The old Drexel furniture plant is in the county’s Whittier Industrial Park. The 36-acre site is equipped with a large building but sits in a flood zone, greatly decreasing its resale value. But Lynn Sprague believes it could be ideal for some sort of regional agricultural operation.
Sprague is executive director of the Southwestern North Carolina Resource Conservation and Development Council and was given the blessing of the Jackson County commissioners Monday to begin exploring possibilities for the site. A coalition of government, tribal and nonprofit entities will investigate different options.
“Our main focus would be agriculture, including forestry, but also agritourism, and it could go back to furniture,” Sprague said.
As director of the council, Sprague works on community conservation and agriculture projects with seven western counties in North Carolina and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. He is spearheading the Whittier project.
Instead of looking at how the facility could serve just Jackson County, Sprague said it would be beneficial to form an agricultural alliance with neighboring Swain County and the Eastern Band. Broadening the scope of the project would improve chances of receiving outside funding.
“It really expands your opportunity for grants,” Sprague said.
At a meeting with commissioners Monday, Sprague floated ideas such as a farmer’s market area, a packaging, shipping or refrigeration station for agricultural goods, or a processing space for wood products. Being in a flood zone, the space could be perfect for recreation or county fairground space as well.
As former Polk County agricultural economic development director, Sprague helped manage a similar project there, the Mill Spring Agricultural Center. He said he sees similar potential in Jackson County, where agriculture is a leading economic driver.
Sprague said he hopes to have a plan developed for the county within a year, though minor cleanup and repairs at the site will start sooner. The first step, however, will be a series of community meetings to solicit public input. The first of those will take place in Cherokee in October, though the exact date and location have not been set.
Both the tribe and Swain County’s economic development arm have expressed interest already.
Jackson County commissioners were also excited at the prospect of putting the space to use. Recently created federal flood maps placed the factory in the flood zone, even though it’s protected by an earthen levy. The county was unable to appeal its floodplain designation, however, which stalled efforts to sell the property.
Commissioner Charles Elders, who represents Whittier, said many people approach him with suggestions of what to do with that space. One idea he has heard would turn it into a livestock judging space for the 4-H club. Getting community input should be no problem, he said.
“That’s along the lines of what people are looking for,” Elders said. “I’m from that area, and I can tell you you’ll get community support.”
Cooperative Extension Agent Rob Hawk said he is also looking forward to working on the project and what it might mean for local agriculture if it can be made into a productive space. But first, a good plan needs to be put in place.
“The sky is the limit,” Hawk said. “All these old plants across the state, something needs to be done with them.”