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Eyesore? Chamber sees development in old mill where graffiti artists see canvas

Madison Mathews • Feb 10, 2013 at 10:05 AM

It’s seen as a target for graffiti by some, and as a white elephant by others, but local officials agree the former General Mills site along West Walnut Street and West State of Franklin Road is a important piece in the downtown revitalization puzzle.

The Chamber of Commerce’s Chamber Foundation purchased the nearly 5-acre property for $400,000 in June 2008, using a line of credit provided by a partnership of 10 area banks with hopes of opening a new headquarters and a way to spur development near the downtown area.

Since the purchase nearly five years ago, the vacant property hasn’t seen any movement in the area of development. TCI Group-Jerry Petzoldt Agency has been working with the Chamber as the local developer and partner in the project.

Chamber President and CEO Gary Mabrey said the Chamber and its board leaders still have every intent to pursue development at the mill property.

“The Chamber board and the Foundation board have worked and are continuing to strive to preserve that building and preserve that original site, so as we look for potential developers to do that that continues to be an aim and an objective,” he said.

Entrepreneur George L. Carter originally constructed the “Model Mill” in 1909. In addition to several silos, the mill includes the main four-story warehouse, which has about 50,000 finished square feet, and two smaller two-story buildings of 5,200 square feet and 5,800 square feet.

It became the property of General Mills in 1931 after it was purchased for $1 million by Washburn-Crosley. The mill has been abandoned since being re-sold to Ohio-based Mennel Milling Co. in 2003 for $3.5 million.

Part of the plan includes the Chamber relocating its offices to the property, but if a developer comes in and wants to take the entire site, Mabrey said the board will consider that as well.

When the Chamber purchased the property, there weren’t as many developments along the State of Franklin corridor. A lot has changed in the last five years. Tupelo Honey Cafe plans to open its new location at the former CC&O Railroad Depot, a luxury apartment complex at the corner of South Roan Street and State of Franklin are being constructed and University Edge is now completed.

Mabrey said the Chamber’s purchase of the property was a statement that corridor was a big part of future development leading to the downtown area.

Despite no movement on the property, Mabrey said he believes the Chamber made the right investment.

“Who better to think about the future than a Chamber of Commerce to take a risk and to make an investment and to sit and work to make it happen because in time we will see a great result on that site, and those results will be because the Chamber of Commerce and our Foundation decided that this was the location for our literal foundation for the future,” he said.

Mabrey said the Chamber has had discussions with a number of interested parties, but none of those conversations have ever led to any type of deal being drawn up.

One of the biggest reasons development has stalled was because of the economic downturn, Mabrey said.

But he remains optimistic about the property’s future.

“Under no circumstances do we see it as anything other than an old building, and we hope that it will over time become used for a higher and greater use,” he said.

One choice Mabrey said the Chamber might have to consider is whether the property should be razed if no development deal ever comes to fruition.

While that’s an option, Mabrey said it’s an option the Chamber has not considered at this point, nor does he think they will.

“We’re doing everything we can to preserve and utilize that structure for its highest and best use,” he said.

That’s good news for people like Washington County Economic Development Council Director of Redevelopment Shannon Castillo, who believes the iconic structure needs to be revitalized.

“I don’t think it should be bulldozed. I think structures like that are worth saving if they can be revitalized, and that’s really the bottom line when it comes to revitalization of a downtown or any other city. It’s about taking the history and the structures that are worth saving and then saving them,” she said.

As the downtown area continues to take strides toward that kind of revitalization, Castillo said she sees the General Mills property as a catalyst for major development along West Walnut Street and believes there is a lot of opportunity to be had with developing the property.

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