Employees' vehicles line Roller Street in front of the Quebecor plant in this file photo.
It began as the Kingsport Press, then became Arcata Graphics, then Quebecor World.
For more than 80 years, this massive maze of a manufacturing plant in downtown Kingsport produced countless loads of books until it shut the doors last year, closing one chapter in the city’s industrial history.
Now Mayor Dennis Phillips hopes to start a new chapter at the old book plant, and keep the buildings here from deteriorating into yet another eyesore for the city.
“The city doesn’t need to miss opportunities to promote economic development. And one of the ways we can do that — when properties become available, we take advantage of them,” said Phillips. “If we can redevelop this property and create new industry and business, then that’s the role we should play.”
Quebecor World, the Canadian-based company that owns the plant, has offered to give the property to the city of Kingsport, free of charge.
The plant sits on more than 20 acres bordered by West Center, Clinchfield, Sullivan and Roller streets.
On Tuesday, the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted to authorize Phillips to pursue the Quebecor donation. The city will now send a letter to the company, indicating its interest in the property.
“This at least allows us to be proactive in deciding what would be the best way to redevelop this site for the future of Kingsport,” said Jeff Fleming, assistant city manager for development.
The city contracted with the Kingsport architectural firm of Wright and Henderson to create a preliminary plan for the redevelopment of the property. The architects presented the plan to the BMA at last week’s work session.
The plan calls for the demolition of most of the buildings, except the original 1922 Kingsport Press building and the original 1926 Holliston Mills structure.
Holliston Mills, which produced coated cloth for book covers, operated next to the Kingsport Press before it moved to Hawkins County. Its downtown buildings then became part of the book plant operations.
As the Kingsport Press grew through the years, more buildings were constructed at the site, one after another.
“As we looked at the 80 years of growth in the plant, we could see how the additions became infields. There is just a maze of buildings there,” said architect Jim Wright.
He said he and his partner, Jim Henderson, wanted to preserve the history of the site and reclaim the original 1920s buildings. The old water towers and brick chimney would also be restored as reminders of what the property once was.
The architects suggested establishing a museum of industry and history linked to the restored Holliston Mills building. It would be connected by an outdoor courtyard to a performing arts center, according to the plan.
The plan also calls for two farmers market areas, retail space, a gourmet/international food market, a city archives and exhibit building, and restaurants, all connected via an outdoor plaza.
The architects created a linear park bordering West Center Street, complete with interpretive displays, public art, and a walkway.
And the architects suggested opening up Press Street — once a main road through downtown. The road was closed years ago as the book plant expanded.
“The site is now almost entirely under roof, and it’s made up of multiple roofs. We looked at that and it was obvious it needed to be opened up and have green space and things that would benefit the city as far as usability and beautification,” Wright said.
He said his firm was asked to look for adaptable uses for the property, such as a farmers market. The downtown farmers market is currently located in the parking lot behind the library. But the city is looking for a new site because TriSummit Bank plans to take a portion of the parking lot when it begins construction on its new headquarters at the old AEP building later this year.
“It’s just ideal for something like a farmers market,” Wright said of the Quebecor property.
He said the site is also suited for an industrial and historical museum, given its own history of business and industry.
“And the extension of the archives would go great in a place like that,” Wright said.
Wright and Henderson pointed out the plan is just a proposal, submitted to show what could be established on the property.
“We were charged to come up with some adaptable uses. but it’s wide open I think how the property could be developed,” Wright said.
Phillips said the city hopes to take ownership of the property in the next few months, assuming nothing unexpected is discovered at the site. The city has consulted with a former official with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to determine if there are contamination problems on the property.
Kingsport City Manager John Campbell said the city expects to find some asbestos-related materials, which are typically found in older industrial structures. Old floor tiles and pipe insulation could contain the cancer-causing agent, and would have to be handled appropriately during demolition.
“Today, this is a fairly common situation and there are licensed technicians in the region who have the expertise to remove and dispose of asbestos in the proper way,” Campbell said.
To date, two environmental surveys have been completed at the site. The surveys show 16 groundwater monitoring wells on the property, and monitoring of groundwater has been under way since at least 1992.
A leak from underground pipes was detected in 1985, and contaminated soil was removed in 2002.
According to a May 2007 environmental report, “the size and area impacted by this product plume have been significantly reduced through previous remediation efforts, including soil excavation ...”
“Site observations and water quality data document a reduction of the contaminant plume site-wide with no indication of offsite groundwater contamination,” the report states.
The “groundwater plume” identified in the report consists of a dissolved “plume of mixed solvents.”
Campbell said the city hopes to enter into a Brownfield Voluntary Agreement with Quebecor and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, apportioning liability for any contamination found at the site.
“Basically, from the point that we take title forward, the city would be responsible for any contamination of the site as a result of our actions,” Campbell said. “Quebecor would continue to be responsible for any contamination that resulted from their manufacturing activities at the site prior to the city taking title to the property.
“You cannot donate a property and walk away from any responsibility for the site,” Campbell said.
He said the city is interested in owning the facility because ownership would give it “much greater opportunity to control the redevelopment of the site.”
“And its key location in the heart of downtown offers a real opportunity to transform the face of the western end of Center Street,” Campbell said.
Phillips said he wants to avoid mistakes from the past. He cited the old Kingsport Foundry property, which was sold a few years ago after the foundry failed to emerge from bankruptcy reorganization.
The new owner demolished many of the buildings at the site. But today, all that remains is essentially rubble, creating an eyesore at one of the entrances to the downtown area.
“I think probably we missed the boat on the foundry property,” Phillips said. “I’ll admit, hindsight is 20/20, but I don’t want us to miss the boat on Quebecor.”
He pointed out Quebecor is offering to give the site to the city. In contrast, Kingsport would have had to purchase the foundry property.
“Now there would be cost in getting it (Quebecor) to where it’s usable property, but remember, we get over 21 acres. And that property, as far as we can tell, has minor contamination,” Phillips said.
The city’s recent bond issue included $500,000 for the demolition of the property. “And that’s already been approved in the budget,” Phillips said.
“This is really I think an opportunity to jumpstart that whole end of town down there,” he said.
Wright noted the Quebecor redevelopment could tie in nicely with the new higher education center, scheduled to be built downtown, and the proposed Kingsport Landing, a plan to redevelop the banks of the Holston River.
“This one really dovetailed I think as a bridge between those two projects,” Wright said. “This just makes a lot of sense.”