Four years after crews demolished the former R.L. Stowe thread mill in Lupton City — and more than a year after the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County took over the property and promised to clean it up — the mill site remains an ugly mess of brick rubble and debris.
Officials say it could take another year or more to clear the site.
Nearby residents complain it is an eyesore that hurts their property values. State regulators consider the site an environmental hazard. And the developers of what could grow into one of the city's largest new residential developments near the site worry that unless it is cleaned up soon it could discourage some of those they hope will buy into their planned $250 million development.
In January 2017 — two months before he was re-elected as Chattanooga's mayor — Andy Berke stood beside the partially demolished mill and pledged to spend $1.5 million in fiscal 2017-2018 to clean up and remediate the site.
When work still hadn't begun 14 months later, city public works and economic development leaders met in March with the neighborhood association for Lupton City and promised to start the cleanup work in July or August. But such work now is not expected to start until next spring and probably won't be done until late next year or possibly 2020.
"There just seems to be delays, delays and more delays," said Mark Mullins, president of the Fairfax Heights/Bagwell City Neighborhood Association.
"We've just sort of become numb to it," said Patti Mitchell, a homeowner who bought a house in the Lupton City mill town 15 years ago and looks over the rubble of the demolished plant every day.
Kerry Hayes, deputy chief of staff for the city, blamed the deferred timetable on the complexity of reclaiming the property from the previous owners and the need to assess the condition and prepare a remediation plan for the rubble.
"We understand and sympathize with the residents in the area who are frustrated by the delays, but this is an incredibly complex site in terms of the chemicals in the ground and the amount of structures and brick rubble that need to be cleared," he said. "There is an extensive amount of demolition and cleanup that is required for this project."
The city and county acquired the 12-acre mill site in the summer of 2017 after the previous owners, who demolished the mill and removed its historic bricks and other materials, walked away from the project and failed to pay the taxes due on the property. Berke agreed to budget $1.5 million last year to fund the cleanup of the site, once the city got clear title to the property, and the city's Department of Public Works has been working since on a plan to remove some of the hazardous material and crush, bury and cap the rest of the rubble.
"Converting that brownfield into a greenfield may not be done until late 2019," Hayes said.
Once completed, the city will determine how it wants to dispose of the site.
The partially demolished thread plant contains a number of chemicals and materials that require a remediation plan with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Hayes said the city policy is to clean up contaminated sites such as the Lupton City site.
"TDEC has not yet received a redevelopment plan, a component of which would be the remedial strategy for the property," said TDEC spokeswoman Kim Schofinski.
Hayes said the city "is approximately two months away from bid documents being prepared" to solicit bids for the cleanup work.
"We anticipate it will take about a month for bids to come in," he said. "It will take approximately three months to review those and [make the bid] award. So we are into next spring, at the latest, when work will begin. We will try to expedite that."
Sell the mill before cleanup?
The developers of 155 riverfront acres adjacent to the mill site, a partnership known as Riverton, have approached the city and county about possibly buying the mill site as is and cleaning it up for its own use. That could save the city the $1.5 million cleanup cost and allow the new owner to target the cleanup to the intended ultimate use of the site.
But Hayes said the city wants to ensure that the property is properly remediated and is pursuing its own cleanup plan with geotech consulting firm SM&E.
Mitchell said local residents have met with both city officials and Riverton developers and most would support transferring the site to Riverton to clean up and use, particularly if it helps expedite the site remediation.
"If there is a willing buyer who wants to acquire this property and clean it up, it seems to me it just makes sense to sell them that property and help the city save $1.5 million for other uses," Mitchell said.
Preserving the mill history
The neighbors previously developed a plan to convert the mill site into a park, walking trails and a space for a farmer's market, along with preserving the smokestack of the former Dixie Mercerizing Co. mill that was erected in 1922.
Mullins said the neighborhood association is moving to try to designate the 220-home mill town in Lupton City as a historic neighborhood.
