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Staff file photo by Troy Stolt / McDonald Farm holds 2,170 acres, most of which is in Hamilton County though several hundred acres are located in Rhea County.

The owners of McDonald Farm are asking $15.39 million for the 2,170-acre site in what could become the biggest new industrial park in Hamilton County in about two decades.

A spokesman for Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said Thursday that the county expects to make an offer for the property, though it's still assessing the massive tract near Sale Creek.

"Due diligence is being done simultaneously with the appraisal from the McDonald Farm," said spokesman Mike Dunne in an email.

Bryan Rudisill, vice president of NAI Charter Real Estate in Chattanooga, said it started working with the farm's owners, the McDonald family, about a month or so ago to market the site.

"We had an offer pretty quick out of the shoot," he said, adding that it "didn't get very far."

Rudisill said Hamilton County is eyeing the parcel located off U.S. Highway 27 as a multi-use facility such as Enterprise South industrial park in Tyner.

"They're got to look at it from that vantage point and all the infrastructure required for industrial development purposes," he said. "They've got to figure that out. They're looking at that in earnest."

Rudisill added the property could remain as a farm, hold new housing or become a mixed-use site for residences and commercial space.

"It could be a trophy recreational piece," he said. Or, Rudisill said, a buyer may want to maintain the land's history and raise horses or cattle.

He said that making it useful for residential purposes is a real option.

"There'd be plenty of vision for that I'd imagine and a lot of demand for that type of development as well," the real estate broker said.

But Charles Wood, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's vice president for economic development, said late last year when the idea of the county purchasing the site arose that there's a limited-access highway nearby and a rail line splits the land.

Wood said the farm lacks a sewer line, which would have to be run to the site.

"You can build a sewer line, but it's hard to build a four-lane divided highway and build a new railroad," he said.

Rudisill said the owners want what's best for them, noting the farm has been in the family for eight generations. But, he said, they also want to see "the right thing" done for the property.

"There's room for negotiations," Rudisill said. "It's not just a Hail Mary of who shows up with the most-est will be the prize winner."

Wood said that Enterprise South is almost out of available sites for businesses. Outside of about 300 acres which VW freed up for use by possible auto suppliers, there's only one tract left and that's about 10 acres, the official said.

The Centre South Riverport off Amnicola Highway has only one 20-acre parcel still available after Southern Champion Tray, the Chattanooga-based manufacturer of paperboard items for the bakery and food service industry, announced plans last summer to buy a 56-acre location there.

City or county industrial parks in Lookout Valley, Ooltewah and Bonny Oaks are full, Wood said.

While Hamilton County is part of a regional approach toward economic development, Wood said there's little in the way of 100-acre or so ready sites in the 16-county area. McMinn County, Tennessee, may have one or two, but other possible locations aren't close to the interstates, he said.

Bradley County is pitching its new Spring Branch Industrial Park, a 331-acre site just off Interstate-75. But Wood said the largest individual tract is 50 acres.

Rudisill said that at Enterprise South, which the city and county began acquiring more than 20 years ago, government provided space for business and recreation.

The McDonald Farm property sits at the base of the Cumberland Plateau and putting in biking and walking trails is valuable, he said.

James and Kitty McDonald first settled in the area at the foot of Walden Ridge in 1821, according to the farm's website. From that point forward, the farm has been continuously owned and operated by members of the McDonald family. As a working farm, nearly 700 acres was used to cultivate hay and cattle.

In the autumn months, the farm has welcomed visitors for activities including picking out pumpkins, finding one's way through a corn maze, petting baby farm animals, and taking hay rides.

In the past, the farm helped supply the milk, eggs, and other produce to the former Home Stores grocery chain, which "Papa" Frank McDonald started and passed down to his son Roy.

Roy McDonald took what he learned running the Home Stores and started the Chattanooga Free Press in 1933, which originated as a weekly newsletter featuring stories, comics, and advertisements for the Home Stores. Within three years, he had turned his company's newsletter into a daily newspaper.

The Chattanooga Free Press eventually was sold in 1998 to WEHCO Media and merged with The Chattanooga Times the following year, creating the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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