Can beer save Rocky Mount?

For 200 years an abandoned cotton mill along the Tar River in Rocky Mount has been a symbol of resilience, burned down by Union troops, rebuilt, accidentally burned again, rebuilt again and then ceasing operations in 1996 with the collapse of the textile industry.

Now the plant is churning back to life as a multimillion-dollar redevelopment project called Rocky Mount Mills, a mix of offices, lofts, cottages, common areas and start-up breweries that could help the economically distressed region an hour’s drive east of Raleigh.

Its 60-some mill houses are being turned into rental dwellings, each with a washer-dryer, charcoal grill, free landscaping, and an American flag on the front porch. There is a waiting list for the next vacancy.

The project will have 300,000 square feet of offices. Another 49 loft apartments renting from $950 to $2,200 a month are on the way. Three restaurants offer wood-fired oven pizzas, chef-inspired tacos and upscale American cuisine.

More is on the way, including a coffee shop, a small outdoor amphitheater and an indoor event space in an old power house. There is plenty of room for expansion, as most of the 160 acres have not been developed.

The idea is to create a district that connects downtown with the mills.

“We are setting our sights on where we want to be in 10 years,” said Evan Covington Chavez, development director for the project, which is owned by Capitol Broadcasting Co

Raleigh-based Capitol, which owns three TV stations including WRAL and five radio stations, is betting that the area’s history and riverside setting – as well as the scale of the project – will allow it to replicate the success it has had in Durham with the American Tobacco campus. With its mix of offices, restaurants, community gathering places and technology start-ups, American – developed out of a sprawling, shuttered tobacco manufacturing complex – has been credited with helping to revitalize downtown Durham.

Rocky Mount Mills, which Capitol bought in 2007, has a few challenges the company didn’t face in Durham: no large university to act as an economic engine, high unemployment, and a dwindling population in Nash and Edgecombe counties, which Rocky Mount straddles. The mill development is in Nash County.

Capitol Broadcasting says it is confident it will fill its residential and office spaces, citing the brisk pace of tenants who have already signed up. Economic development officials like Norris Tolson, executive director of the public-private industry recruiter Carolinas Gateway Partnership, says he sees signs of a turnaround.

Tolson, formerly a top state official and state legislator representing Edgecombe County, points to major manufacturers that have been enticed to the region recently with financial incentives. Tolson says he always shows prospective clients Rocky Mount Mills.

“Many of us, myself included, think it is changing the landscape in Rocky Mount considerably,” he said “I can’t say enough good things about that project.”

Rocky Mount Mills has been partially financed through state and federal tax credits, as have hundreds of preservation projects throughout the state, in places such as Loray Mill in Gastonia, Revolution Mill in Greensboro, Spray Cotton Mill in Eden and American Tobacco. More than $1 billion has been spent on mill preservation since 2006, according to Preservation N.C.

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(The News & Observer, 1/5/18)