An article from the Asheville Citizen-Times, by Joel Burgess, dated June 28,2013:
Swannanoa is in line to get a heart transplant.
At least that’s how it feels to long-time Valley residents who witnessed Beacon Manufacturing’s closing in 2002 and the arson fire a year later that turned the commercial and social center into a burnt shell.
The cleared 40-acre site is a sad reminder to former workers who still live around it. But that may soon change as new homes and businesses are planned for the spot, Buncombe County officials say.
“It’s loss had a huge impact, more than people realize,” Vickie Wacaser, a fourth-generation Beacon employee who watched the mill burn from her front porch, said.
“I’m always for housing. And we do need shops here. And that would be employment for people,” Wacaser said of the proposed development.
The “mixed-use, green, sustainable community,” would be called “Beacon Village,” according to wording in a recent $75,000 county grant to Mountain Housing Opportunities, a non-profit developer of housing for middle- and low-income workers.
That’s the same name used for the neighborhoods built around the factory during its heyday, with different sections being referred to as the “upper” and “lower” or “old” and “new” village.
The development is at its earliest stages, MHO Community Investments Director Cindy Weeks said, but could have anywhere from 100-300 apartments, condominiums, and single-family homes.
Some would be modest “market-rate” homes while others would be subsidized with tax credits to ensure they are affordable for workers, Weeks said.
That could mean rents of $500 – 900 and home prices of $125,000 – $175,000, Weeks said.
“You think about that area with the state facilities and the Ingles warehouse, we are estimating 3,000 – 5,000 folks out there in that 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.
The county grant will be used for a master plan and calls the project a “legacy development.” Assisting will be Geoffrey Barton, an architect working with MHO through a special fellowship provided by Enterprise Community Partners, a Maryland non-profit known for redeveloping blighted areas.
The grant calls for preserving mill history, and possibly turning a stream once under the factory into a greenway with plaques talking about the former industrial site.
“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,” the grant said.
Retail and light industrial uses, including a commercial rail transfer station on the land’s edge would be part of the development.
Weeks said the idea would be to blend the new development in with existing homes and commercial uses around the former factory.
Built in phases, some homes could be completed in around three years, though the total development could take up to five years.
Along with the master plan, some of the first steps will be holding community meetings with residents and business owners to get input, Weeks said. No meetings have yet been scheduled.
Then funding partners will have to be lined up, she said. Total development costs will likely exceed $14 million.
Buncombe County Commissioner Ellen Frost, whose district includes Swannanoa, said she’s been working with MHO and land owner Gordon Myers, a former Ingles Markets executive, “to get the Beacon site up and going again.”
“I’m really, really excited about it,” she said. “For folks who want economic development this kind of thing is the answer,” Frost said.
Myers owns the property along with the estate of Bob Ingle, former chief of the supermarket chain.
In the past, Myers has said he’s been looking at options for the land, but that a soft market has made any type of development difficult. He hinted that the use might change from industrial to something that includes residential and light commercial.
The massive blanket manufacturing plant closed 11 years ago and burned almost to the ground in September 2003.
It was vacant at the time of the fire, which burned more than one million square feet of space and brought out 24 fire departments.
Contractors removed about 57,000 tons of debris from the site after the fire. A Black Mountain man, Brendon Alexander Cummins, confessed in 2004 to setting the fire with a homemade pipe bomb and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In March 2005, Myers and Ingle’s investment group, Swannanoa Valley Properties, LLC, bought the property for $1 million. Most recently, county assessors have given it a tax value of $1.4 million.
The Beacon plant opened in 1925 and employed thousands of local residents. That included many in the Wacaser family.
“Beacon was here for many years and it paid for housing, education, and other things. It was people’s lifeline. They depended on it,” the former plant weaving instructor said.
When it closed, a sadness settled into the area, she said, including with her father, Freddie, who worked there 40 years. Wacaser believes her father’s heart attack and death were brought on by the loss.
Many heard rumors of a redevelopment, but nothing concrete until now, she said.
“Of course I would love to see Beacon back, but that is impossible. Still, I would love to see a neighborhood park, mostly for the children and the former Beacon employees,” she said.