The county commissioners on Tuesday heard yet another pitch from someone interested in taking on the old county poor farm.
The commissioners, who met sitting several feet apart, with a very limited audience in Knox County Circuit Court, heard from Andy Barmes and Angie Barmes, a contractor and local nurse respectively, and their desire to restore the 140-year-old Victorian building on Hart Street Road into a hospice house.
Andy Barmes spoke at length about their plans to open the hospice house as a non-profit named the County Farm Hospice House Inc.
They just need the county to hand over the property.
“Our request is that the ownership of the property known as the poor farm be transferred to us from the county,” he said. “The structure has one foot in the grave, and we're going to bring it back to life.”
Barmes agreed that fixing up the building would be a “monumental task,” but he assured the commissioners they were up to the task.
He also reiterated the couple plans to restore the home, not renovate it, essentially keeping its historic character — complete with nearly 13-foot ceilings, tall, ornate windows, exposed brick and magnificent fireplaces.
But in the years it has sat empty, it has fallen into a serious state of disrepair. Many of the windows have been broken out, the doors kicked in, and the roof has leaked, causing extensive damage throughout.
His first task, Barmes said, would be to replace the roof, and he has a “local business willing to help get that done.”
Barmes, too, said he has “grant writers and preservationist groups on board.”
“We're hoping the Knox County community will be very proud of this building,” he said.
But all of this was just for discussion, the commissioners pointed out.
They didn't have the proper legal paperwork needed to go ahead and hand the deed to the poor farm over, but they directed county attorney Drew Porter — who attended the meeting via conference call, as did a handful of media members — to begin drafting it for their continued consideration.
County commissioner Tim Ellerman said he thought Barmes one of the "few legitimate persons” who could take on the project of that scope and size given his experience in construction.
“I just hope you live long enough to do it,” he teased Barmes, to which they both laughed.
Ellerman also suggested the commissioners give Barmes some funding for his trouble, although they didn't approve anything official, nor could they seeing as how the county council is the county's fiscal body.
“It just seems to me like something we should put some money into,” Ellerman said. “It's a slap in the face that we spend money elsewhere and let something like (the poor farm) go.”
Barmes said he wanted to “show the community that we're in this for the long haul, not just a flash in the pan.
“There's a lot of history out there, and it needs to be preserved,” he said.
The Barmeses aren't the only ones who have tried.
Adam Kimmell, producer and director of "Resident Undead," a paranormal documentary show on Youtube, first expressed his desire last fall to take over the old poor farm, turning it onto a ghost-hunting attraction.
The commissioners, after much push-back from the Pennsylvania-based ghost hunter, turned him down.
Years ago, the commissioners gave the deed to the poor farm — with stipulations — to local pastor Sandy Ivers as she hoped to turn it into a shelter for women.
The project was largely forgotten, that is until Kimmell's unexpected request caused the commissioners to look more closely into that agreement to see if it was still valid, especially since the property was still in a serious state of disrepair.
But Ivers eventually said she was no longer interested in the building.
Commissioner Trent Hinkle said similar language would likely be placed into any agreement struck with the Barmeses, which is to say that if no improvements were made, the home would eventually revert back to the commissioners.
But he was thrilled with their request.
“I would be glad to have something like that that the county could utilize,” Hinkle said, adding that such a project heeds to the poor farm's original mission, which was “taking care of folks with nowhere to go.”
“A lot of people spent their last days there,” he said of the home. “I think this is a great thing.”
The commissioners also heard from Jacquelyn Cunningham, a representative from the non-profit Isaiah 1:17, which spans across much of Indiana and Tennessee.
The non-profit looks to provide safe places for foster children removed from their homes but before they are placed into foster care.
Instead of going to the local Department of Child Services office where they often await in a cubicle “cold, dirty and terrified,” the Isaiah 1:17 homes provide them a bit of respite.
“The whole point is for kids not to feel alone and give them hope for their future,” Cunningham said, adding that the children are only there for a period of 24 hours.
It offers a more calming transition, she said, in the often “deep waters of trauma” that go along with being taken away from their parents.
But she had a similar request of the commissioners.
She wants a bit of land adjacent to the poor farm on which Isaiah 1:17 hopes to build a 2,000-square-foot home.
The commissioners were on board with her plan as well and directed Porter to draft similar paperwork that would make transferring the deed to the property possible.
They hope to begin making those transfers — both for the Barmeses and Cunningham — by the time they meet again on April 7.
“I can't imagine a better purpose for that empty lot,” Hinkle said.
In other business, the county extended its original emergency declaration, which was set to expire today, in relation to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
This new order continues the state of emergency another 30 days.
All visitors are now prohibited from entering the courthouse for anything other than “essential business,” and Superior Court II is officially closed.
Superior Court I and Circuit Court are holding hearings as deemed essential by the state Supreme Court this week.
The emergency resolution also allows for things like claims and employee payroll to be approved by commission president Kellie Streeter in the event that the commissioners opt not to meet due to the current health crisis.