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Jackson County looks for grant funding to revitalize Drexel Property in Whittier

By Kristin Fox

For many years, Jackson County has owned the Drexel property which used to be home to the Drexel Heritage Furniture Plant. At a recent meeting of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, county officials voted unanimously to allow the Jackson County Office of Economic Development to apply for an Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant to perform engineering work on the county owned property.

The grant will allow the Jackson County Economic Development to perform an extensive engineering study to help definitively determine the best use for the site.

The grant application is for $355,000 and Jackson County is eligible for 80 percent funding under this program. The grant will require a $71,000 match commitment from the county if it is awarded the grant.

The county owned property is a 28-acres parcel at 271 Clearwood Drive approximately one mile south of Whittier, NC. The property contains the remnants of an old furniture mill that closed circa 2000. The project location is in the Middle Tuckasegee Watershed within the Special Flood Hazard Area, a 100-year floodplain of the Tuckasegee River.

An existing earth berm exists along the Tuckasegee River, ostensibly constructed to protect the old mill site from flooding during extreme storm events. The earth berm is roughly 2,000 feet long and is generally oriented northwest to southeast, with the Tuckasegee River on the east side and the old mill site on the west side. No information is available regarding the construction of the earth berm.

The most recent flood map, developed by the North Carolina Floodplain Mapping Program (NCFMP), shows the old mill site in the Special Flood Hazard Area and a floodway transecting the site. The berm is not shown as protecting the old mill site from flooding.

The county is seeking assistance with the evaluation of the berm in order to have it recognized as a certified levee according to CFR Part 65.10 of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) regulations, thereby providing flood protection to the old mill site.

To undertake this evaluation various professional services will be required including civil and geotechnical engineering as well as flood and levee hydraulic modeling specialists. The preliminary engineering report will help to evaluate the feasibility of the economic re-development of the old mill site. The report will also include a study on the feasibility of utilizing the existing berm as a protecting levee.

Civil engineers will develop a conceptual site layout. In achieving this goal, the firm selected will perform charrettes with county staff to identify opportunities afforded by the site. These may include an agricultural event center, greenway trails, river access, industrial use, river access, a natural resource education center, and other similar projects.

The proposed time schedule for the project is as follows:
End date December 29, 2024
Project started January 2, 2024
Release RFP February 1, 2024
Consultant selection April 23, 2024
Final report due December 29, 2024

The project directly aligns with several of EDA’s investment priorities, including “Equity” and “Recovery and Resilience.” By finding additional opportunities to connect a rural area to commerce, economic opportunities, and access to public amenities, such as access to natural assets, this project will advance equity for those living in an underserved community.

Although the census tract in which the site is located is not considered to be an “area of high poverty,” the location is less than a mile from other census tracts that are identified as “areas of high poverty” including Jackson and Swain Counties. A significant portion of the estimated impact area would fall within those two census tracts.

Despite the challenges of a growing tourism economy, Jackson County leaders hope to continue capitalizing on the area’s strengths such as the natural assets. These assets that attract visitors also offer great potential for growing local businesses centered around them. While traditional manufacturing opportunities have decreased, the county seeks to make this area an attractive place for companies to expand outdoor gear manufacturing.

Recent focus has been placed on the outdoor economy sector by county leaders and external forces alike. This new focus has created an ecosystem of potential for existing business owners and for entrepreneurs’ interest in using the space.

While Jackson County has experienced remarkable population growth and established itself as a tourism-driven economy, the wages offered by many of these jobs fail to meet the living wage threshold.

Despite the county’s economic prosperity, the median earnings for tourism-related occupations fall significantly below the county’s median household income, making it difficult for residents to achieve a decent standard of living. This is particularly true for the area of impact for the Drexel project, which has a large number of tourism-related businesses.

Clear potential exists for the development of new opportunities that will capitalize on existing assets, such as the outdoor sector, which may offer high paying and more sustainable jobs going forward. The county has a unique opportunity within this impact area to capitalize on those existing assets that are ripe for economic diversification.

In the midst of the challenges and changes brought about by the ever-growing tourism economy in Jackson County, the Drexel Heritage Furniture Plant stands as a symbol of untapped potential. Constructed in the 1960’s, the 82,000 square foot building played a vital role in the local community until its permanent closure in the early 2000’s. After its closure, the site was purchased by Jackson County. The site was vacant until 2016 when it was leased to Thomas Valley Growers LLC who transformed it into an agricultural packing center for local farmers. While this venture has been successful, it only utilizes a fraction of the available space, leaving the majority of the site vacant.

This dormant site holds tremendous promise for growth and development in a county that is in need of economic diversification that will capitalize on its existing assets. Recognizing this potential, the county hopes to utilize EDA funding to complete a project focused on exploring the future potential of the site.

The project consists of two key components — a feasibility study and a geotechnical exploration that will be detailed in a preliminary engineering report. The county is fully aware of the necessity to conduct a thorough assessment of the property’s potential and is proposing to engage a consultant to undertake these evaluations.

The purpose of the feasibility study is to comprehensively analyze various factors, including economic viability, environmental considerations, and regulatory requirements. By meticulously examining these aspects, the study aims to determine the feasibility of developing the site. Valuable insights and recommendations gained from this study will help shape the future utilization of the property ensuring that it aligns with the needs and aspirations of the local community.

This project holds great promise for the economic prosperity of Jackson County. By harnessing the possibilities offered by the Drexel Heritage Furniture Plant site, the county can create new opportunities for commerce and cultivate greater resiliency. It is a strategic step towards building a more vibrant and inclusive local economy that will benefit the residents and stakeholders of Jackson County for years to come.


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