The Hamilton County Commission voted to survey a 2,100-acre farm in Sale Creek Wednesday, intending to purchase the property and convert it into an industrial park.
Days after the county confirmed its interest in the McDonald Farm, the commission approved a resolution by Mayor Jim Coppinger to sign a letter of intent with the owners of the property. That allows the county to begin a surveying process to ultimately determine if and for how much the property should be purchased.
Wednesday's decision does not obligate the county to buy the property, for which price negotiations have not yet begun, but allows it to spend money on geotechnical services, traffic studies and other related "due diligence" required before cost negotiations or a purchase could happen.
"I've had several calls, all positive, but people just wanting to know what's gonna happen with the property. And I have to remind them that we don't have the property," Coppinger said. "We don't even have a price on the property, we're just trying to, once again, do the work necessary to determine what's a fair price for the property."
To protect the county's interest, Commissioner Tim Boyd asked that Coppinger make sure the government has first rights to the property if the owners do decide to sell after the county has spent money toward a possible purchase.
"Is this letter of intent going to take this property off the market?" Boyd asked. "I mean we invest a lot of money to do this due diligence and then some land developer could come and take it out from under us. What assurance do we have that that's not going to happen?"
Coppinger said that can be worked into the intent-to-purchase letter, noting county leaders learned how to negotiate an industrial park project in the process of developing Enterprise South, a development in Tyner that houses Volkswagen, Amazon and a host of other companies at the site of a former ammunition plant.
The McDonald Farm property — which is mostly in Hamilton County with around 20% spreading into Rhea County — has all utilities available except for sewer, a number of "usable" sites and rail, which Coppinger said Sunday makes it desirable.
With the potential job growth and community development if the county is able to make it "another Enterprise South," Coppinger hopes to get some state funding to help with the site.
"We want to be able to make contact with some of our other, well, hopefully teammates on this, like the state of Tennessee and the governor's office, to see if we can maybe get some assistance somewhere down the road," he said.
McDonald Farm is owned by five trusts representing the heirs of the late Roy McDonald, a grocer who founded the Chattanooga Free Press (now the Times Free Press), all of whom would have to agree with any purchase agreement. Such an agreement also would also require commission approval.
Roy Exum, a relative representing one of the trusts, said Sunday that the family is unanimously on board to sell the property if the process is done transparently and in the interest of all parties.
Exum also noted that there is no recent appraisal of the value of the property.
Hamilton County and Rhea County property assessments value the combined property — which will be sold as a whole, according to both Exum and Coppinger — at just over $9 million, though the actual sale cost will be determined after an appraisal if both parties can reach an agreement.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or email@example.com or on Twitter @_SarahGTaylor.