After a complicated 20-year effort to save a redbrick mill in North Carolina that was once considered the largest in the world for textiles and that played a significant role in the South's textile history, the plant is finally moving toward a new life as a multiuse complex.
The Loray Mill, which for decades produced fabric for car tires, last month began a $40 million conversion project that will create 190 apartments in its six stories, as well as several floors of shops and restaurants. The mill, which was the site of an famous labor strike in the 1920s, is in the city of Gastonia, a former industrial hub outside of Charlotte.
To the delight of preservationists, the development team of JBS Ventures, of Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., and Camden Management Partners, of Atlanta, will retain much of the original 600,000-square-feet structure of the complex. This first phase of the redevelopment will reinvent about 450,000 square feet of the mill, including the main section, which dates to 1902.
Gastonia officials, too, say there's a lot to like about a project that continues decades of effort to remake a longtime industrial center as a bedroom community of Charlotte, which is just 30 minutes away. At the very least, they say that a redeveloped Loray (pronounced LOW-ray) could revitalize its immediate neighborhood, whose sidewalk-lined blocks once bustled with mill workers but have long since grown quiet. The mill is on the west side of town in a primarily residential area where boarded-up buildings dot the main commercial drag.
"When you put this many apartments and businesses in an area where there's been so much disinvestment, it's enough to create its own weather," said Jack Kiser, Gastonia's senior executive for special projects. "It will have a catalytic effect."
In many ways, the project, which is to be completed in 2014, is lucky even to be under way. Dozens of other mills, which went up in the central part of the state around the turn of the last century, as textile businesses relocated to North Carolina from New England, have fallen into ruin or been razed.
Loray Mill has seen several development proposals come and go since 1994, when Firestone, which had owned it since the Great Depression, shut the mill down and left for a more modern plant in a nearby community. Firestone has, however, continued some operations in a smaller building toward the rear of the property.
An early condo plan for the mill failed, and in the late 1990s, Firestone was poised to demolish the building, which features a 140-foot tower that is the tallest in Gastonia. But the company ultimately donated it to Preservation North Carolina, a nonprofit group, which paid its power bills and hired security guards while marketing the property, according to Myrick Howard, president of the preservation group.
"This was by far the most time-consuming project I have ever worked on," added Mr. Howard, who estimated his group had helped save 700 buildings across the state since the 1970s.
In 2003, the current developers approached Preservation North Carolina about buying the property, with its arched windows and open floors lined with columns, but the team struggled to line up financing. Then, the recession hit, sapping public financing for the project and derailing efforts once again.
Today, Berkadia, a lender, is providing a $22 million loan backed by the Federal Housing Administration. Most of the balance is coming from two investors: Chevron, through federal preservation tax credits, and the health care provider Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, which is taking advantage of state tax credits that encourage mill conversions.
The developers are also supplying equity, said Billy Hughes, a JBS principal, though he declined to specify the amount. The sale price of the mill was $660,000.
While the building's industrial legacy may be part of its draw, it has also stoked some local opposition. In 1929, Loray was the site of a violent labor strike that lasted for months and resulted in two deaths, including that of Orville Aderholt, Gastonia's police chief, and Ella Mae Wiggins, a union organizer and protest singer.
(The New York Times, 5/3/13)
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