Redevelopment milestone for Gastonia mill

After almost 20 years of false starts and a near demolition, word came Sunday night that Gastonia’s most famous textile mill is likely to be redeveloped at last. 

Sunday night, the city of Gastonia announced in a press release that the mill’s latest would-be redeveloper, Camden Development Partners, had obtained a firm commitment from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for Federal Housing Administration financing. Camden president John Gumpert notified Gastonia officials of the HUD commitment on Sunday.

Gastonia Mayor John Bridgeman 17 years ago chaired the first committee to explore how to reuse the historic Loray Mill. Sunday he said in a statement, “It’s been a long road, but it will be remarkable for West Gastonia. The Loray Mill project will be the nucleus of millions of dollars of reinvestment in that area – both directly and as a catalyst for others.”

The vast Loray Mill, most recently known as the Firestone Mill, was built west of downtown Gastonia in the early 1900s, then enlarged in 1920. It claimed to be the largest textile mill in the South under one roof, with 537,000 square feet and five stories, as well as a seven-story entrance tower. At its peak the mill was bigger than many N.C. towns, with 3,500 workers by 1927.

But more than size, it was labor strife and a bloody strike that brought fame, or infamy, to the Loray Mill.

In the spring of 1929, as the communist-affiliated National Textile Workers Union began trying to organize the mill’s labor force, some 1,800 workers went on strike. On June 7, in an altercation while visiting a tent village of strikers, Gastonia Police Chief Orville Aderholt was shot and killed. It was never clear who was at fault; 16 union supporters were tried for murder but released in September after a mistrial. Then on Sept. 14, at a union rally, Ella May Wiggins, a popular speaker known for her ballads in support of working women, was killed.

Her death helped bring national attention and sympathy to the mill workers,’ situation but did little to encourage unionization in North Carolina, which for decades has had the nation’s lowest rate of unionized workers.

Firestone bought the mill in the 1930s; it closed in 1993, and in the 19 years since, a variety of optimistic development plans have failed to materialize. Charlotte developer Jim Gross began a condominium project in 1996 but couldn’t pre-sell enough units, and the project fizzled.

In 1997, Firestone announced it would demolish the building.

The nonprofit group Preservation North Carolina stepped in and began negotiating with Firestone, and in 1998 Firestone donated the property to PNC.

Another team of developers began work on a renovation plan but a downturn in 2001 squelched it. In 2003, PNC optioned the property to Camden, and in 2004 the city and Gaston County agreed to lease space in the building to help make the project successful. But after years rounding up debt and equity participants, Camden slammed into the 2008 financial crisis, and its financing fell through. Camden began seeking FHA-insured financing in 2010.

The project will include 190 loft apartments and 79,000 square feet of commercial space. Planned amenities include a large gym, large pool and event space, and in the public areas will be a permanent exhibit on textile mill history, focusing on the Loray Mill.

The City of Gastonia and Gaston County have agreed to lease part of the commercial space for up to 10 years and have allowed a 50 percent property tax deferral, available to historic properties in North Carolina.

“We expect to begin construction the day after closing, which we are saying will be mid-August,” Gumpert said in the news release. “We will start sooner if we close sooner – everyone is motivated to get a closing date that is as early as possible.”

A successful redevelopment would be a major preservation coup for this region.

“Loray Mill is one of North Carolina’s most historically significant buildings,” PNC president Myrick Howard said. “When completed in 1902, it dwarfed all other Southern textile mills and firmly established Gaston County as a textile center. The 1929 Loray strike drew national and international attention, and it profoundly shaped North Carolina politics for a generation or more.”

Howard and city officials predict the investment in the mill’s renovation will results in hundreds of jobs, revitalize the surrounding neighborhood and attract both tourists and young, creative-class residents.