The thread mill was developed nearly a century ago by Chattanooga businessman John T. Lupton as a company town. Workers at the mill lived in company-owned homes and played golf, basketball or swam at a company-owned golf course, gymnasium and swimming pool. Dixie Mercerizing (later Dixie Yarns and now the Dixie Group) also had its own post office and company store.
The original Dixie mill was sold in 1998 to R.L. Stowe Co., which ultimately shut down the mill in 2009.
"This was such a forward-looking community when it was developed in the 1920s by John T. Lupton. He was creating what a Seaside community today is all about," said Becky Cope English, a Chattanooga Realtor and partner with the Riverton development, referring to the master planned community near Panama City Beach in Florida. "This was a community designed around people and giving them a work, live and play environment for all that they needed."
Building a new Lupton City
Riverton is looking for a modern version of such a community (without the textile mill) with its master plan to build 400 or so homes around a 45,000-square-foot town village with neighborhood restaurants, stores and medical offices.
In August, Riverton submitted a plat plan for the first phase of the development to the Chattanooga/Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission, which will consider the proposal at its Oct. 8 meeting. The Chattanooga City Council is scheduled to vote on that plan on Nov. 13.
"We're anticipating that we'll be able to start doing some preliminary pre-sales on some of the new lots by the end of the year," English said. "But we don't want to rush anything because we want to make sure that everything is thoughtfully and carefully well done."
English said so far the delays in cleaning up the old mill site are not hurting Riverton. But she said more delays could limit some of the curbside appeal of the development, since prospective buyers will enter Riverton on roads going near or along the old mill site.
Most of the mill was toppled in 2015, although the old mill office, smokestack, gym and golf course remain. Riverton bought the golf course as part of 210 acres the developers purchased in January from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, which bought the riverfront property in 2001 when it planned to locate its corporate headquarters on the site. Ultimately, former Mayor Bob Corker convinced BlueCross to build its $299 million headquarters on Cameron Hill in downtown Chattanooga.
Greentech Homes bought some of the former mill buildings with plans to build 30 new single-family, detached homes on the site and nearby property of the former Lupton City Post Office and community gym. But GreenTech withdrew its request after many neighbors balked at the plans to rezone the site from M-1 manufacturing to an RTZ (urban overlay) zoning.
"We're all glad that there weren't all those houses added along our street, and now we just hope that someone will clean up the mill," said Barbara Stephens, who moved into a house across from the demolished mill site on Mercer Avenue three years ago. "Our Realtor said the city was going to clean up the mess when we moved in, and we're just waiting for that to occur."
But not everyone in the community is anxious for the mill site to be redeveloped.
"I know this is an eyesore to some, but I love the ruins and I'd rather see them than a bunch of condos that might change the quiet nature of our community," said Liza Haley, who has rented her Mercer Street home across from the mill for the past two years.
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6340.
Lupton City history
› Chattanooga businessman John T. Lupton in the 1920s bought 1,000 acres of farm land on the Tennessee River to develop a manufacturing community called Lupton City for the yarn and thread maker then known as Dixie Mercerizing Co. As business grew, houses, a post office, church, gym, movie theater, swimming pool and golf course were built.
› R.L. Stowe Mills acquires Dixie Yarns in 1998 and operates the mill until it shuts down in 2009.
› BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee bought 210 acres near the mill in 2001 for a new corporate campus, but abandoned those plans in favor of building its headquarters downtown on Cameron Hill.
› Lupton City LLC, a real estate partnership connected to the Dockery Group in Peachtree City, Ga., buys the 12-acre mill site in 2012 and tears down the mill to recycle usable bricks, metal and wood. But the reclamation effort stops after several months before the mill site is cleaned up and after wood planks treated with creosote are exposed, leaving the mill as a Brownfield site.
› In 2017, the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County acquire the mill site after Lupton City LLC fails to pay property taxes. Chattanooga budgets $1.5 million for cleanup.
› Riverton Development Group bought 210 acres in Lupton City in January 2018 for $8.1 million and began preparing plans for housing, commercial and recreational complex