ETSU considering space in rehabbed mill

Nathan Baker • Dec 29, 2015 at 9:22 AM

East Tennessee State University officials are considering a business relationship with Joe Baker and his real estate development partners that would bring a university presence to the Model Mill, if preliminary plans to rehabilitate the century-old landmark advance.

ETSU Chief of Staff Jeremy Ross said Monday that he, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Bert Bach and President Brian Noland toured the blighted West Walnut Street mill shortly before the beginning of the winter break. Gary Baker and Terry Hummel, part of the group working with Joe Baker to rehabilitate a handful of historic downtown Johnson City buildings, invited the three for the tour and asked if ETSU had any interest in the space.

“We do have an interest, but I don’t know if we have a need that makes sense,” Ross said. “We have a facilities retreat scheduled the week we get back, and that’s one of the things we’re going to discuss.”

He said Gary Baker and Hummel specifically asked whether classrooms for the college’s music and bluegrass programs would be a good fit if the mill were to be restored, but the university will consider the spatial needs of all departments before making the decision.

Joe Baker and company have already reached out to the Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies program, offering time and space in a music venue soon to be built in the former Sherwood Chevrolet at 71 Wilson Ave. His company, East TN LLC, bought the empty car dealership for $609,000, and he intends to place a sports bar and restaurant in the ground floor and a state-of-the-art music venue on the second.

Ross, noting several facilities projects already underway at ETSU, said the facilities group would look at the needs of the university and consider the costs of locating in the mill. The college hopes to have an answer for Baker by February.

“It’s exciting that somebody wants to take a blighted part of downtown and do something with it,” he said. “We just have to determine if that project’s strengths will help ETSU and if our strengths will help with what they’re trying to do.”

Baker has been in talks with the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce, the current owner of the mill, since June, and is now the main focus of negotiations, Chamber President and CEO Gary Mabrey confirmed two weeks ago.

But the enormous and neglected 106-year-old building would take a substantial investment to rehab, Joe Baker said, and would require “a lot of commitments from a lot of folks,” including those in the private and public sectors, to make the project viable.

In announcing the serious preliminary talks, Mabrey said the current aim is to allow the Chamber some space in the facility for its headquarters, which was the reason the business group bought the property seven years ago.

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.

Talks between Joe Baker and the Chamber are still in the conceptual stages, but should reach a conclusion in the next three months.

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

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