MOUNT VERNON — When Dennis Eggerton and Angie Wise of New Hope Industries went to meet with the county commissioners the end of June, he thought it was about changes to New Hope's lease agreement. He did not expect to learn the county planned to sell the property and that New Hope had to vacate the building by Dec. 1.
“We were a little shocked that it came down this way,” said Eggerton, New Hope's chief executive officer. “We had no indication. It's going to be difficult by Dec. 1 to find other space.
“We've been busy looking for new facilities that could meet our needs,” he said. “The best-case scenario is having something similar to what we have now.”
What New Hope has now at 1375 Newark Road is a 35,000-square-foot building that it renovated to be ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. Eggerton said the $300,000 in renovations also includes building repairs, new HVAC equipment and telephone system, and repairs to the boiler. New Hope partnered with Knox County Board of Developmental Disabilities on roof repairs with each paying half. New Hope pays the utilities and carries liability insurance on the building.
“So we assumed [the lease] was going to be renewed,” said Eggerton. “When the commissioners called, we assumed it was maybe changes in our agreement.”
The county owns the building and six-acre parcel and leases it to the Board of Knox County Developmental Disabilities. Knox DD leased it to New Hope for $1 a year.
Both leases expired within the past year. It's not clear why the leases languished. DD Superintendent Steve Oster said he called the county prosecutor's office about 1 ½ years ago about the lease with New Hope.
“We felt like we were the middle-man. We asked the prosecutor if we could not be the middle-man,” said Oster. “It kind of just seemed to sit there with not a lot of action. I thought it was in their court.”
Oster said the $1 lease was a way to get New Hope on its feet when it was privatized 12 years ago. He said that in retrospect, the lease probably should have been a higher rate so as to not show partiality to a particular provider.
Knox DD is responsible for writing programs for the individuals it serves. It also performs compliance reviews on all of its private day habilitation providers, including New Hope.
Of the potential sale of the New Hope property, Oster said, “I think this situation would have arisen regardless if people in the industrial park are looking for space. For me as the Board of DD, I don't need that building. If they want to sell that building, it's their building to sell.”
Oster said that his main concern was that there would not be any delay in services to the individuals New Hope serves.
“We want to help New Hope because they are a good provider,” he said.
"This building gets used.”
“We need the same square footage or close to what we have if possible,” said Eggerton of any future location New Hope might acquire. “If not, we'll have to consolidate. Which could mean — if we can't find a building that big — that we may have to cut services.”
Those services include assembly and packaging for several companies in the industrial park; homemaker and personal care training; academic and recreational activities; nursing services; and employment activities, including finding jobs, on-the-job training, and dress and conduct coaching. New Hope also operates Red Oak Tents, an event supplier company, offers a shredding and baling service for local organizations, and provides transportation for those with disabilities.
New Hope leases its kitchen to Ann's Raspberry Farm for $100 a month in return for the hiring of at least one individual.
“What we wanted is to have another opportunity for a person to have valuable work,” explained Eggerton.
Part of the reason New Hope needs a lot of square footage is the space required for assembly tables, the two shredders and baler, and tents and equipment for Red Oak Tents in addition to office, day-hab, and coaching space.
New Hope serves about 110 individuals, although not all of them are there at the same time. Activities also occur on evenings and weekends for individuals who have second-shift jobs and need transportation or other services.
Eggerton disagreed with comments made about the building being lightly and partially used.
“This building is absolutely used as a hub for activities in the community,” said Eggerton. “This building gets used.”
Highest and best use
The Knox County Land Bank will market and sell the property on behalf of the county. The Land Bank board has final approval on the buyer of the six-acre parcel. The board will make its decision based on what it considers the “highest and best use” of the property.
The county commissioners have said the best use of the property is to promote commercial, industrial, and manufacturing in the area. At least six companies have approached either the commissioners, the Area Development Foundation, or Knox DD inquiring about the New Hope property specifically or about potential expansion sites.
Eggerton acknowledged that “highest and best use” is different for different people, adding that “we think we are using it for the highest and best use.” He takes exception to comments about New Hope being in a light manufacturing zone but not fitting the criteria.
“Neither is Spectrum. Neither is the bank,” he pointed out. “They're not light manufacturing.”
“We do assembly and packaging,” said Angie Wise, New Hope assistant CEO. “I would call that light manufacturing.”
“We make picnic tables. That's manufacturing,” added Eggerton.
The Next Step
Eggerton said that as of now, New Hope plans to submit a proposal to the Land Bank to buy the property. In the meantime, he continues to look for a possible relocation site. Thus far, he has looked at seven or eight.
“We're looking everywhere,” he said. “If there's a building that we think might even remotely fill our needs, we are looking. We do hope to get the time extended [before we have to vacate.]”
Commissioner Thom Collier said the Dec. 1 vacate date was based on knowing that the county would likely be selling the property soon and that the first of the year would likely be when a prospective buyer would start operations.
Eggerton said the additional time, which he said he thinks the commissioners are considering, is needed to find a suitable location, determine if it is affordable, and make any modifications that might need to be made.
“We prefer to buy so that we don't have to face this again, but we'll do what we have to do,” he said. “We are just trying to find locations, find a building that meets our needs. This building has already been renovated to fit our needs."
The one thing Eggerton said he will not do is move out of Knox County.
"We serve the people of Knox County," he said.
“We did think we had a long-term agreement, but things change. Now we just need time.”