New business

Madison Co. celebrates the move of a new business, the old Honeywells building

MARS HILL — After Honeywell vacated its Micro Switch building in Mars Hill in 2012, the 110,000 square foot building was grossly underutilized.

That all changed when Spark Robotic owner Frank Johnson acquired the building last fall. On September 24, county government officials celebrated the company’s move to Madison with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the facility, located on Hickory Drive near the university’s athletic complex.

Spark Robotic specializes in computerized CNC machines, including plasma cutting tables and router tables.

Director of Developmental Services Brad Guth greeted those attending the ceremony, which included members of the County Commission and Mars Hill City Council.

“We’re really excited to be here at Spark Robotic, and all of the other companies that are here in the old Micro Switch building,” Guth said.

Spark Robotic owner Frank Johnson purchased the manufacturing complex at 400 Hickory Drive in Mars Hill in October 2021.

“On behalf of the Madison County government, we’re just so happy to have everyone here this afternoon,” Acting County Executive Norris Gentry said. “I have to say, we are very happy that someone is moving from Buncombe County to Madison County to find your happy place.”

Spark Robotic owner Frank Johnson said he purchased the building in October 2021, although the company operated in its Woodfin location until it moved full-time to the Mars Hill complex in spring 2022. .

“I really appreciate the welcome we’ve had since day one,” Johnson said. “All I asked (Land of Sky Regional Planner) Sara (Nichols) or (Mars Hill Town Manager) Nathan (Bennett), or anyone, was, ‘How can we help you? ‘ It’s a world of difference from where we come from, honestly, in Asheville, and it shows. This building is a huge opportunity, not just for Spark Robotic, but (companies) like Outrider and Vanlife (Conversions) that were losing their space, and to get small businesses here to do things in America and help people, so I really appreciate all the support we have.

Tommy Ausherman co-founded Outrider USA in 2009, and the company was based in Fletcher before moving to Mars Hill.

“We make these compact four-wheel-drive vehicles. They’re all-electric,” Ausherman said. “We specialize in building them for people with physical disabilities to get them back into the woods after losing legs in battle or sustaining a spinal cord injury – MS, ALS, whatever they have. We also found that there are many able-bodied people who like to use them for hunting, quietly moving about their land.We are grateful to be here.

According to Johnson, Spark’s move to Madison County has allowed the business to grow significantly, with plans to continue to expand.

“I started Spark Robotic in 800 square feet in an illegal garage in Asheville,” Johnson said. “We have 23 employees. When we moved here, we had around 15 employees. Our goal is to have around 35 next year, then around 55 the year after that.”

Johnson was told about the opening of the Hickory Drive complex by Vista Tiny Homes owner Jim Warren. Johnson said he expects 13 businesses to operate from the Hickory Drive complex, including Vista and Spark.

“The opportunity came up to buy this place, and I was blessed to have met some really great people who believed in me and allowed me to make this investment,” Johnson said. “So now we’re about 40,000 square feet, and we should be able to double in size again. Once I integrate Patton Electronics and React Controls, we’ll have Outrider, Spark Robotic, Vanlife Conversions, Roost Builders, Vista Tiny Homes, Logangate Timber Homes, Eden Solutions, Tom K’s Kitchen Plus, Blackbird Landscaping, and they are also opening a nursery here, Native Plant Nursery, we also have my subsidiary, Highlands Metalworx.

Nichols said she began working with Johnson and his team in the summer of 2021 under a county contract designed to help usher in economic development.

According to Nichols, the arrival of Spark’s business in Mars Hill is very significant for the city and the county.

“We’ve had a hard time finding a future plan for this building since I’ve been in the county,” Nichols said. “Honeywell’s has been closed for a long time since I’ve worked for the county, and probably since I’ve known Madison County. It was underutilized. It had all these other little businesses from the previous owner that we didn’t have . “I don’t want to see being kicked out. Part of Frank’s interest in this building is that it already had tenants, and we were thrilled that those businesses could stay.”

Before starting his business, Johnson, 41, worked in the oil industry.

“I’m a former military man and I’ve been deployed all over the world,” Johnson said. “In 2006 I got out and started working for Shell Oil, where I was a robotics engineer until about 2015. I was just done being told to go to all kinds of crazy places .”

Johnson earned a two-year degree in Aircraft Armament and Target Acquisition Systems from the Community College of the Air Force. From there, he earned a remote control vehicle pilot certification and earned a bachelor’s degree from Penn State before embarking on his career at Shell.

His travels around the world made Johnson realize how lucky he was to have lived in the mountains, he said.

“I’ve been to every continent except Antarctica and I’ve traveled all over the world,” Johnson said. “I think my experiences in the military and with Shell made me realize how lucky we are, not just in America, but also here in western North Carolina. The weather is beautiful. We have so many opportunities. We can live here. I came back with my family and wanted to expand my business.

Johnson, a native of Unicoi County, Tennessee, now lives in Weaverville with his wife, Lauren, a childbirth nurse at Mission Hospital, and their two children — Juniper, 5, and Jonah, 3.

One aspect of what Johnson values ​​most about his ties to western North Carolina is the connections he has made with local residents.

“I’ve met so many business owners in the local community because they’ve either come to ask me to help them build something or they’ve bought one of my machines,” Johnson said. “I want small shops, moms and pops, not to be afraid of technology. I want to democratize technology and give it to people so we can produce here in America. We want small businesses to have the opportunity to ‘automate their procedures. We want them to thrive here in America.”

According to Nichols, not only does the project appear to be compatible with county values, but also an economic boon.

“That (means) a lot of jobs, a lot of capital investment, but for a site that’s just been hard for us to find a future for,” Nichols said. “(Johnson’s) concepts and attitudes might not suit all communities, but it definitely feels authentic to Madison.”

Mars Hill City Manager Nathan Bennett said Spark’s activities are particularly beneficial to the city.

“It’s incredibly exciting to have this operation here, and all the things it brings — all the opportunities for other businesses, other operations that complement the things that are already here,” Bennett said. “I think it’s a tremendous opportunity to bring an old facility back to a conductor that makes lives.”

According to Johnson, Spark’s move to Madison could have a ripple effect that would potentially benefit the county for generations.

“The more you can concentrate creative people who want to work, the better the community will be,” Johnson said. “You’re going to get people to come here and live here. You’re going to have better restaurants downtown, and you’re going to bring more taxes into the community, and the community can improve.”