcnewsandneighbor.com/prospective-buyer-would-restore-old-mill.
Thursday’s Chamber release implies that there is at least one other extant offer, with its reference to “deals” TCI has received “over the past few months.”
Mabrey didn’t get into timelines. The mill’s story under Chamber ownership has been one of hope and expectation in 2008, followed by years of relative inactivity as the economy turned down, and finally the Evolve chapter with all its twists and turns.
“(Then Chamber Chair) Melissa Jones and I thought in 2008 we would have expeditiously dealt with this by 2009,” Mabrey said. “We’re not going to dare use the word expeditious – we’re going to make haste slowly.”
“We are vetting it and will vet it with the height of due diligence,” he added. “We won’t begin negotiations until after the next round of the conversation. And then we’ll see.”
Mabrey said the Chamber would not take an exclusively short-term outlook.
“The key word is, good for the community, good for the Chamber. Short-term, middle-term, long-term. We’re also discussing, I think, this long-haul thing as much as we’re discussing the present.”