Rossville mill's future in doubt

Rossville mill's future in doubt

January 11th, 2010 by Andy Johns in News

ROSSVILLE -- The owner of the Peerless Mill and Rossville remain at an impasse over the mill's future, and a lawsuit filed last week is not likely to help.

A copy of the suit, provided by mill owner Les Coffey, accuses the city of "a concerted effort to interfere with the business" of the mill. The document says Mr. Coffey is seeking more than $14 million in damages from the city.

Rossville Mayor Johnny Baker said he has not been served with the suit and isn't even sure of its legitimacy.

"The city has done just about everything short of bowing down to work with him," Mr. Baker said.

Both Mr. Coffey and city officials say they'd like to see the building turned into a mixed-use development with condos and retail space. Mr. Coffey said he's already marked off space for 40 apartments.

However, Mr. Coffey has said the city wants his property and has trumped up accusations and denied business licenses to try to bankrupt him. City leaders say Mr. Coffey has refused to work with zoning officials to zone his land properly and has ignored environmental guidelines.

The suit, filed Wednesday in federal court in the Northern District of Georgia, came the day after the Rossville Downtown Development Authority discussed the mill's future. Authority Chairman Ron Wade called the mill an "instrumental piece" to the city's progress.

The mill sits on 27 acres in the middle of the Walker County town, with easy access to U.S. Highway 27 and Interstate 75.

Vice Mayor Teddy Harris, who also is a member of the development authority, said city officials would love to work with the mill but have run into a stone wall.

"There's really nothing we can do without a cooperative landowner," he said.

Mr. Coffey has been cited for contempt of court and accused of environmental violations related to asbestos removal.

He maintained Friday that he never has been fined for asbestos issues. After looking around the mill at some of the renovations he's made, he said the city already has a cooperative owner.

He said one 6,000-square-foot demo apartment is nearly finished, including painting and bathroom fixtures. He said he has spent $800,000 in improvements since he bought the mill in July 2007.

Staff photo by Danielle Moore/Chattanooga Times Free Press Les Coffey, owner of Peerless Mill in Rossville, walks up a flight of stairs leading to the residential lofts he recently created at the mill.

Staff photo by Danielle Moore/Chattanooga Times Free Press Les...

"It doesn't look like an uncooperative landowner to me, does it?" Mr. Coffey asked.

Development authority associate member Bobby McNabb said the group had "refocused" its efforts on other projects because the mill seems stuck in limbo.

"That used to be top priority, and I think it dragged the group down," Mr. McNabb said.

If the mill became available or if the sides could reach an agreement, Mr. McNabb said, he would love to see a mixed-use development with condos, a park and retail space. For that plan to work not much of the mill can be left standing, according to Mr. McNabb.

Mr. Coffey said he also wants a very similar finished product with apartments, specialty shops and a mixed-use facility.

"It's not in a good situation," Mr. Wade said. "We're just not sure right now what the future holds."