The Mountain Harvest Kitchen in Unicoi is taking shape. The anticipated completion date is April 26. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

The Mountain Harvest Kitchen in Unicoi is taking shape. The anticipated completion date is April 26. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

The prep work is nearly complete and, after a few ingredients are added in, things should be cooking in the Town of Unicoi’s Mountain Harvest Kitchen.

Town of Unicoi City Recorder Mike Housewright said the anticipated completion date for the project is April 26, adding that around 85 percent of major construction has been completed.

Armstrong Construction has been working since October to renovate the building, which was purchased by the town in early 2014, that will serve as the Mountain Harvest Kitchen’s home.

So far, contractors have completely renovated the exterior and interior of the 4,000 square-foot facility. The kitchen’s walk-in freezer and dry storage areas are in place. Electrical is now in, and block pouring has been completed, Housewright said.

Remaining work includes the installation of some ductwork, the epoxying of the kitchen’s slab flooring, and the installation of heat and air units. Housewright said other remaining work includes finishing the director’s office and onsite grading around the building.

A driveway that connects the back of the kitchen to the cul-de-sac at Unicoi Village Place must also be built, Housewright said. This will allow for the easier drop-off of supplies and deliveries.

In September, the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen accepted a nearly $685,000 bid from the Kingsport-based Armstrong Construction to complete construction on the second and final phase of the kitchen project. This phase includes the necessary additions and alterations needed to bring the structure to a commercial-grade kitchen.

Some equipment that will find its way into the Mountain Harvest Kitchen was previously purchased by the town, but the majority of kitchen equipment is out to bid at this time, Housewright said. That bid is set to close out in early April.

“So we will be contracting with vendors to get the bulk of the equipment in at the end of April,” Housewright said. “As Armstrong is completing their work, we’ll have equipment going in.”

This equipment, Housewright added, should be sufficient for basic kitchen operations.

Additional equipment will be acquired through subsequent bids. Housewright said these bids will likely be let out over the course of this summer.

“That will be for more specialized equipment, things of that nature,” he said.

Town officials are hoping to have the kitchen ready for public use sometime in May or early June, Housewright said. However, this timeline may be contingent on the hiring of a director for the Mountain Harvest Kitchen.

“One major component is going to be the availability or the hiring of an onsite director,” Housewright said. “When we know who our director is, we’ll better know what that timeline is.”

Interviews for the director’s post are ongoing, and there is no timetable for town officials to select the individual who will oversee day-to-day operations of the kitchen as, Housewright said, they want to make sure they have the right person for the job.

“We’re looking at a huge project that has taken a lot of capital and a lot of time and a lot of input from the community,” Housewright said. “We’ve got to make sure that a project of that magnitude that we put it in the right hands.”

While there is plenty of work remaining, Housewright said the kitchen project has come along well thus far. He commended Armstrong Construction for its work.

“The building, really the whole end of that street, that cul-de-sac, has transformed by the work that they’ve done,” he said.

The Town of Unicoi also expects to soon begin recouping funding it has put toward the Mountain Harvest Kitchen project. The bulk of the project, Housewright said, was funded through federal grant monies. As a stipulation of the grant contract, the town was required to first do a “spend out,” in which it had to pay construction costs and other costs associated with the project upfront. Once the project reached the 25 percent completion mark, the town became eligible for reimbursements from the grant.

Housewright said the project hit the 25 percent completion mark around six weeks to a month ago, at which time the First Tennessee Development District, which is administering the grant for the town, began billing the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

“Those expenses that we’ve paid out will begin to come back in,” Housewright said.

Town officials expect to receive reimbursements totaling around $400,000 when all is said and done. This amount represents around 58 percent of the current estimated total project cost of $685,000.

“They’re still building and they’re still giving us invoices, so we don’t know what that total project cost is,” Housewright said. “But, if everything comes in as predicted – and Armstrong’s been great to work with, everything’s been very predictable, very as anticipated –- then we can expect a reimbursement of around $400,000.”

The Mountain Harvest Kitchen project was first envisioned around a decade ago. Town of Unicoi officials have viewed the project as a business incubator, as users will be able to sell the food prepared or produce canned within the facility. The kitchen, once complete, is set to include the aforementioned dry storage area, walk-in freezer and office space along with food processing areas with commercial-sized equipment, a research and development lab, and a receiving area.

Entrepreneurial training opportunities, as well as demonstrations and other classes, will also be offered to kitchen users. Housewright said some of events have already been scheduled for the month of May.

“One of the primary reasons I took this job and pursued this job was this particular project,” Housewright said. “I came from a job where I was working with startups and working with new businesses, so it seemed like a great place to go where I could kind of continue that.”

According to a release issued by the Town of Unicoi in October after it was announced the project had received more than $350,000 in grant funding through former President Barack Obama’s administration’s Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization Initiative, the Mountain Harvest Kitchen Incubator & Entrepreneurial Training Program will serve a nine-county region in northeast Tennessee and northwest North Carolina, create 30 new businesses and 60 new jobs, serve more than 90 trainees, and leverage $1.2 million in private investment.

Housewright lauded the efforts of the town’s Mountain Harvest Kitchen Committee, whose members Housewright said have worked diligently to bring the vision of the kitchen to reality.

“They’ve really put in, from my understanding, the better part of 10 years into planning this thing,” Housewright said.