Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
The Town of Franklin has owned what is known as the Whitmire property since 2004. For many years, town officials have transpired to determine a use for the 12.71 acre tract at 15 First Street. For the last few years, portions of the property have been used for individuals to play disc golf, and more recently a portion of the land was set aside for a future skate park. However, a special-called meeting of the Town of Franklin Town Council convened on Tuesday, Aug. 30, in the Town Hall Board Room, to generate additional thoughts and ideas regarding potential future uses of the Whitmire property.
At the meeting’s outset, Mayor Jack Horton asked long-time council member Joe Collins to provide the board and meeting attendees with historical background about the Whitmire Property. Collins explained that the property, which originally included an early 1900s-built home, was purchased from the Whitmire family, long-time Franklin residents. (Western Carolina University’s football stadium is named for E.J. Whitmire.) The initial plan for the property was to build a town hall, police department, and public works facility. However, advice from planning experts at the time focused on locating such services downtown instead on the outskirts of town. Thus, the basement at Town Hall at 95 N.E. Main Street, which had previously housed the police department, was renovated to accommodate Town Council meetings, etc. The police department was relocated to Palmer Street, and the Whitmire property sat vacant.
In 2018, a thorough study was completed to “collect and view current plans, strategies, and project information related to community and areawide economic development initiatives…” related to the property. Various mixed uses were considered, taking into consideration the property’s flood plain, proximity to the Little Tennessee River, and flat spaces.
After Collins provided some background, Mayor Horton asked each council member to share thoughts on what he or she envisioned would be the best use for the Whitmire property.
“The town has a nice piece of property that is already equipped with water, sewer, and natural gas,” he said. “So what do we want to do with it? What’s a good public use for it? The board has been wrestling with what to do with this asset – to make it beneficial for the people in this jurisdiction…taxpayers who paid for this property.”
Town planner Justin Setzer shared posterboard images of the property with the council to remind each member about the dimensions, and other information and he also pointed out that the property is currently zoned all commercial: C2.
Each council member shared input, ranging from mixed use to recreation/entertainment to residential. David Culpepper offered, “The Whitmire property is why I got involved as a member of council. I approached the town about a bicycle pump track on the property and then I became a council member after that. I felt then and I feel now that until we invest in the youth with outdoor recreational opportunities, we will not see problems with our youth cease to exist.” Culpepper added that when youth are not interested in athletics, and instead might be interested in cycling, skateboarding, roller skating, rock climbing, and more, they have not had a place in town to gather with peers to participate in such activities. “We’re not going to grow as a town if we don’t take care of our kids.”
“I agree with David,” said Adam Kimsey. “I think using the property for recreation is a good option.”
“Most importantly, I would like to stop the can from rolling down the road,” said Stacey Guffey. “We’ve had long enough to think about what to do with this property. After we decided to allow the skate park to be there, I now see the value of a recreation complex that includes other opportunities.”
Rita Salain said, “It’s a beautiful piece of property and I think it was smart for the council to purchase it, but I’m convinced mix use development is the way we should go. Studies show over and over again that we don’t have enough housing in Macon County.”
Collins indicated he would like to see an amphitheater, possibly for outdoor concerts, Shakespeare and other plays, as well as a pavilion built in the “open green space.”
Mayor Horton brought up that before anything might be constructed at the Whitmire property, an archeological study may be necessary. “There’s a high probability that there could be Cherokee artifacts since this area was populated by Cherokee.” In addition, the Whitmire property is just across the Little Tennessee River from the Nikwasi Mound.
All in all, the council agreed that Town Manager Amie Owens and staff could work on bringing ideas forward and establish a preliminary plan that focused on three potential use priorities for the Whitmire property: recreational, entertainment, and housing. Stacy Guffey made an official motion and it was approved.
The council also agreed to explore opportunities to work with the Macon County Board of Commissioners on future plans for the Whitmire property.