The Model Mills property could soon be sold, according to Chamber of Commerce President Gary Mabrey, and the prospective new owners may not need the expansive, white flour mill that has dominated West Walnut Street for 106 years. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City
The building at times has been called both an eyesore and an historic landmark, viewed with nostalgia and as a safety hazard, but whether revered or reviled, it appears the love-hate relationship between Johnson City and the Model Mills property could soon be coming to a close.
Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Gary Mabrey said a deal to sell the 106-year-old flour mill is the closest it’s ever been since the purchase of the Walnut Street property more than five years ago by the Chamber Foundation.
“I would say we’re more than just ‘in talks,’ ” Mabrey said Tuesday. “Right now we’re looking at arriving at an approach that would be best for them and us.”
Out of the handful of other offers placed on the property over the years, he said the current discussion with the unnamed company “seems to be better, more serious and diligent than the others.”
Although staying tight-lipped about the identity of the potential buyer to protect the negotiations, Mabrey hinted that the company has “a terrific background and a great track record all over the south,” but would not reveal the type of business that may be moving in.
Rumors have surrounded the property nearly since the Chamber’s purchase.
At times, according to public scuttlebutt, a brewery planned to renovate the mill for a restaurant and a residential developer planned to demolish the building to build luxury condos. The Chamber itself even announced the possibility of moving its headquarters to the site, but Mabrey said those plans have now fallen by the wayside.
“In the event the building were retained, we would not have a spot in it,” he said. “But we’re still open to a lot of possibilities as to where we might relocate.”
He said it’s likely that the whitewashed industrial building, and its row of imposing silos, won’t be needed by the incoming company.
“We are doing everything that we can to preserve the property, to do what’s good for the community and the Chamber and what’s good for the developer,” Mabrey said. “But ultimately, it’s up to the developer as to whether to maintain the integrity of the building.
“My sense that I get is that they are probably not going to use the building.”
According to real estate agent Andy Burke, with the TCI Group: Jerry Petzold Agency, the property’s proximity to downtown and the activity taking place there has generated a lot of interest.
“Over the last 18 months to two years, we’ve had a number of inquiries about the property,” Burke said. “Really, there’s been a good deal of interest, and I think the interest is probably expanding as you look at what’s going on in that corridor. The amount and types of development that’s taken place along State of Franklin make that property very attractive to somebody.”
On the TCI-Group’s website, the 4.8-acre property, with the four-story warehouse and two other accompanying buildings, is listed at $1.8 million.
The listing notes that the industrial property can be paired with the adjacent Mize store property, which is also for sale, to give the buyer 6 acres and a whole block of frontage on State of Franklin Road.
Redevelopment Director Shannon Castillo with the Washington County Economic Development Council said the sale and development of the Model Mills property is an integral part of the plan to connect nearby East Tennessee State University to the core of downtown.
“When you look at what we’re doing in downtown Johnson City, on Main and Market streets, as revitalization happens, it should create a ripple effect and spread out to the surrounding areas,” she said. “I think West Walnut Street is another piece of that puzzle, and I really believe something good is going to happen with that property. When it does, it will be a catalyst to getting other businesses onto Walnut Street and expanding the range out.”
Castillo said that adding more vibrant businesses to Walnut Street will create a walkable corridor that will entice students from the university to patronize shops and restaurants all the way into the heart of the city.
Under the Chamber’s ownership, Mabrey said the property has caused more than a few headaches when approaching maintenance and security concerns, but said the purchase was ultimately a good investment.
“It’s certainly been a challenge to maintain, and it’s stimulated a lot of artistic interest,” he said of the overgrown foliage and the near constant battle with graffiti artists. “It’s an old building and a magnet for folks to use as a canvas, but thankfully nobody has been hurt when they climb on it.
“But when we bought that property five years ago, the Chamber felt good about the future,” he added. “We had a vision for the university and State of Franklin, and it looks like a lot of that is now bearing fruit. “
Mabrey said the contract on the property could be finalized as early as Halloween, which would add a nice treat to the Chamber and the city’s basket.