Berry: Development of old Whirlpool site is joint effort

By CHRISTY ARMSTRONG Banner Staff Writer
Posted 4/11/15

Discussions on what will be done with the downtown Cleveland site recently vacated by appliance manufacturer Whirlpool are ongoing as local economic development officials look at options.

Doug …

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Berry: Development of old Whirlpool site is joint effort

AN AERIAL IMAGE from Google Earth shows the recently-vacated site of appliance manufacturer Whirlpool’s plants near downtown Cleveland. The site is currently under scrutiny as local stakeholders debate what to do with the area in the future.  Contributed photo, GOOGLE 
AN AERIAL IMAGE from Google Earth shows the recently-vacated site of appliance manufacturer Whirlpool’s plants near downtown Cleveland. The site is currently under scrutiny as local stakeholders debate what to do with the area in the future. Contributed photo, GOOGLE 
Posted

Discussions on what will be done with the downtown Cleveland site recently vacated by appliance manufacturer Whirlpool are ongoing as local economic development officials look at options.

Doug Berry, vice president of economic development for the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce, recently addressed what might be done with the buildings and how demands for things like housing could shape the look of downtown.

“This all began in 2010, when we worked with the company to retain their investment here in the community and get them into modern facilities,” Berry told the Bradley Sunrise Rotary Club.

He explained the Cleveland and Bradley County governments, the local industrial development board and Whirlpool all signed an agreement to work together for the future of the site.

“Five years later, Whirlpool has vacated out of all the production facilities [in the downtown area],” Berry said. The last productions line there ended in March.

The closure of the last downtown Whirlpool plant facility coincided with Cleveland’s participation in the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s Smart Communities Initiative.

The university chose Cleveland for the pilot year of the program, which puts university students studying things like architecture together with a Tennessee town to design possible solutions for real-life problems.

Berry said Cleveland had 19 projects on its application to join the initiative. One of them was the former Whirlpool site.

The company had three plants in the downtown area. The students looked at an 850-acre “study area” that spans from what is known as the Blythe/Oldfield neighborhood to downtown.

Explaining how the students had looked at ways to connect the neighborhood to downtown, Berry showed some examples of students’ drawings.

He said he agreed with the students that connecting the two areas will need to be a priority so residents will have easy access to businesses and other offerings. The access will become more important as the area’s population grows, he added.

Berry said current population estimates show Bradley County will have 32,000 new residents by the year 2035 — “almost another Cleveland in population.” An estimated 14,000 of those will be living in Cleveland’s city limits.

Before major changes can be made to the area containing the old Whirlpool site, there are issues planners will need to address.

One concern, Berry said, is making sure everything is up to current environmental standards.

Another concern is flooding. He said new development will have to include more green space to offset the amount of land that is paved.

“We ignored floodways in our early development,” Berry said.

However, he noted the greatest concern is the number of “barriers” that make pedestrian traffic between the downtown and nearby neighborhoods more difficult.

As some businesses located near the Blythe/Oldfield neighborhood have closed, he said residents of the neighborhood are having to look elsewhere for jobs.

“It is probably the single most important issue there,” Berry said.

It has been identified that two major features serve as obstacles from pedestrians traveling between the neighborhood and downtown — railroads and Inman Street.

In addition, the now-vacant Whirlpool site has buildings sitting on a lot of land. From downtown, Berry said it “takes up about 75 acres before you get to a community.”

Berry noted a 2004 MainStreet Cleveland plan includes the idea that the Inman Street problem could be addressed by taking the busy four-lane road down to three, including two lanes for directional traffic and one turn lane. The space gained by doing away with a lane could be used to “deepen” the sidewalks to accommodate more pedestrian traffic.

Another future focus will be doing more to make the downtown area a place pedestrians will want to go, perhaps making it a better location for retail businesses and restaurants.

Showing a slideshow of Smart Communities Initiative drawings, Berry showed his audience examples of what some improvements could look like.

However, he stressed the existing ideas for the area surrounding the Whirlpool site are just “talking points” right now. There have been no professional drawings done or estimates on cost of many of the students’ ideas.

Berry said he predicts a full-scale redevelopment of the area has the potential to be costly.

“We’ve not put any real numbers around any of this, but I can tell you today that the numbers in the long-term are big to affect change given the conditions we have over in that area,” Berry said.

Though the costs could make some projects difficult to fund, he also said he appreciates how the university initiative has given Cleveland several ideas to discuss.

In addition to connecting the Blythe/Oldfield neighborhood with downtown, the students were also instructed to look for a location that could represent a central hub for redevelopment.

They chose the Old Woolen Mill. Berry said they had done a good job of identifying a major location of focus.

“If we’re going to do something physically to start the redevelopment in that neighborhood, the most logical place to start is the Old Woolen Mill,” Berry said. “It’s a historic structure. It reflects the historic nature of the community and the neighborhood, and it has an active owner who has worked hard to try to keep that thing propped up.”

“Dr. [Ron] Coleman deserves a lot of credit for what he’s doing. … That is a huge task to take on as an individual or a family,” he added.

Ideas students came up with for the mill included adding more apartments, more retail store spaces, more parking and more green space, including land for a soccer field.

Berry said students also identified there is space in the Old Woolen Mill complex to build a new farmer’s market, a conference center and a business incubator.

Berry said the local governments should work on forming “an appropriate public-private relationship” to support such efforts to restore the downtown area.

While whatever is done inside the mill is up to the owner, he did said the city can do things like redo sidewalks to improve the aesthetic appearance of the area, something he learned while working with downtown redevelopment in Knoxville at a previous job.

For example, he said a local government could “partner” with a property owner on exterior improvements facing public streets — like fixing broken windows.

Berry noted the Old Woolen Mill has many broken windows, which can contribute to an area looking run-down even if good redevelopment efforts are taking place.

Public funding will be a concern for all downtown redevelopment projects moving forward, he said.

“We’ve gone five years without consistent commitment of funding at a local level,” Berry said. “This isn’t a criticism; it’s just a statement of fact. There’s a lot of demand for the monies at the local government level. We’ve got to position this and get enough buy-in from the community as a whole for us to be able to get a line item in the budget to start the work — no matter what it is.”

Just getting land ready for new use can require a great deal of funding, he explained. A recent environmental assessment in the area was budgeted to cost “almost $350,000 just to go and figure out if it is ready to work with.”

Realistically, the area’s redevelopment could take a long time, but Berry stressed the need for such efforts to begin.

“We’re looking at a 15 to 20-year plan for now,” Berry said. “We’re really working for the next generations.”

As some of the redevelopment efforts would include the Blythe/Oldfield neighborhood, he praised what is already being done to help residents improve their own neighborhood.

The United Way of Bradley County’s Impact Cleveland initiative has been assisting residents with everything from forming a neighborhood watch group to holding clean-up events.

Berry stressed that “critical” work will remain important for years to come, as residents do what they can to improve the neighborhoods, which will make larger improvements to the area easier, despite any “rough spots.” 

“The key to working through that is broad community conversation,” Berry said.

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