Preservationists often encounter abandoned historic mills these days. The withering of the textile industry in the United States left hundreds of them sitting empty and vulnerable around the country - but especially in the South where the industry was the backbone of many local economies. Some people see them as massive white elephants only valuable for the bricks that form them and the land under them. Others see them as opportunities for mixed-use development that can preserve their often stark, industrial beauty while revitalizing the communities around them.
In Knoxville today we have one example of how to turn around these industrial assets, but we have another mill that is languishing in limbo and imperiled by neglect. One was rescued by a local development firm and the other is in the hands of out of state interests.
Josh Flory reported on one local success story - Cherokee Mills - this week in the Knoxville News Sentinel. Dominion Development Group took on the vacant 170,000 square foot building on Sutherland Avenue last year and successfully converted it into a campus style office complex with such tenant amenities as a cafeteria and fitness facility. The design work by Smee Busby Architects shows a sensitivity that preserves the historic character of the space while making it functional for tenants. The company's owners, Steve Hall and Mark Taylor, even kept the community in mind while planning for the mill's financial success. Meeting and gallery space in the building and an outdoor plaza were included for tenant as well as community events.
The future is uncertain for Standard Knitting Mill. Located in the industrial swath of land between the historic Parkridge and Fourth and Gill Neighborhoods, the original portion of the mill was in place along Washington Avenue by 1903. Later additions almost doubled the size of the complex, but the earliest portion was destroyed around 1991 for a proposed magnet high school that was never built. The current footprint still comes in at over 400,000 square feet and was the home of Delta Apparel until 2007.
Delta had been slowly vacating the building and relocating to modern digs with easy interstate access for about a year when The Landmark Group out of North Carolina appeared on the scene. Landmark has developed a reputation for redeveloping textile mills over the last 20 years under the leadership of founder DeWayne Anderson. Jim Sari, CEO, played golf with the president of Delta Apparel and was interested in the Knoxville mill. Sari proposed that Delta donate the mill, appraised at just over $2 million, to a non-profit organization in exchange for a charitable deduction equal to the value of the property. The non-profit could then sell the building to a developer. The Landmark Group planned to be that developer and reportedly planned to spend up to $50 million creating a mixed-use development.
Sari approached Knox Heritage about accepting the donation, but the two groups were unable to come to an agreement. Knox Heritage's concerns included an inability to guarantee the preservation of the building and meeting IRS regulations governing bargain sales of real estate for charitable purposes.
In June of 2007 Delta Apparel donated the mill and surrounding land to The Mid-Atlantic Foundation in Goldsboro, North Carolina. It appears as an asset on their tax return for that year, but no value is listed and they do not have a website listing more information. Since that transfer, the mill, a highly visible landmark along I-40 on the east side of downtown, has stood dark and empty. The Landmark Group never purchased it. Last May, Josh Flory reported on plans by The Mid Atlantic Foundation to sell the mill to a new owner proposing an industrial use. Those plans never came to fruition. Now the organziation owes 2 years of back taxes to Knox County and one year to the City of Knoxville totaling over $19,000.
Back in the summer of 2007 there were no plans for the new owners to maintain the sprinkler system and the roof had already developed several leaks. One local developer who toured the place a few months ago reported homeless people appear to have taken up residence in the lower level.
It's time for everyone to step up and insure the future of Standard Knitting Mill. The Mid-Atlantic Foundation must secure the building and make the sprinkler system operational. It is irresponsible to do otherwise. Another loss of a historic building due to neglect and arson can be avoided.
The Foundation should work aggressively with the City of Knoxville, KCDC and the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership to market the site for redevelopment that preserves the building and compliments the renaissance underway in the surrounding historic neighborhoods. The site is adjacent to the new Hall of Fame Drive, close to downtown and highly visible from the interstate. This makes for an attractive location and incentives already exist that can be utilized to spur its redevelopment.
Let's hope Cherokee Mills has set a new standard that other owners and developers will strive to achieve.
Watch a video about mill preservation at Preservation North Carolina's website.
Check out a blog about the rebirth of the Glencoe Mill Village.