A Second Life for North Carolina's Shuttered Factories
Posted June 15, 2021 11:29 a.m. EDT
Updated June 15, 2021 2:32 p.m. EDT
Less than a decade ago, the economic malaise in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, was tangible. Rocky Mount Mills, a big cotton mill that had given the town its identity, had shut down in 1996, costing the area hundreds of jobs. Downtown was deserted. Nobody was hiring.
Now, the mill is a bustling complex with restaurants and breweries. It has a small hotel composed of tiny houses on wheels, a wide lawn where concerts regularly take place and a Wiffle ball field.
Since 2013, Rocky Mount Mills’ current owner, Capitol Broadcasting Co., has redeveloped the site, giving it a dynamic atmosphere with stores and residences. Its leaders are aiming to create a sense of community that will entice out-of-town businesses and workers to settle there, raising the town’s economic prospects and spurring more growth.
“We went through a really rough patch before they decided to invest in that project,” said Rocky Mount’s mayor, Sandy Roberson.
Rocky Mount isn’t the only mill town in North Carolina trying to revitalize its economy. In High Point, Greensboro and Winston-Salem, a region known as the Piedmont Triad, other large factories that once served as economic engines providing many blue-collar jobs are being turned into vibrant mixed-use complexes for work and play. The projects have been designed to connect struggling regions to a new economy based on technology, information and innovation.
Now, with the rise of remote work, developers are betting that the factories’ beauty and sense of history, packaged with a roster of community activities, will give them a way to lure young talent. If workers are no longer tethered to their offices, they’re free to go anywhere — and it’s possible they will choose smaller cities with a higher quality of life.
Christopher Chung, the chief executive of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, is optimistic. “A lot of these communities have the best chance they’ve had in a while to recruit individuals to take advantage of much more affordable housing prices and the other amenities that are there,” he said. “This seems like a unique moment to realize the gains.”
Renovating old, historic structures as a way to attract workers is a relatively new trend. These “adaptive reuse” projects can have a cachet that appeals to young professionals seeking not just functional workplaces but ones with a certain “cool” factor.
“What they have going for them is this authenticity of place, and the history and heritage surrounding that,” Donald K. Carter, a senior research fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s Remaking Cities Institute, said of industrial buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries. As a result, he added, “almost every city is now looking at these buildings as real economic development assets.”
That’s the thinking of the developers behind the North Carolina projects, but Rocky Mount Mills is arguably the most ambitious. The facility, a former cotton mill at a picturesque bend in the Tar River, is a vast building with high ceilings, original wood floors, tall windows and giant heart pine beams. Completed in 2019, it includes retail, office and residential space.
Unlike other projects, this one is in rural, economically depressed eastern North Carolina. Rocky Mount never really recovered from the mill’s closure, and its resources are still limited: It has few megarich donors, no hordes of university students and not many hip businesses.
The developers aimed to create their own momentum. The mill property covers more than 150 acres and has four restaurants and four local breweries with taprooms. To help establish a community, Capitol Broadcasting bought and restored almost 70 original mill houses surrounding the campus. “We knew we wanted to create a quality-of-life place that people wanted to be a part of,” said Michael Goodmon, the vice president of real estate for Capitol Broadcasting, which also owns WRAL-TV in Raleigh and the Durham Bulls minor league baseball team, among other properties in the state.
The houses were snapped up almost instantly, and on weekends, the property almost feels like pre-pandemic times. But the office space is taking longer to fill; currently, it’s only 60% leased and lacks the kind of anchor tenants that Capitol Broadcasting had hoped to see.
But the developer sees opportunity in the remote-work models spawned by the pandemic. An hour’s drive to the west lies North Carolina’s Research Triangle, home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University. That region is booming and poised to grow more: Apple just announced plans to build a $1 billion campus. Some of those workers might prefer to live in a place like Rocky Mount, where housing and services are affordable and traffic is negligible.
“We’ve got lower-priced housing, food and beer, and kayaking on the river and hiking,” Goodmon said. “With the growth and talent base coming out of the Triangle, areas like Rocky Mount will only feed on it.”
Other developers are hoping to capitalize on similar advantages.
In Greensboro, a nonprofit lender, Self-Help, has been transforming Revolution Mill, a former flannel mill that closed in 1982. It’s now home to 125 businesses, 150 residences, restaurants and outdoor performance spaces. In a second phase, Self-Help recently began renovating an adjacent five-story, 145,000-square-foot building that was once used for packing and shipping. With 18-foot ceilings and concrete pillars, it will hold restaurants on the ground floor and offices and apartments above.
In High Point, city officials worked with High Point University and other donors to redevelop a former hosiery factory. But the city’s challenge is unusual: It hosts a renowned biannual furniture market, and its downtown has been taken over by furniture showrooms that are vacant 10 months out of the year.
The High Point project, called Congdon Yards, is an effort to create a year-round gathering spot that will also draw young talent. Along with offices, the space includes a coworking area and a 6,000-square-foot workshop with commercial-grade woodworking equipment available to local designers and artisans.
For those redevelopment projects, a project in Winston-Salem serves as a shining example of what a smart adaptive reuse project might achieve.
The city has long been home to the tobacco company R.J. Reynolds, now part of Reynolds American. When Reynolds moved its manufacturing operations out of town in 1986, officials from the city, Wake Forest University and Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center began making long-term plans and investments in the site. The first building was redeveloped in 2012.
Today, just about all of the warehouses, factories and other industrial facilities have been renovated in a 2.1-million-square-foot complex called Innovation Quarter. The buildings are home to the health system’s labs and the university’s medical and engineering schools, as well as companies like the IT firm Inmar and dozens of startups — all tightly clustered around a small green space.
Innovation Quarter is no moribund research park. Thousands of workers and students cross its 330 acres daily, and its administrators maintain a busy schedule of yoga classes, food trucks and lunchtime concerts in the park. That dynamism has transformed the rest of Winston-Salem, which now boasts a busy downtown with significant residential growth. The city gained workers during the pandemic, according to a McKinsey report.
“This area lost jobs in the ’80s and ’90s,” said Graydon Pleasants, the head of real estate development at Innovation Quarter. “Now, people are leaving California and leaving the big cities. The spillover is finally happening.”
The last unfinished spot abutting the park is a former power plant being redeveloped by a local firm, Front Street Capital, as an office building. In a tip of the hat to the structure’s past, the company turned an adjacent elevated rail line on concrete trestles into a walkway; below, in what was once the coal pit, locals sit at a brewery’s long tables while their children play nearby.
“Our people love it because it feels really alive,” said David Mullen, president of the Variable, an ad agency that occupies part of the building. Several years ago, he said, it was difficult to attract high-level talent to the city. But now, “people visit and are like, ‘Holy cow!’” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.