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30-year Chamber leader will step down after HQ move to Model Mill

Johnson City Press • Dec 18, 2018 at 3:03 PM

The Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce plans to move its headquarters to the Model Mill.

If you just felt the twinge of deja vu, don’t worry, you’re not the only one.

More than 10 years after first purchasing the closed flour mill and two years after selling it again, the Chamber announced Tuesday its intention to lease 7,400 square feet in the historic Johnson City property from the firm currently rehabilitating it, with plans to buy the floorspace in seven years.

The emailed announcement from the business-promoting organization also reported the planned departure of Chamber President and CEO Gary Mabrey, who has helmed the organization for 30 years, including the past decade during its search for a new home.

In the release, Mabrey applauded the vote by the Chamber’s board of directors authorizing the lease and purchase agreement with mill owners R&G Ventures, a company formed by Rab and Grant Summers to redevelop the property to serve as a headquarters for their Summers-Taylor paving and building enterprise.

“It is the culmination of a vision that began a decade ago and now can become a reality,” Mabrey said, before adding that he plans to stay at the Chamber until mid-2019 to allow him to be part of the effort to raise funds for the new headquarters. Once he leaves the Chamber, Mabrey only said he will “move on to new pursuits,” but did not say what those pursuits will be.

Board of Directors Chairman Andy Dietrich, whose leadership role will end in 2019, said a nationwide search for a new president will begin in the coming weeks. Mabrey will help the new president become acclimated to the job before he departs.

“We would not be in the great position that we are in without the more than 30 years of Gary Mabrey’s leadership,” Dietrich said.

The Chamber’s relationship with the Model Mill property has been long and not always genial.

In 2008, the organization bought the mill for $400,000 using funds from a campaign launched to help the Chamber move out of its current building on East Market Street near the Municipal and Safety Building.

After realizing rehabilitating the property alone was too expensive, the Chamber put the property up for sale, and eventually entered into an agreement to sell it to a North Carolina company that planned to raze the building and construct apartment buildings on the site. Objections from nearby residents and businesses to the development plans led to lawsuits, and the property development company backed out of the sale.

The Chamber then tried for nearly a year to negotiate an acceptable deal for the property with developer Joe Baker, who has rehabilitated other historic Johnson City buildings, but those negotiations were fruitless.

The Summers family bought the mill in late 2016 for $570,000 with a more than $7-million rehabilitation plan in mind to bring retail, residential and commercial space to the 53,000-square-foot complex.

Last year, Mabrey lobbied the Johnson City Public Building Authority to sell a vacant lot on State of Franklin Road across from East Tennessee State University for the Chamber’s new headquarters, but the board sold the land to restaurateur Tony Vella for a second Cootie Brown’s location.

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