Chamber opens doors to other investors for mill

Nathan Baker • Updated May 10, 2016 at 6:11 PM

With the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce again soliciting offers for the former Model Mill site, the former target of negotiations for the property said Tuesday rehabilitating the century-old building would likely take more than $7 million.

“It’s a project that requires a lot of capital, from investment perspective, and someone with a community-minded spirit,” real estate developer Joe Baker said. “It’s not about trying to build something to create profits.”

After 10 months of negotiation with Baker and his partners, Chamber CEO Gary Mabrey said the business advocacy group was “unable to secure a commitment from any interested parties toward a purchase.”

As a result, “the Chamber’s foundation has now opened the door to negotiations with in and out of town developers interested in the organization’s General Mills property,” Mabrey said in a statement emailed Monday night.

Architects and engineers working for Baker estimated 40,000 square feet of the original brick building could be restored and the later metal additions demolished at a cost of roughly $7 million. The row of concrete grain silos on the property’s west side did not factor into Baker’s plans, and the cost for either demolishing them or rehabilitating them weren’t included in his figures.

Click through a timeline of important Model Mill events:

Baker, who already rehabilitated two historic train depots in downtown Johnson City and is currently financing projects in an old hotel and a former car dealership on Wilson Avenue, envisioned his role in the mill’s restoration as more of a facilitator.

“We’ve talked to a lot of people,” he said. “The real goal here is to create something that is good for the community and builds on the efforts already being made in the city to revitalize downtown.”

One of the parties Baker brought to the table was East Tennessee State University. In December, Gary Baker and Terry Hummel, Baker’s partners, took ETSU representatives on a tour of the building, noting its potential for the college’s music and bluegrass programs.

Then, university Chief of Staff Jeremy Ross said the institution was interested, but that any involvement would have to be deemed feasible by the college’s committee system and the state.

The property, midway between ETSU and the downtown core, is seen as a keystone to development along the corridor by economic development officials. If the blighted appearance of the mill and its recognizable row of storage silos were removed, either through rehabilitation or new construction, other developments may follow suit, they believe.

The Chamber was close to selling the property to a North Carolina real estate development company two years ago, with plans to raze the mill and build multi-family housing, but legal opposition to the plans from nearby residents slowed the momentum and the company eventually backed out of its agreement.

In his statement, some of Mabrey’s comments seemed to address complaints lodged by community historians and residents of the Tree Streets neighborhood, the sources of legal challenges to the Chamber’s previous attempts to develop the mill property.

“The Chamber Roundation understands the importance of the General Mills location as a gateway between downtown, ETSU, State of Franklin Road, and the redevelopment of Walnut Street,” the statement read. “Any developer who approaches the Chamber Foundation about the property should consider how their ideas will complement the positive progress now under way for Johnson City and its neighborhoods.”

Mabrey did not mention whether the Chamber still intends to relocate its headquarters to the site, a previous goal when the organization purchased the property, but one that fell by the wayside with Evolve’s proposal, then was renewed with Baker’s potential involvement.

Email Nathan Baker at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jcpressbaker or on Facebook at facebook.com/jcpressbaker.

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