Old mills hum with new uses

After wave of textile-plant closures, mills turn into concert halls and museums.

Like most people in Joanna, S.C., Lester Hightower lost his job when the town's 880,000 square-foot cotton mill closed.

But even as property values and population have dwindled, the "core" of townspeople are bucking against obsolescence, says Mr. Hightower.

After the initial shutdown shock, a local developer bought out the brick hulk that stares down at Joanna. Today, the 80-year-old mill is buzzing with activity.

"There's no buildings in this town empty," exhorts Hightower, who just got a job as a maintenance manager for one of the new tenants – a sawmill.

Not everyone is so fortunate. Sixty-two mills closed last year – a record for the Carolina textile industry since the Depression. In the past five years, 75,000 job layoffs have left hundreds of brick mills as quiet as wasps' nests in winter.

But some Carolinans aren't content to let the heavy-timbered mills haunt them.

Some developers, mill owners, and townspeople are turning them into symbols of rural economic growth: Instead of stitching underwear, many former cotton mills are now turning out alternators and baby furniture. In Joanna, there are plans to use the dank, abandoned halls of a mill to grow mushrooms. One mill in Anderson, S.C., is to be transformed into a dinosaur museum. The conversions of mills into centers of other forms of industry represent an economy in transition as the Carolinas shift towards a post-textile era.

One of the most successful towns in this regard is Eden, a remote mill town near the Virginia border. A few years after the Spray Cotton Mill closed, a Raleigh developer converted a four-story mill into 60 apartments, renting them for as $350 a month.

"This has always been a mill town, and to see those buildings empty was very tough on the community," says town planner Kelly Stultz. "The mills can serve as a monument to negativity, but now they symbolize rebirth. We're finding a way to survive – differently."

Following New England's example

There is a precedent for what is happening in North Carolina.

In New England, many mills continue to be transformed into offices for the high-tech industry. But unlike previous mass mill closings in the Northeast and Midwest, the failure of the Southern textile mills is not limited to large centers of trade. Indeed, many of the South's now-dormant textile mills lie in remote one-company towns.

"Just about every small town in the South, starting back 100 years ago, had at least one cotton mill," says Bob Ragan, a historian in Charlotte. "Most of them I pass now are just there, dilapidated."

The unexpected breadth of the shut-downs (236 mills in five years) is a palpable test of the Piedmont's morale.

"Albatross, isn't it?" says Howard Hoffman, a Boca Raton, Fla., developer now working to rehab part of the downtown Salisbury, N.C., mill into a civic center. "But people are starting to come onboard now. Why? Because their towns are dying."

In Greensboro, the old Revolution Mill is a groundbreaking "small business incubator," says Erskine Bowles, the Democratic Senate candidate for North Carolina.

"That mill revolutionized the textile industry 100 years ago, but now it's revolutionary again," says Mr. Bowles. (While Bowles helped raise $15 million in redevelopment "equity," his opponent, Elizabeth Dole, has not had to fight so hard: Townspeople in her hometown of Salisbury want to put a "Liddy Dole Museum" in an empty downtown mill.)

And even tiny Bynum, N.C., a one-mill town that seemed on the verge of disappearing after the looms shut down, is making its way back with a "Front Porch" country music concert series that now draws fans – and new residents. Friday night, one of the prodigies from the Front Porch, Tift Merritt, played her first national gig on the Late Show with David Letterman.

Turning mills into mines

Other towns such as Spartanburg, S.C., are turning the mills into mines. Selling rare "heart of pine" mill beams for $12 a boardfoot is a profitable business.

Still, in former company towns like Clinton Ware Shoals, N.C., gigantic mills loom portentously against the hard sky. In many places, the mills are but barren reminders of a fulfilling community endeavor that sewed a nation's jeans, curtains, and socks.

"My dad has memories of when he was a child walking to this place to take my granddaddy's lunch," says Ms. Stultz. "Everybody has been touched by these mills."

Finding niche markets

The industry won't die, analysts say, but rather than denim, the few remaining textile mills will churn out niche-market items like fire-proof fabrics for rescue workers. At the same time, many workers, are having to find other lines of work.

"It's the smaller sewing operations in the smaller towns where the major impact is going to be felt," says Conner Bailey, editor of the journal of Southern Rural Sociology at Auburn University in Alabama.

To help, developers can get historic preservation tax credits – like the ones given to the developer of the 600,000-square foot Loray Mills in Gastonia, where a bloody textile strike occurred in 1929.

What's more, 18 mill projects are now under consideration for "brownfields" designation, which means developers will get taxpayer help in cleaning up the land.

Despite the remoteness of Joanna, the drive to revive the mill is coming from the community's faith in itself, says Hightower: "We're trying our best to recreate the town to the way it was."

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