JC warehouse fire sparks debate about former hospital site

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   You can't call city officials short-sighted. As early as 1994, they envisioned a potential event at the former Carter County Memorial Hospital such as the one which occurred Saturday at Design Paper Co.'s warehouse in Johnson City.
   The warehouse, located at 607 Antioch Road, was used to store large rolls of paper used as stuffing in ladies' purses, gift wrap, and paper bags.
   Saturday's fire erupted shortly after 12:30 p.m. and burned more than five hours. The fire apparently started in the rear of the building, which was engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived.
   Kenneth Wayne Graybeal, 92, of Johnson City, owner of the warehouse, also is believed to head up XL Corp., owner of the former Elizabethton hospital.
   City Manager Charles Stahl said Monday, "The recent events in Johnson City concerning Mr. Graybeal's warehouse were previously a concern to Elizabethton officials as far back as eight years ago when Mr. Graybeal was storing large rolls of paper in the old Carter County Hospital and perhaps some other locations within the city limits.
   "At the time we were concerned about the incidence of fire and had our fire marshal and consequently our city attorney look into the matter, they advised Mr. Graybeal that to store those items in the old hospital and to convert the hospital into a manufacturing facility was not a permitted use. They advised him to move the materials and apparently he did so," Stahl said.
   Elizabethton Fire Chief Mike Shouse said the hospital is full of "some of the worst asbestos that's out on the market."
   Asbestos, a known cancer-causing agent, enters the body through inhalation.
   Shouse said asbestos particles would be a big concern in a fire event.
   "We've got to look out for the safety and welfare of our people in a fire situation," he said. Should a fire occur at the hospital, which still contains remnants of the paper business, "what we would have to do would be to extinguish the fire from outside, not put anybody inside. The good thing about it is the building is concrete and steel. As far as it spreading through the building from floor to floor, it's not going to because of the way the building is constructed. The only thing that's going to burn in the building is what's been left behind."
   According to Shouse, back around the 1996-97, firefighters were called to 150 E. Elk Ave., where Graybeal's son-in-law, Bob Shelton, operated Paper Converters, a business similar to Graybeal's Johnson City operation.
   "I want to think we got a call about 8 a.m. that they had had a fire in their building. When we went down there, sure enough, they had [a fire] sometime during the night and the fire had burned itself out. It began in the very front part of the building on the Elk Avenue end."
   Chief Shouse said there was a tremendous amount of heat built up inside the building. "The fire probably consumed all of the oxygen in the room and extinguished itself. We never had to put a drop of water on it."
   Shelton moved Paper Converters to a new facility in Hampton about two years ago and that facility, too, was heavily damaged after fire erupted in the rear of the building.
   According to City Manager Stahl, both the former hospital owned by Graybeal's now inactive corporation and Shelton's former Elk Avenue business site are on the list of city properties to be sold for delinquent taxes. XL Corp. owes the city approximately $33,767.62 as of April 30 for tax years 1995-2001. Shelton owes the city $854 resulting from unpaid taxes in 1999.
   On Aug. 31, 1994, Elizabethton Fire Inspector Mack Elliott, reported to the city that the former Carter County hospital was "filled with combustibles such as rolls of paper and fabric in hallways and piled up to the ceiling in places. It also has these same items against open windows making it very easy for a fire to be started."
   Elliott said electrical systems, all fire extinguishing and detection systems had been removed, and outside doors and windows were standing open, allowing anyone access to the building. Elliott also found a hazardous chemical stored under a pile of cardboard boxes.
   "With these and other problems that have been found, this building in its present condition is unsafe for anyone or anything to inhabit," Elliott stated.
   Former City Attorney John Walton wrote a letter to Graybeal on Nov. 10, 1994, advising him that the hospital situation had been referred to his office for review.
   Walton advised Graybeal that he had 30 days to vacate the premises, stating that the property was zoned B-2, or for arterial business, whereas the nature of Graybeal's business required it to be located in an M-1 (manufacturing-warehousing) zone. Walton also advised Graybeal that he was in violation of several fire codes: maintaining a fire hazard, failure to barricade vacant buildings, accumulation of combustible waste, failure to have an automatic fire extinguishing system and obstruction of aisles and passageways. Walton said Graybeal also failed to obtain an occupancy permit prior to occupying the building.
   On June 21, 2000, City Manager Stahl signed an order stating that if Graybeal had not made significant progress toward compliance within 30 days, demolition would be ordered. To date, Stahl said, no improvements have been made.
   "Delinquent taxes, the fact that it has been ordered demolished, and it does not meet the code -- those issues still remain, although the manufacturing use and the storage of excessive rolls of paper appears to have been removed to Johnson City," he said. "We entered an order of demolition and unfortunately, he's not taking any steps to do anything about demolishing it or to secure the property." Cost of demolition is estimated at about $500,000.
   "The situation at the old hospital is by no means a safe and secure one. ... In essence, it's abandoned property. Obviously it's a community problem and one we need to address. That's why we've ordered it demolished," Stahl said.
   However, he added, should the building be brought up to code, all back taxes paid, and a plan presented for redevelopment -- subject to approval of the planning commission and Board of Zoning Appeals -- "we would look at demolition as a last resort. But considering who the property owner is, it appears that demolition is the only resort at this current time."