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Legacy Art Farm: Ambitious Plan for Old Cannon Hospital Property in Banner Elk

By Jesse Wood

An eyesore of a property, the old Cannon Hospital in Banner Elk has sat vacant for about 18 years. For some time, the only activities occurring on the blighted property are ghost hunting and acts of vandalism.

But Marc Mataya has a grand vision for the property and neighboring tracts of land called the Legacy Art Farm. The vision is part “classy” and “quiet” tourist attraction; part expansion of greenways and community green-space; part farm component; part artist-in-residence program similar to the McColl Center for Art + Innovation in Charlotte; and plenty more.

A mission statement for this proposal reads: “To provide an outdoor and nature-based destination where artists, individuals and families and their people-friendly pets can spend a whole day enjoying nature, art, animals, exercise, adventure, creativity and, of course, tons of fun!”

A major caveat, though, is he doesn’t own any of the land.

The old Cannon Hospital in Banner Elk has sat vacant since about 1999. Photo by Paul T. Choate / 2012

From Charlotte, Mataya is a software developer by trade and has a part-time residence at The Farm at Banner Elk, a gated community off of N.C. 184. He said he’s been working on this idea since last year and hopes adjacent landowners, community members and the Town of Banner Elk embrace his nonprofit proposal.  

“I’ve been driving by that horrible building for two-and-a-half years now and came up with this idea about two years ago and started putting it together last year,” Mataya said.

Ideally, Mataya said the project would span 75 acres – if all of the adjacent landowners are on board – and connect to the old Banner Elk Elemenatry School, which the town owns and is currently restoring, and the Tate-Evans Park and greenway. Mataya said he’s been in talks with owners of the 10-acre Cannon Hospital tract, majority owned by Olin Wooten of Wooten Enterprises, and adjacent landowners.

Mataya said the landowners have been receptive to the idea but want to ensure a return on their investments into these properties – something he believes can be achieved through fundraising and setting aside parcels for residential development.

Mataya agreed that the Legacy Art Farm idea is “ambitious” and could be tackled in stages. When and if financing and the land is secured, the Cannon Hospital would be demolished, which he said has received positive feedback, as well as his vision for the Legacy Art Farm.

“Everybody just raves about the idea. I hear absolutely zero negative things about it. Even Olin Wooten loves the idea,” Mataya said. “Now it’s just a matter of making things happen.”

The 10-acre former hospital tract is in yellow. See images below for adjacent properties Mataya references. 

A “very rough” cost estimate for the project is $6 million. The first phase of the project would cost about $2.5 million, including the acquisition of land and demolition of the old hospital structures that can’t be renovated

He proposed “let’s say between $500,000 to $750,000” to demolish the old hospital before outright agreeing to purchase the property. Mataya said he was not comfortable purchasing the property if, for example, asbestos abatement can’t be remediated and then “we have an albatross on our hands.”

Mataya said that four to 10 “very serious heavy hitters” contributing could get the project off the ground in no time. Mataya added,” The beauty of this project is that it doesn’t have to happen all at once.”

He mentioned that he’s working on proof of concepts, a “more robust” website and putting together a board that would include community members, stakeholder landowners and town leaders.

He noted that it’s important that this project isn’t seen as an outside developer coming into Banner Elk and building something unwanted. He wants people who already live in the area or have roots in the area to take part in the revitalization of this blighted property.

“One of the ways this project won’t work is if you get some egomaniacal, greedy investor who comes in externally and wants to put in, say, a Walmart. I want to make sure people don’t say, this outside guy is trying to come in and leach off of our legacy,” Mataya said. “I want you to fix up your own stuff and leave your own legacy.”

The property is currently on the market by Wooten Enterprises for $1.4 million, reduced from $2.4 million, according to the company’s website. On Tuesday, High Country Press spoke with Olin Wooten, founder of Wooten Enterprises.

“Marc has a lot of good ideas and Banner Elk is a tourist town. It definitely stands out in the mountains, and I hope the concept [is successful]. It sounds real good and the city of Banner Elk should be proud of that. That is exactly what they need there,” Olin Wooten said on Tuesday. “I think it could definitely happen.”

As Wooten noted, Walt Disney did something similar years ago. He said Disney was land-strapped in California before purchasing thousands of acres in Florida. In the end, Disney was able to pay off the whole land bill by selling off just a few acres.  

Wooten also referred High Country Press to his real estate associate Greg Green, who is more familiar with the Banner Elk property, for more details. Reached on Tuesday, Green agreed that the Art Legacy Farm proposal could happen and would benefit the town of Banner Elk.

“But we haven’t talked about any numbers or anything like that. No proposal is on the table and that’s where we need to have something that I can go to Mr. Wooten about, who is the major owner, and see what we can work out,” Green said. “I hope we can work through some things, but we need to have a real money proposal.”

Green noted he gets phone calls on the property everyday and that several scenarios have been discussed over the years. For example, High Country Press wrote about the Florida-based Suchman Retail Group seeking to rezone the property for a mixed-use project that would have featured retail, townhomes and a hotel in 2007. Plans were drawn up for a project that never came to fruition.

Banner Elk Town Manager Rick Owen said that Mataya has been in touch with town staff, such as Cheryl Buchanan in the planning office, regarding the Art Legacy Farm idea and any potential zoning issues to be concerned about from an ordinance standpoint.

“The town is up for anything that will clean up this property, which is an obvious eyesore,” Owen said. “We have heard about it and have definitely talked to him about it. There are a lot of moving parts, and we are certainly here to help if he can facilitate improvement.”

Proposed features: 

  • greenway connector
  • retro-fitted, small electric train with tunnel in mountainside 
  • art-deck-o patio
  • music stages
  • giant outdoor movie screen
  • artist-in-residence programs
  • permanent covered art displays
  • rentable art gallery booth mall
  • galleries
  • artist studio rentals
  • cafe/wine bars/local breweries
  • music lesson/dance studios
  • pony rides
  • petting corrals
  • waterfalls and fountains
  • rock and boulder climbing
  • chairlift rides to the peaks
  • fishing ponds
  • bonfires
  • mountain bike trails
  • fishing pond
  • history museum
  • & more

For more information and to see how you can participate, click to the Art Farm Legacy website.

Below are a few maps from the website depicting the area in question and some of the proposals:

Legacy Art Farm 1
Legacy Art Farm 2
Legacy Art Farm 4
Legacy Art Farm 8
Main Aerial View