By Jeff Keeling
An entrepreneur who has restored two century-old railroad depots in downtown Johnson City hopes to do the same with the 106-year-old former General Mills building a couple blocks west.
Joe Baker made an offer on the 4.8-acre, Chamber of Commerce Foundation-owned mill property April 24. If it’s accepted, Baker hopes both the Chamber of Commerce and East Tennessee State University’s arts programs will be among the 50,000-square-foot building’s tenants – so much so that he plans to invite both entities to inhabit space there essentially rent-free.
“We’ve had an interest in the mill for some time now, and believe we have laid out a vision that creates long-term benefits for downtown Johnson City and preserves an important piece of our history,” Baker told News and Neighbor last week. Elements of the multimillion dollar plan include a shell space for a new Chamber headquarters (rent-free for 15 years), a potential new location for ETSU’s bluegrass program and several other uses suited to the space. Top ETSU leaders have responded positively after an initial meeting.
Baker’s offer, made by his real estate representative Greg Cox, came after a purchase contract fell through with a developer wanting to construct a five-building apartment complex that would have involved razing the mill. News and Neighbor first reported online April 7 that deal, which had created significant controversy, was essentially dead.
On April 10, Chamber of Commerce CEO Gary Mabrey said he expected fresh offers on the property, which the Chamber Foundation purchased for $400,000 in 2008. When it bought the property, the Chamber planned a mixed-use development that would include a new Chamber headquarters.
After years of trying to sell, the foundation entered into a contract with North Carolina’s Evolve Development in late 2013. Evolve also planned to use the adjacent 1.8-acre tract where the now-closed Mize Farm and Garden store sits.
Monday, Mabrey said the Evolve contract’s dissolution wasn’t complete, which prohibited him from saying much. “We’re just taking our time to be as vigilant and diligent as when we entered into the contract,” Mabrey said.
Mabrey and a committee of 14 Chamber and foundation board members who will vet new offers can’t do that prior to the contract’s dissolution, he said. Their real estate agents, Jerry Petzoldt and Andy Burke of TCI Group, “are able to seek offers, talk, do whatever,” Mabrey said Monday. “We cannot see nor talk about any of their efforts until we have a dissolved contract.”
Cox said it was Burke who contacted him around April 8 and told him TCI would accept offers for a limited period of time. “I thought Joe would be excited to learn that, and he was,” said Cox, who has represented Baker in several purchases of historic downtown real estate. “His interest in downtown Johnson City has only increased since the property went under contract in late 2013.”
Cox’s work with Baker downtown started with the 2012 purchase of the former Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio depot at Buffalo Street and State of Franklin. That building now houses Tupelo Honey Cafe. Following that historic renovation, Baker – a co-founder of Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine – purchased the former East Tennessee and Western North Carolina depot across State of Franklin, along with an adjacent three-story building that was once a hotel.
The former ET&WNC depot is scheduled to open as a new, sizeable craft brewery, Yee-Haw Brewing, later this month. A restaurant also is going in that building.
Like Mabrey, Cox wouldn’t be surprised if the Chamber receives offers in addition to Baker’s. The one he’s brought forward is decidedly non-standard in its approach, Cox said, and reflects what he said is Baker’s growing commitment to and interest in Johnson City and its downtown.
“We’d probably move right into the project after the brewery is finished, but it takes a year to put together a project,” Cox said of the 50,000-square-foot mill. “And although it’s structurally sound, it’s still a massive undertaking.”
In addition to a purchase price, Baker’s offer includes a six-figure donation to the Convention and Visitors Bureau, an arm of the Chamber, for “sports tourism” infrastructure (ballfields and the like). It also offers, rent-free for 15 years, enough unfinished “shell space” inside the restored mill to house a new chamber headquarters.
In his April 10 interview, Mabrey said Chamber leaders still, “haven’t ruled out anything” in terms of a future headquarters location.
“The biggest question after we close is, ‘where is the Chamber of Commerce going to locate itself?’” Mabrey said. He added that TCI and Petzoldt vet any offers before passing them on to a committee that includes seven Chamber board members and seven Chamber Foundation board members.
“We’re looking forward to that and looking forward to the time we’ll be spending considering what our options are,” Mabrey said Monday.
The Foundation bought the property from Mennel Milling, the last company to operate the mill, for $400,000. It’s currently appraised for tax purposes at $559,300.
Baker said he has had an “exciting discussion” with ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland about locating music-related programs, particularly bluegrass and possibly WETS-FM, inside a renovated mill.
“ETSU’s bluegrass program is internationally renowned, and putting its students and faculty in a more accessible location inside a historic building could help the program and go a long way toward enhancing downtown’s revitalization,” Baker said. “Dr. Noland has expressed his interest in expanding the university’s presence downtown, and our initial discussion about these specific possibilities was positive.”
Noland’s chief of staff agreed.
“With developers like Joe Baker and others we’ve had conversations centered around what can we do to improve or enhance Johnson City, and we’re very interested in that dialogue going forward,” Jeremy Ross said.
With construction set to begin on a new performing arts center, Ross added, potential space elsewhere for a program like bluegrass could allow the university to use the new PAC for other programs.
Many unknowns remain, Ross said, and faculty input would be important.
Still, Ross said, Noland wants to answer this question: “Is there a possibility that some of the university’s programs or needs could be placed in a private development, which would enhance those programs, enhance the city and enhance the developer’s situation?”
He added that ETSU officials have sought for some time to increase the university’s presence downtown. Meeting with Baker and a couple of his associates last month, Noland and Ross’s interest was piqued.
“Beyond that, I’ve toured some of their buildings downtown and listened to some of their vision for Johnson City, and to say that the university is intrigued is an understatement,” Ross said.
And with craft brewing continuing its meteoric rise – a recent Fortune magazine article says volume grew 18 percent in 2014 to reach 11 percent of total U.S. market share – Baker also sees potential in some type of higher education program related to the fast-growing industry.
Early last year, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College opened a first-of-its-kind two-year applied science degree in brewing, distillation and fermentation at its “Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast.” One early topic of discussion has been the possibility of a related degree program for ETSU, housed at the mill.
Whether the Chamber’s leadership deems such a comprehensive offer the best option remains to be seen. Other offers, likely much more cut and dried and potentially with a higher base purchase amount, are certainly possible.
Mabrey said April 10 the Chamber representatives considering the right choice for the property are a savvy group of businesspeople. Ultimately, any recommendation they make will go before the Chamber’s full 47-member board.
“We will pursue with great diligence and vigilance and business acumen to sell the property,” Mabrey said. “I’m confident those 47 directors will give careful scrutiny to anything presented to them, and will arrive at a decision the same way we looked at all the precursors to the Evolve contract.
“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.
“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.”