MARS HILL – After Honeywell vacated its Micro Switch building in Mars Hill in 2012, the 110,000-square-foot building has been largely underutilized.
That all changed when Spark Robotic owner Frank Johnson acquired the building last fall. On Sept. 24, county government officials celebrated the business moving 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 numerical control machines, including plasma cutting tables and router tables.
Development Services Director Brad Guth welcomed the ceremony, which included members of the county commission and Mars Hill town board.
“We’re really excited to be here at Spark Robotic, and all the other businesses that are here in the former Micro Switch building,” Guth said.
“On behalf of Madison County government, we’re just very pleased to have everybody here this afternoon,” Interim County Manager Norris Gentry said. “I must say that we’re very happy to have someone relocated from Buncombe County to Madison County to find your happy place.”
Spark Robotic owner Frank Johnson said he purchased the building in October 2021, though the company operated in its Woodfin location until moving full-time to the Mars Hill complex in spring 2022.
“I truly appreciate the welcome that we’ve gotten since day one,” Johnson said. “Anything that I’ve asked (Land of Sky Regional Planner) Sara (Nichols) or (Mars Hill Town Manager) Nathan (Bennett), or anybody, it’s been, ‘How can we help? Sure. We’ll get that done .’ It’s a world of difference from what we came from, honestly, in Asheville, and it shows. This building is a huge opportunity, not only for Spark Robotic, but (companies) like Outrider and Vanlife (Conversions) that were losing their space, and to get small businesses here making stuff in America and enabling people. So I do truly appreciate all the support that we have.”
Tommy Ausherman co-founded Outrider USA in 2009, and the company was based in Fletcher prior to moving to Mars Hill.
“We manufacture these compact four-wheel-drive vehicles. They’re all-electric,” Ausherman said. “We specialize in building them for folks with physical disabilities to get them back in the woods again after they’ve lost legs in combat, or had a spinal cord injury – MS, ALS, whatever they’ve got going on. We also found that there are a lot of able-bodied people that like to use them for hunting, moving around their land quietly. We’re thankful to be here.”
According to Johnson, Spark’s move to Madison County has allowed the company to expand drastically, with plans to continue to grow.
“I started Spark Robotic in 800 square feet in an illegal garage in Asheville,” Johnson said. “We have 23 employees. When we initially moved up here, we had about 15 employees. Our goal is next year to have about 35, and then about 55 the year after that.”
Johnson received word about the Hickory Drive complex opening up from Vista Tiny Homes owner Jim Warren. Johnson said he plans for 13 companies to operate out of the Hickory Drive complex, including Vista and Spark.
“The opportunity came to buy this place, and I was lucky that I had met some really great people that believed in me and allowed me to make that investment,” Johnson said. “So, now we occupy about 40,000 square feet, and we should be able to double in size again. Once I get Patton Electronics in there and React Controls, we’ll have Outrider, Spark Robotic, Vanlife Conversions, Roost Builders, Vista Tiny home, Logangate Timber Homes, Eden Solutions, Tom K’s Kitchen Plus, Blackbird Landscaping, and they are opening a nursery here as well, Native Plant Nursery. We also have my subsidiary company, Highlands Metalworx.”
Nichols said she began working with Johnson and his team in summer 2021 as part of a county contract designed to help usher in economic development.
According to Nichols, Spark’s business coming to Mars Hill is very important to the town and the county.
“We have struggled with figuring out a forward-moving project for this building for as long as I’ve been around the county,” Nichols said. “Honeywell’s has long since closed for as long as I’ve been working for the county, and probably as long as I’ve known Madison County. It sat underutilized. It did have all these other small businesses from the previous owner that we didn’t ‘t want to see be evicted. Part of Frank’s interest in this building is that it did already have some tenants, and we were excited that those businesses were going to be able to stay.”
Before starting his business, Johnson, 41, worked in the oil industry.
“I’m ex-military, and was 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 with being told to go to all kinds of crazy places.”
Johnson earned a two-year degree in aircraft weaponry and target acquisition systems from the Community College of the Air Force. From there, he became certified as a remotely operated vehicle pilot, and graduated from Penn State with a bachelor’s degree before embarking on his career with Shell.
His travels around the world made Johnson realize how fortunate he was to have lived in the mountains, he said.
“I’ve been to every continent except Antarctica, and I’ve traveled all around the world,” Johnson said. “I think that my experiences in the military and with Shell have made me realize how lucky we have it, not only in America, but also here in Western North Carolina. The weather is beautiful. We have so much opportunity. We can live here . I came back with my family, and I wanted to grow my business.”
Johnson, a Unicoi County, Tennessee, native, now lives in Weaverville with his wife, Lauren, a labor delivery nurse at Mission Hospital, and their two kids – Juniper, 5, and Jonah, 3.
An aspect of what Johnson values most about his Western North Carolina ties are the connections he’s made with local residents.
“I’ve met so many business owners in the local community because they have either come to me to ask to help them build something, or they bought one of my machines,” Johnson said. “I want small, mom and pop shops to be not 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 ability to automate their procedures. We want them to thrive here in America.”
According to Nichols, not only does the project figure to be compatible to the county’s values, but an economic boon as well.
“This (means) lots of jobs, lots 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 would maybe not be right for every community, but it definitely feels authentic for Madison.”
Mars Hill Town Manager Nathan Bennett said Spark’s business is especially beneficial to the town.
“It’s incredibly exciting to have this operation here, and all that it brings with it – all the opportunities for other businesses, other operations that complement the things that are in here already,” Bennett said. “I think it’s a tremendous opportunity to bring an old facility back to a driver that’s manufacturing lives.”
According to Johnson, Spark’s move to Madison could have a ripple effect that potentially benefits the county for generations.
“The more you can concentrate creative people that want to work, the better the community is going to be,” Johnson said. “You’re going to entity people to come here and live here. You’re going to get better restaurants downtown, and you’re going to get more taxes coming into the community, and the community can get better.”