Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer

The Franklin Town Council hired the consulting firm WR-Martin last September to evaluate the Whitmire Property and determine what use would be best and most beneficial for the town of Franklin and its residents. After reviewing the property and comparing several different potential uses, WR-Martin informed the town of Franklin Monday night that developing the property into a passive recreation park would best meet the town’s objective of utilizing the 12.71 acres of land to yield the greatest economic and quality-of-life returns to the Franklin community.

Mike Morgan with WR-Martin presented to the town council Monday night and explained that community factors such as adding value to the quality of life, increasing the total property tax collected, addressing housing needs, economic development objectives, protecting existing neighborhoods, potential for more jobs, site and historic preservation consideration, supports and complements the public assets, adding value to the downtown area, and feasibility of developing the project were all considered when determining if a project would be possible for the Whitmire Property.

Seven potential uses for the property were considered by WR-Martin, each ranked based on how they scored using the community factors identified by the town. While a passive recreational cultural use outranked all other possibilities by at least two points, Martin presented the top three proposals to the board.

Passive Recreational Cultural Use 

Morgan said that the idea of a park met seven out of the 11 objectives that were considered by the consulting firm. According to Morgan, a passive recreation park would add value to the quality of life, would allow for the continued town control of the property, would preserve the site and historic aspect of the property, would support and complement public assets, add value to the downtown area, and have the feasibility of developing the project in the future.

A passive recreation park would include things such as walking trails, picnic areas, disc golf, large rocks for bouldering, and even an outdoor pavilion for concerts similar to what Jackson County does with their Bridgepark Pavilion.  Morgan said that a recreation park could become a community destination, linking the downtown area, the Little Tennessee River Greenway, the river, biking and pedestrian routes and cultural assets, all significant priorities of the current town council.

A year before the town spent $13,800 to hire the consulting firm, a group of interested residents in Franklin pitched the town on an idea similar to the one WR Martin recommended Monday night. Clarke and Heather Ball, co-founders of Outdoor Education & Adventure Center presented to the town in 2016 the idea of developing a recreation park that could potentially contain all of the features WR Martin suggested. Ball’s presentation to the board marks the second time a group of citizens had presented an outdoor activity option for the Whitmire Property and while both groups pitched similar concepts for the property, the town of Franklin didn’t discuss or support either option beyond the presentations.

Land Banking 

The second ranking option Morgan presented was “land banking,” which would essentially mean not selling the property at all and to continue what the town is currently doing. Land banking met 5.5 of the town’s 11 objectives with the greatest benefit being to hopefully get the value of the land’s appraisal to increase to more than what the town paid for it. As it stands, Morgan said the Whitmire Property’s value is slightly less than what the town originally purchased the property for. Land banking would ideally address that. One step further than just land banking the Whitmire Property’s 12.71 acts, which has sat dormant for nearly 13 years, Morgan suggested the town consider purchasing a neighboring tract of land and also land banking that property for an undesignated number of years. Morgan said there are three acres currently for sale for around $300,000 that could bring the total property to 15 acres and be more attractive for future development.

Multi-use residential/commercial 

The third highest ranking option Morgan presented was selling the Whitmire Property for mixed development housing and commercial use. The proposed project met five of the town’s 11 objectives but came with a lot of “what-ifs.” Morgan said while developing the property to something similar like the Biltmore Park, with commercial property on the first floor and condos on the top would be excellent in theory and would address housing needs for the area, he said a project of such magnitude would be solely contingent on taking the developers’ word on their intent of the property.

Morgan cautioned that while developers attempting to purchase the property might promise such a proposal would be their plan, once the property is sold, the town would have little to no control over it actually happening.

Franklin resident Angela Moore addressed the board during the meeting’s public comment period and said she was disappointed in the town leadership’s decision to spend nearly $14,000 of taxpayer dollars for a report that could have easily been done in house at no cost. Moore noted that the firm that was hired shouldn’t be to blame, because they did the very job they were hired to do, but rather that she was disappointed in the town for spending money to hire a firm, which is not based in Franklin, to recommend what is best for the town, only to have the recommendation to be what residents had already been asking for for years.