Asheville Citizen-Times viewpoint (7-3-13):
The Beacon Manufacturing site is destined to once more become the center of Swannanoa, this time with a welcome blend of affordable housing, shops and light industrial uses.
Beacon created what in effect was its own city “housing, infrastructure, recreation ” after the blanket manufacturer moved from Massachusetts in 1925. At it peak it employed more than 2,000.
“Beacon was here for many years, and it paid for housing, education and other things. It was people’s lifeline. They depended on it,” said Vickie Wacaser, a fourth-generation Beacon employee.
Even after the company stores had been sold and workers had bought their homes, the plant remained the center of the community, David S. Paul of Warren Wilson College wrote in an analysis of the company and Swannanoa.
But times were changing, and so was the textile industry. In 2002, after three ownership changes and buffeting from market forces that had reduced employment to 300, closure was announced. In 2003, fire destroyed the buildings, and the 40-acre site was cleared.
Mountain Housing Opportunities, a nonprofit dedicated to affordable housing, has obtained a $75,000 grant to design a complex that will be known as Beacon Village, the name given to the housing built by Beacon nearly 90 years ago. A stream that ran beneath the plant will be converted into a greenway with plaques detailing the site’s history.
“The stream that traverses the site through a series of poured concrete walls will be retained as a historical and environmental focal point and amenity to the site and the surrounding area,” grant documents say.
There may be 100-300 living units, including rental and condominium apartments and single-family homes, according to Cindy Weeks, MHO’s community investments director. Some would be subsidized with tax credits, she said. Rents of $500-$900 a month and sales prices of $125,000 to $175,000 are foreseen.
“You think about that area with the state facilities and the Ingle’s warehouse, we are estimating 3,000 to 5,000 folks out there in (the targeted) income range. And there’s probably a lot of them traveling from other counties to work there, based on the studies we’ve done,” she said.
In addition to preserving the history of Beacon Manufacturing, the project will be designed to blend in with surrounding residential and commercial uses. There will be community meetings to get ideas from those who live in the area.
There still is a long way to go before Beacon Village is a reality. A master plan must be developed and financing, expected to exceed $14 million, obtained. Some homes could be ready in three years, but it probably will be at least five years before the work is complete.
Wacaser, who watched the mill burn from her front porch, would like to see the days of Beacon return, but she knows that’s impossible. “I’m always for housing,” she said. “And we do need shops here. And that would be employment for people.”
The property is owned by Gordon Myers, a former Ingle’s supermarkets executive, and the estate of Robert Ingle. Prospects of doing anything with the land had been dim. “We’re just waiting for the market to come back right now,” Myers said in January.
“We’re looking at different alternate uses of that property, which could go from distribution to manufacturing to a comprehensive mixeduse development plan.”
We agree with Wacaser that it would nice to have another Beacon. We also agree with her that the Beacon Village proposal is the next best thing. If carried out properly, it should be to 21st-century Swannanoa what Beacon was for much of the 20th century.