By Chris Burritt
Southern Railway trains once carried boxcars of cotton for the manufacture of denim, flannel and corduroy to the cluster of Cone Mills factories in northeast Greensboro. The tracks still cross Yanceyville Street, as they have for decades, and run alongside a shuttered red-brick mill that developers envision as a potential boutique hotel.
Follow the tracks across a trestle spanning North Buffalo Creek, and more than 30 years of dreaming gives way to reality — a construction site with piles of gravel and sand, and the rumble of trucks and a yellow excavator next to the tall, sandy brick smokestack of Revolution Mill.
“It is good to see a structure like that get used again,’’ says Joe Hill, whose parents made denim for Cone Mills. The retired facilities director for Guilford County Schools grew up in the mill village that he says could benefit economically from a $100 million redevelopment of the 117-year-old mill.
Self-Help, a Durham-based credit union and lender, bought the 512,000-square-foot factory out of foreclosure in 2012. Most of the office space it inherited was leased, so it renovated more.
Whether people want to live in the heart of Greensboro’s mill district will be a test not only for Self-Help but also for boosters of Greensboro’s center city, which is 2 miles south. The additional housing is needed, according to Zach Matheny, president and CEO of Downtown Greensboro Inc. The central business district’s population of about 2,300 people is “a very low number for a city of Greensboro’s size,’’ he says. “I’d like to see it double. The more residents we have downtown, the more vibrant our businesses will be.’’
A section of Revolution Mill has been converted into 142 one- and two-bedroom apartments, which are available to rent with the first tenants moving in later this year. More than 500 people have expressed interest, according to Nick Piornack, the project’s business development manager.
“It is definitely urban living,’’ says Gina Alem, an interior designer who has shared a studio in Revolution Mill with two other designers for two and a half years. “I believe younger people and older people with open minds will come here.’’
Businesses are starting to bet that Revolution Mill will succeed long term. Earlier this year, Natty Greene’s Pub & Brewing Co. announced plans to open a restaurant and market selling locally raised meat and vegetables in the mill’s former carpentry shop. Later, Chris Lester and Kayne Fisher, who started Natty Greene’s in 2004, plan to relocate their brewery to Revolution Mill.
“I wanted to ride on the coattails of what [Self-Help] was doing here,’’ says Darryl Howard, creative director of Space Logix, which provides office space and services to small businesses. He relocated to the mill from the nearby State Street district in 2015.
The opening of Natty Greene’s next year and the extension of the city’s greenway with walking and biking trails to Revolution Mill will attract people from across the city and rejuvenate surrounding neighborhoods, Howard says. Looking two or three years down the road, Piornack says he’s talked to Matheny about using trolley buses to connect Revolution Mill to the Greensboro Grasshoppers baseball stadium and bars and restaurants on South Elm Street. “The 2-mile gap between Revolution Mill and downtown, how do we bridge that?’’ Piornack says. “It all needs to be considered as a whole.’’
Previous renovations created 130,000 square feet of office space that’s 95% leased, says Piornack. Another 120,000 square feet refurbished this year is half leased with two dozen tenants, including LT Apparel Group, a New York-based clothing designer and manufacturer. Designers work with the Adidas and Carhartt brands.
The property has drawn a range of businesses –– lawyers, artists, hairstylists, therapists, interior decorators and nonprofits –– attracted to the maple floors, brick walls and light streaming through the tall arched windows. The renovation left exposed massive wooden floor joists and timbers, accentuating the architectural symmetry that withstood the pounding of heavy looms turning yarn into cloth. UNC Greensboro’s Weatherspoon Art Museum is using space in Revolution Mill for “things that are experimental,’’ says director Nancy Doll.
Constructed in 1899, the mill was the first manufacturer of flannel in the southern U.S. and a cornerstone of the 20th-century textile empire of brothers Moses and Ceasar Cone. It grew into the largest maker of flannel in the world by the 1930s. Over the next half century, Cone Mills fueled Greensboro’s economy, employing 2,600 people at its peak and providing families with homes, grocery stores, ballfields and hospital care. The economic engine began sputtering in the 1970s as U.S. textile production began drifting overseas.
The mill drew interest from developers after it closed in 1982. Two years later, it earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places, based on its design and construction and connection to early industrial development. But Greensboro has struggled to rebound from manufacturing’s demise: The city’s population has increased by about 90,000 since 1990, compared with more than 210,000 in Raleigh and 360,000 in Charlotte. Despite housing five colleges and universities filled with hundreds of Ph.Ds and thousands of eager students, it hasn’t garnered a reputation as a creative, entrepreneurial hotspot.
After the mill closed, parts of it were converted into office space and attracted tenants including the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship. Developers Frank Auman and Jim Peeples purchased the mill in 2003, but a lack of financing pushed their renovation efforts into foreclosure. Self-Help bought the 50-acre site for $8 million in 2012, then two years later purchased the land that housed the now-demolished Olympic Mill for $2.4 million. The Nussbaum Center moved to south Greensboro in 2012.
The project marks the biggest single investment by Self-Help’s Ventures Fund for business, real-estate and housing lending. The redevelopment also represents the largest commercial construction project underway in the city, according to the Greensboro Partnership economic-development group.
“We believed in Revolution Mill’s potential to have a transformative impact on Greensboro,’’ says Micah Kordsmeier, Self-Help’s development manager. “We decided to buy the property because we thought it was too important an asset to this community, not to mention the many businesses that were already here, to simply allow to decline and eventually crumble.”
The development, including space for Natty Greene’s and additional offices and the new apartments, will cost $85 million, according to Kordsmeier. Another $15 million will pay for additional parking, a walking and biking trail on the former Olympic Mill site, and pedestrian bridges over North Buffalo Creek.
Self-Help, a not-for-profit with $2.1 billion in assets, owns and manages 20 properties in Washington, D.C., and 10 North Carolina cities including Asheville, Charlotte and Durham. The ventures fund, with assets of $691 million, manages real-estate projects.
Revolution Mill still has a long way to go. Spring Garden Bakery and Coffeehouse, whose flagship store near UNC Greensboro is a community institution, closed its cafe at the mill in August 2015. Then Blue Spoon Market, Cafe and Cooking School, which occupied the same spot, closed in July. “There are not enough tenants yet,’’ says Melissa Michos, general manager of Spring Garden Bakery. “It will probably take 10 years, but Revolution Mill will become a destination spot.’’
Lawyer Karen Schaede, who has leased space at the mill for five years, is more confident. “There is so much energy here,’’ she says.