Feb 27, 2015 03:30AM
By Jason Huddle
Liles Construction took Gibson Mill from old and delapidated to refurbished and profitable
No one enjoys seeing blight; empty buildings tend to reflect the economic stability of a city. While some represent business and industry of a bygone era, they also represent the unique architecture and character of a period.
By: Kimberly Cassell
The Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust for Historic Preservation conducted a study in 2012 and produced a report from its findings. Entitled, The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Value of Building Reuse, it found that, “Each year, approximately 1 billion square feet of buildings are demolished and replaced with new construction. Reusing existing buildings is good for the economy, the community and the environment.”
The report says that, economically, re-purposing old buildings saw private investors bankroll $90 billion into projects between 1980 and 2012 on a national level. Much of this money benefitted local communities, spent on the 2 million jobs generated and necessary construction materials purchased.
Environmentally, reuse of original structural elements – brick, concrete, wood – saves natural resources. The Preservation Green Lab report says, “It can take up to 80 years for a new energy-efficient building to overcome, through efficient operations, the climate change impacts created by its construction. Renovation projects that require many new materials can reduce or even negate the benefits of reuse.”
On a community level, preserving the historical significance of our old buildings draws tourism, commerce and pride. Thankfully, there are visionaries in Cabarrus County who are compelled to save these buildings rather than tear them down and start from scratch.
In 1899, Gibson Manufacturing Company – now referred to as Gibson Mill – began operations under the ownership of the Cannon family. Manufacturing towels and hosiery, the mill operated for more than 100 years, closing its doors in July 2003 when so much manufacturing went overseas.
In June 2004, George Liles Jr., Tom Cotter, Joe Liles and Trey Burnette of SouthPaw Investors purchased Gibson Mill. “That is an interesting evolution,” George Liles says. “I had an opportunity to work with Tom years ago. Cotter Communications built a facility and I had the privilege of doing that project. That company continued to evolve and he ended up selling the company.
“Joe and Tom decided they wanted to pursue an automobile storage facility. Everything they looked at had issues. Simultaneous to that going on, Pillowtex Plant 6 (Gibson Mill) came on the market through bankruptcy. I contacted Tom and Joe one day to come over and look at this facility. I’ll never forget, we were standing on the roof and Tom said we ‘d been looking for Rhode Island and found California.”
Liles is referring to the 660,000 square feet and 58 acres that make up the Gibson Mill property. Yes, the partners got their car storage space with AutoBarn Classic Cars and Collector Car Storage & Sales, and so much more…Vintage Motor Club (now City Club), Carolina Rustica and US Mattress. New life has been breathed into the old mill in the form of key-man executive office space, retail and the largest antique mall in the Southeast: The Depot.
Since Liles is president and founder of Liles Construction, he knew what to look for the day he and his partners toured the old mill. “The roof. It’s the maker or breaker of a deal. If you don’t have good roofs, you’re starting with a very strong hit. Some (rooftops at the mill) were practically brand new, none were very old,” he explains. “There was very conscientious maintenance of this facility: economic clean-up of the property, underground storage tanks were removed.”
What Liles and his associates bought is about half the size of the original mill complex. “Where all the parking lots are was once original buildings, demolished in the mid-‘90s and covered up with grass,” he says. “We started putting in parking lots and exposed a couple of underground vaults; one still housed an old pump.”
Discoveries were not limited to the exterior. “The first time we ever visited this facility, it was like Armageddon,” Liles continues. “All the stations were still set up with personal effects, sodas, open snack packages, etc. Those are now in storage with the hopes of setting up a museum or kiosk someday.”
Liles Construction has served as contractor for the re-purposing of Gibson Mill, starting at the front door. The current front entrance originally went into an electrical room and the vestibule was once a locker room with adjacent restrooms that are now part of City Club. Concrete floors have a high-gloss seal, preserving the imperfections derived from so many years of use. Exposed brick and original paint pepper the interior.
“We have some stained-glass windows in our break room. The lady who owned a stained-glass business (Yolonda Shimpock with Celestial Glassworks) walked around and gathered artifacts that she thought might be interesting,” Liles explains. “She took those objects and glass from different parts of the building and used them as part of her design.
