GASTONIA In its heyday, Gastonias biggest and most historic textile mill pumped life into the community.
Bubbles Styers lived across the street from the six-level-Firestone plant, formerly the Loray, and saw crowds of workers at shift changes. Machinery hummed like a waterfall; on summer nights, the noise drifted through open windows in her unairconditioned home, lulling her to sleep.
When the operation moved in 1993 a strange silence fell on the neighborhood.
It was terrible, said Styers, 55, who still lives next to the old mill that will soon be transformed into a new residential and commercial property. You could hear dogs barking down the block. We couldnt sleep.
The future of the vacant building troubled many. For nearly 100 years, the towering plant had been a part of the communitys fabric employing thousands, providing recreation, social activities, instilling pride in the surrounding mill village.
It was also one of the states most significant historical buildings, site of a deadly 1929 labor strike that made headlines around the world. The violence claimed the lives of Gastonia police chief Orville Aderholt and union activist and balladeer Ella May Wiggins.
Firestone bought the massive building in the 1930s and stayed until construction of a new tire cord manufacturing plant in Kings Mountain in 1993.
Some considered the old redbrick mill an eyesore. Others saw it as a treasure, but wondered what to do with a 600,000-square-foot giant.
In 1998, Firestone donated the building to Preservation North Carolina. The private nonprofit paid such expenses as insurance, grounds upkeep, a night watchman and sprinkler repairs while looking for a buyer.
Meanwhile, plans for reusing the building came and went. In 2003, Atlanta-based Camden Development Group got involved and by 2008 had tentative financial commitments.
The deal nearly closed, but fell apart in the economic downturn.
Camden kept trying. And Gastonia officials recently announced redevelopment aid had finally come through.
They said Camden has a firm commitment for Federal Housing Administration Financing from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the project.
The planned $39 million first phase includes 190 loft apartments, 79,000 square feet of commercial space, and 34,000 square feet of amenities including a gym and swimming pool. Construction could start in August, officials said.
Its a gift from heaven, said Gastonia Mayor John Bridgeman, who chaired a committee that first looked at ways of saving the building in 1995. This is long, long overdue. It could have gone either way. Thirty-nine million dollars is a lot of money. It will be a real shot in the arm for jobs and putting people back to work.
The Camden Group specializes in historic redevelopment and its projects include loft apartments in Knoxvilles historic Sterchis building.
Camden partner Clay Landers said these kinds of projects are really tough and have a lot of moving parts.
Loray was no exception. But Landers said We got excited about what the building meant to this community. Its a big part of their legacy.
The Loray redevelopment follows on the heels of two other recent major privately funded redevelopment projects: the 1920s vintage Armstrong Apartments as 18 market rate apartments and the old City Hospital as 75 affordable apartment for lower income senior citizens. Thats an investment of about $13 million.
Jack Kiser, the citys special projects executive, sees the Loray project as a cornerstone for overall revitalization.
It will be the nucleus of economic rebirth for the West Franklin Boulevard corridor and the surrounding neighborhood - the Loray Mill National Historic District with about 350 homes.
Many of the people who lived there originally were millworkers recruited from the mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.
They moved to Gastonia to work in what was called the Souths largest textile plant. Built in 1902, the name Loray was derived by combining the last names of two company officers, Love and Gray.
Kiser commended Camden for sticking with it through difficult times.
They continued to invest time and money in this, Kiser said. Theyve devoted a tremendous amount of resources.
A key part of the current plan is the City of Gastonia and Gaston County agreeing to lease 40,000 square feet of the commercial space for up to ten years until they can find tenants to take up the leases. Also, the city and county are allowing the 50 percent property tax deferral thats available to historic properties in North Carolina.
People still living in the neighborhood have ties to the Loray. Carl Carpenter, 84, lives in a 104-year-old house in the shadow of the plant. His father was in a National Guard unit called out during the bitter 1929 strike, and manned a cannon in front of the mill.
Carpenter hopes the redevelopment will strengthen the neighborhood.
We need something over there, he said, looking at the mill. Itll be good to have a new neighbor.
Sticking with project
As the old mills fate hung in the balance, Preservation North Carolina looked after things as best it could.
Myrick Howard, president of the Raleigh-based nonprofit, said that was a struggle and couldnt have gone on forever.
Luckily, the building was solid with a 2-acre roof that wasnt so terrible old.
Still, the Loray was huge baggage to carry. Inside the cavernous structure, the watchman walked the equivalent of 12 blocks on each of two nightly rounds. Paint peeled from the walls and pigeon droppings dotted the birch floors. Vandals tossed rocks through windows. There were occasional authorized visitors: Rap rock band Paper Tongues and actor/comedian Tracy Morgan from Saturday Night Live shot videos in the rooms where thousands of workers once stood.
As the years passed, Howard was amazed at the Camden Groups persistence and perseverance.
When all is said and done the project is better now that it would have been years ago, he said. Over the last ten years theres been substantial improvement in the Gastonia market. Interest rates are better than theyve been in five or six years and there are better tax credits. Gastonia feels like its own its way.
Looming over West Gastonia, the Loray with its arched windows and a 7-story tower has a huge amount of presence, Howard said. It was built when industrial buildings were a source of community pride.
Marker going up
Following the Lorays journey for nearly 20 years is Lucy Penegar, vice chairman of the Gaston County Historic Preservation Commission.
Shes a keeper of the keys letting visitors inside. And she volunteers to mow the grass out front.
When Lorays rebirth attempt fell through in 2008 I was really depressed, Penegar said. I thought wed missed our chance.
Now, shes relieved that an important piece of history will be preserved and help this whole end of town really blossom.
Preservation North Carolina plans a Loray celebration event for September. Also on tap is the dedication of North Carolina historical marker identifying the location of the 1929 strike and pointing out the Loray building.
The marker will go up on West Franklin Boulevard near the old mill. In 1986, a state proposal to erect a historical marker failed because Gastonia officials objected to the wording.
They wanted to omit any mention of the deaths in the strike and include a reference about local citizens defeating the first Communist efforts to control southern textiles. The state didnt like the alternate wording and shelved the project.
Attitudes changed. In 2007 Gastonia officials asked the state to reopen the proposal - with the same text the state had originally wanted. After the marker was approved, Gastonia officials put it in storage, awaiting a final resolution on the Loray.
While the marker calls attention to an important chapter in labor history Penegar sees more in the Loray story than a strike.
To me, the mill is a symbol of good hard-working people, she said. Theyre the backbone of why we were so important.