Busby gives mill site update at West Point Lions Club meeting

Published 10:00 am Friday, May 20, 2022

At the West Point Lions Club meeting on Wednesday, Deputy Director Chris Busby of the Chambers County Development Authority spoke about the CCDA’s plans for the old Lanett Mill site.

Certain areas of the site aren’t suitable for buildings, Busby said, because they’re in a flood zone. The CCDA worked with an engineering firm that created a preliminary plan for the site. He handed one of the Lions Club members a sheet of paper showing a concept for how the site might look.

One of the CCDA’s goals in developing the site is to not put anything in place that would disrupt future development.

“Another thing we had to think about was that that is on a state highway, so we’re dealing with the Alabama Department of Transportation,” Busby said. “We know that we’re not going to be able to have an access for every single business that goes in there. So, one of the things we said [was], ‘Where’s the access going to be, and how are we going to do it?’’”

Busby said the Development Authority plans to have two access points to the future development — a main entrance and another on the north side, close to West Point.

“And then basically have an interior road that connects… You’d have store frontage on the front and then your actual entrances will be on the back side,” he said.

In the design, the CCDA tried to create a public green space in the flood zone. Ideally, the green space would have river access, Busby said, but that could be problematic because of the nearby railroad.

Busby brought up the Environmental Protection Agency’s targeted brownfield assessment grant, which the CCDA applied for in April.

“This is a $100,000 program that requires no match from the county, city or us as the Development Authority,” he said.

Busby said the grant will allow the CCDA to have the mill site thoroughly examined for contamination.

“We’re going to go in there and drill into the ground, drill out core samples, test the soil, see if any contamination is happening in any part of it,” he said. “We’ll go back on that berm pile back there and see if anything has leaked from there into the ground and really just determine, based on phase one and phase two, what exactly we’re working with on the entire site.”

If significant contamination is found, the EPA will help the CCDA develop a plan on how to clean it, Busby said. 

Busby said that the tests should be done by the end of the summer so that the CCDA can start cleaning the site in the fall.

“So while this is going on, we’re still marketing the site, and I can tell you without going into specifics that we’re working retail projects there right now,” he said. “The projects are closer to the solar site right there. So, we’re enthusiastic about those.”

Busby said there have been discussions on putting residential or mixed-use buildings on the backside of the site.

“Leadership and our team really didn’t like that idea for multiple reasons,” he said. “Probably primarily it’s because you’re right next to a railroad track … when I say right next to, you would be on top of it.”

Busby said it’s difficult to estimate the cost of cleaning up the mill site because the weight of the material on it is unknown.

“We’ve worked with some of our partners to basically go out there in a drone and map out all of these, what were debris piles, estimate weights of those and then do some engineering equations to figure out how much it would actually cost,” he said.

Estimates of how much it would take to clean up the site have ranged from $2.5 million to $5 million, he said.

Busby said CCDA wants to preserve historical parts of the mill site such as the bus stop in the front. He said the water tower could serve as a centerpiece, possibly having a roundabout around it. But the water tower could also present some problems. Not only does it need to be cleaned up, but if there’s water in the tower, it might contaminate the ground if it gets out.

“It’s also a liability for us as the development authority, as owners of the property,” he said. “So, it increases insurance rates. So, we’ve talked with the city council and the mayor about what are their visions for how to use the water tower and how to kind of keep it as a point of the city’s history.”

Busby said the mill site is the last publicly owned property where the City of Lanett can increase its revenue.

“So, that’s not just from tax revenue from sales tax but from utility usage,” he said. “We have to make sure that they understand the importance of this and work hand in hand with them to bring in companies or businesses that are going to provide a long-term benefit to the city.”

At the beginning of the meeting, Busby gave a brief overview of the mill site’s history.

“It [shut down] in ‘06, and then it was owned by some private individuals who were going in there and tearing wood and bricks out and trying to get reclaimed materials to make some money off of it,” he said. “The Recession hit. Tear-down stalled. It was in a state of disrepair for many, many years.”

Busby said the site was an eyesore, and eventually the City of Lanett approached the CCDA about helping them get it cleaned up.

The CCDA took advantage of a capital loan program through the Alabama Municipal Electric Authority, the power provider for the City of Lanett.

“We utilized those funds to purchase the site from the former owner,” he said. “Pretty quickly after we purchased it, we commenced cleanup. We probably got more done in three months than had been done in 10 years.”

He said there were some things on the property they couldn’t remove because they didn’t know if it was hazardous. For example, some of the wood might contain arsenic. He said the closest hazardous waste landfill that accepts outside waste is in Salem.

“We bought it, I think, in May of ‘19, and pretty much almost immediately, we started getting some interest from Tractor Supply,” he said. “And we kind of kept it quiet for a while because we said, ‘Well, you know, we’re excited for you guys to look at this, but we’ve got to do some cleaning up.’ And they said, ‘We want to be open by the end of the year.’”

At the time, the CCDA thought preparing the site of the future store so quickly was a highly ambitious project, but the store was open by December. Busby said the Tractor Supply is one of the company’s highest-performing stores in the southeast.