“The clock tower was/is an elevator shaft. It projects so high above the building because there used to be catwalks between the buildings that have been demolished. The elevator buttons are still on the wall.
“When Richard (Sexton of Carolina Rustica) moved in, when we were going through the initial space with him, we had steel columns with chipped paint. We told Richard we could paint the columns. He said, ‘No, that’s shabby chic, that’s what we want.’ This space (Liles Construction), this entire area, the walls were all painted. We sandblasted here. We had second thoughts because of the enormity of the job, but we’ve had no regrets.”
Another decision Liles doesn’t regret is the inclusion of The Depot, an 88,000-square-foot antique mall developed in 2010. “We stumbled into that,” he explains. “We had a tenant here that dabbled in the antique market; they approached us about the concept. We did that on a shoestring budget with minimal investment. We already had the parking lot and restrooms so all we had to do was create an attractive storefront and add some heat. Our goal was to see it through to spring and see if it had potential. When we originally started, we only had the one room. We had to add Room 2 to the left before we even opened because Room 1 was already full.”
Today, The Depot houses more than 600 booths in five rooms. Liles actually looks stumped when asked why the antique mall concept has been so successful. “We’ve got a really sharp manager at The Depot,” he says. “Janna (Baker) knows this business inside and out, and has a sense of what will work. It’s remarkable to hear her explain how she makes it work.”
As to what’s ahead for the rest of the mill property, it’s clear that more development is on the horizon. Construction equipment sits adjacent to The Depot’s parking lot, in front of a 28,000-square-foot mill building toward the back of the property.
“We’re expanding the parking lot for The Depot – space is at a premium on Saturdays – and for the building in the back, some of the oldest space with the old, original clearstory (windows above eye level that bring in more light and/or air). It makes for a lot of character,” Liles says. “It would make an awesome restaurant space or a market-type environment, similar to the old slave market in Charleston. With the level of activity with The Depot, we would like something back there that would complement.”
There are also three to four acres of undeveloped property located on the other side of a stream. Liles and his partners are still in the thinking stages of what would best suit the spot. One concept sees modern, clear-span warehouse space. Clear-span is an energy-efficient fabric shell that eliminates the need for daytime lighting within, and is warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Regardless, Liles maintains a “We’re going to build it and wait for them to come” sentiment. “We had the ability to cover our investments from Day 1. We’ve generated enough revenue to cover the costs, which took all the pressure off of us that we had to immediately build out the property,” he says, adding, “There’s no way you can rebuild this building in today’s market for what we paid for it. And it has historical significance. Everyone who comes through here had an experience with Plant 6.”
Liles can visualize breathing new life into other historical buildings, saying, “We’re waiting to completely saturate this facility, and see that happening in the next two to three years. We’ve enjoyed the repurposing of old mills. You don’t work off a set of drawings. You have a budget, but you don’t know how funds will be distributed. You constantly are figuring things out. We’ve got old galvanized water lines. Do we repair or replace? I’m a fixer. I love shooting from the hip.”
The enthusiasm is clear and Liles isn’t waiting to get his hands dirty again. He’s currently working with Harris Morrison on executive office suites in The Old Creamery at Church and Peachtree, another historical re-purposing.
“Are we aiding and abetting the competition? No, there’s plenty of space for everyone,” Liles says. “The Concord Hotel did a cost study of redevelopment. My eye is on that next.”
The Old Creamery at Church and Peachtree
The Cabarrus Creamery put down roots in the early 1900s on Union Street South as a cooperative dairy. From that location, the Burrage family “bottled milk from local farmers and distributed it throughout the region,” according to thecreameryconcord.com. “After starting a successful ice cream brand called Cabarrus Ideal, they built the existing Church Street facility in 1940. The building was originally art-deco style architecture before being brick veneered later. Over time, the business evolved to include condensed milk, butter, milk powder and other dairy products.”
