A vacant mill dominates the small downtown of Bessemer City, its red-brick facade partly caved in. Town founder John Smith built the 250,000-square-foot plant in 1896 for his company then known as Southern Cotton Mills, and it became a major Gaston County employer, positioned as the town’s literal center. About 420 people had worked at the Osage Mill in its heyday.
After 99 years as a textile mill, the final 250 workers left for good in 1995. The plant’s former owners, Spartanburg, South Carolina-based Reeves Brothers, couldn’t compete under the pressures of NAFTA and cheaper labor in Mexico.
So the building, which represents half of the square footage of structures in the town’s four-block downtown, began a 28-year decline. Open spaces replaced windows. Weeds overtook grass. It isn’t a vibrant look for any downtown.
Now, however, a makeover appears on the horizon through a $35 million effort to transform the old mill into 139 apartments. The historic renovation aims to spur new investments and add residents, helping reverse Bessemer City’s stagnant population growth.
Preservation brings hope
After eight years of planning, Boston-based WinnCompanies closed on the 5-acre property for $1.9 million in December. The developer will use historic and affordable housing tax credits, as well as loans from Bank of America, to convert the property into apartments. The units will target working-class families who earn 60% or less of the area median income in the town of fewer than 5,500 residents. Its population only grew by 88 during the 2010s, a contrast to fast-growing Charlotte, which is 30 miles east.
Jon Fioritto Jr. and Nikki Grisdale opened their Blossom Bakery and Cafe near the old mill three years ago. “When we look outside and there’s people working on the roof of the mill, it’s like we see dollar signs,” says Fioritto.
“We just see growth. That’s going to be 139 families and customers moving in,” adds Grisdale. “People are going to want to come out at night, and come through town and look for things to do.”
It’s the first adaptive-reuse project in North Carolina for WinnCompanies, which owns more than 100 apartment communities in 23 states and the District of Columbia. It has properties in Charlotte, Monroe and Raleigh and at the Camp LeJeune and Cherry Point military bases.
WinnCompanies, which came on board in 2020, stuck with Chapel Hill-based Tise-Kiester Architects, which had been working on the project for a previous developer whose plans fell through. The contractor is Winston-Salem-based Rehab Builders, which specializes in buildings eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
`We saw the vision’
Inside the building, water from a leaky roof puddles on the maple wood floor, some of it rotted and needing replacement. Open sky can be seen in other portions of the three-story building, which takes up a full block. Graffiti covers some walls, which exhibit peeling paint and other signs of decades of neglect.
Construction workers must protect the integrity of the building, including the maple floors, a huge smoke stack and an old water tower toward the back, in order to remain eligible for historic tax credits, says Aimee McHale, the Washington, D.C.-based vice president of WinnCompanies.
“That’s why the cost of construction is so costly,” she says during a walk through the building.
Rehab Builders expects to finish in late 2024, producing a property with 12 three-bedroom, 77 two-bedroom, and 50 one-bedroom apartments, skylights, a dog park and an on-site gym. Rental prices won’t be set until closer to opening.
Town officials expect the project to help spur other investments.
“Come back in two years when we’ll be doing the ribbon-cutting and you’ll see how the magic happens and the effect of good design and good construction,” says McHale.
Back at Blossom Bakery and Cafe, the owners are preparing for an influx of customers, even if the project won’t be finished for two years. They created an event space and hired an event planner to handle mostly weekend wedding and birthday parties for up to
120 people. They offer comedy nights and karaoke events, and envision hosting fundraisers for various groups.
“We saw the vision in the beginning and we didn’t wait to jump on the bandwagon,” says Fioritto. “We believe in this town and we believe in ourselves.”
Bessemer City is expecting more than $300 million in investment over the next few years, including a planned Amazon warehouse. Philadelphia-based Livent, which calls itself America’s original lithium company, expanded its lithium hydroxide production site last year to meet demands from the electric-vehicle battery industry. The 118-acre Edgewood 85 Commerce Park also opened in 2022. “Bessemer City is growing in a positive way in all directions,” Mayor Becky Smith says.
Having people live downtown will continue to make a difference, says Fioritto, who is on the town’s downtown development board. “It’s going to take that mill for people to say, ‘Hey, it’s worth investing here because it’s not just an old dilapidated town that doesn’t have anything.”
Bob Hovis worked 27 years for Reeves Brothers, and was the plant manager in Bessemer City when the mill closed. At its height, the mill produced 275,000 yards of fabric per week for use in high-fashion women’s apparel. Chemical giant DuPont perfected the blending of cottons, polyesters and rayons at the plant into a product that could be dyed, says Hovis, a former town mayor and current Gaston County commissioner.
“It’s so easy to bulldoze stuff down, and throw things from the past away, but at some point in time we need to hold onto buildings like this so we can show it to our grandchildren and explain what their great-grandparents did,” he says.
N.C. Sen. Ted Alexander says Bessemer City will benefit by preserving its past. He’s a regional director for Preservation North Carolina who lives in Shelby.
“A project like this has transformative capabilities for a town,” he says. “I look at it almost like an atomic bomb going off in a way, and it goes off, kaboom, and then it spreads out. This is going to spread out.” ■