The Charlotte Coca-Cola Bottling Company moved in next door to the Creamery, operating in that location until 1972. While their relocation brought an end to a popular partnership, it opened the door for the Burrages to purchase the Coke building. They did that in 1974 to expand their own operations – their ice cream business remained very popular – but closed for good in 2001.
Harris Morrison, CCIM, is principal manager of Harris Morrison Company (HMC), in Concord. As a commercial real estate developer native to Cabarrus County, he’s seen the changes in the business landscape. In December 2006, he purchased the old Cabarrus Creamery and Coca-Cola buildings.
“I had a vision for something special; it had a landmark status,” Morrison says. “It’s a lot easier in some cases to tear down and start over, but if you find a building with a good superstructure, you take what you have. It’s what gives it its flavor and character.”
Morrison also saw valuable existing infrastructure: sewer, water, sidewalks and bus stops. “You don’t have to go to a green field and start over,” he says. “It reduces blight. It’s on a main street so there’s certainly commercial viability.”
When HMC purchased the property, it was from a Charlotte developer that had already made some changes to the facade. Morrison then had to make some tough decisions about the rest of the property, which sits on seven acres.
“I hated to tear down a garage located behind the Coke building, but I had to. I’m environmentally conscious so we decided to bury it on-site. We actually dug a deep hole further back in the parking lot and buried the debris. We then moved the dirt to the garage ground.”
This leveled the land and allowed for easier development of the parking lot. Inside, Morrison found, among other things, water on the floors and a collapsed ceiling. Along the way, plumbing, electrical, windows and the roof have been replaced where needed.
“We preserved the Coca-Cola entrance, the octagonal windows, brickwork, the buttresses. And the Board of Elections (in the Creamery building) did a fantastic job, taking inspiration from the old bowstring trusses,” Morrison explains. “The Independent Tribune used to be a loading dock. There were 15 to 20 inches between floor levels, so we took out a wall, built a retaining wall, and used the brick from the old wall and buried it to raise that part of the floor.
“The initial plans were for office and retail and, by and large, it’s come in like that. There’s probably more office than I was anticipating. We saw the Creamery building as a large retail center, but the Board of Elections wanted to buy it.”
Adding to that office space is a number of executive key-man suites taking shape in the Coca-Cola building. HMC is working with Liles Construction in creating multi-office suites with common lobby, kitchen/break room, restroom and conference room spaces for its lessees. Care has been taken to preserve as much of the structure’s character as possible, with exposed brick, large windows, old paint, etc. It has a modern industrial vibe that many of today’s professionals find motivating and inspirational.
A courtyard runs between the two buildings, adding cohesion for other tenants that draw patrons to that space for events or to enjoy their purchases. These include Cougar Run Winery, Ritchie Hill Bakery and The Peachtree Market.
Lisa and Brian Perry of Perry Productions are working with HMC to market the office space…and become tenants. “We had pretty pictures, but people couldn’t see it,” Morrison says, referring to the space pre-construction. “We were fortunate enough to find some folks who were willing to buy in to the story early on. That’s probably the hardest thing about a project like this – people can’t visualize. The collapsed roof is now Lisa’s space. For five years, that space sat empty and I couldn’t sell anybody else on it. I did it myself and now we have Lisa and several other tenants.”
“My husband and I worked from home for 20 years and we looked at the space when it was a shell,” Perry says. “Then Harris started with the month-to-month office leasing. It’s not feasible for us to lease an office for three years. This type of shared environment has certainly given us an opportunity. I think, in a lot of ways, for small businesses, it levels the playing field. I can compete with bigger businesses and have the same benefits and amenities. When you talk about a marketing company, I want them to stop by my office and say ‘wow.’ ”
There is room – and preliminary plans have been drawn up – for future buildings on the property…three, at this point. However, that expansion will not take place in the foreseeable future. “If we had a strong tenant/buyer who wanted to take one of the new buildings, we’d move forward,” Morrison says. “But we need to secure this space first.”
Regardless of the end-uses or the timeline, seeing these historical old structures come back to life is a long-term investment in Cabarrus County that can now be enjoyed by the next generation of movers and shakers.