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Gastonia’s Loray Mill is sold for redevelopment

GASTONIA Loray Mill – the site of Gastonia’s bitter 1929 labor strike – has been sold to a redevelopment partnership.

After years of promising deals that faded without completion, one of North Carolina’s most historic buildings may finally get a new start.

Work is scheduled to begin immediately on the $39 million first phase, which includes 190 loft apartments, 79,000 square feet of commercial space and 34,000 square feet of amenities.

The public is invited to a construction kickoff at 6 p.m. April 9 in front of the mill building.

The 110-year-old Loray – also known as Firestone Mill – rises six stories above West Gastonia and sprawls across 600,000 square feet.

Since 1998, the nonprofit Preservation North Carolina has tried to find a developer for what was once the world’s largest textile mill.

Over the years, it was touch and go. But last summer Atlanta-based Camden Development Group got a firm commitment for Federal Housing Administration Financing from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the project.

The deal closed this week.

“We’re thrilled,” said Myrick Howard, president of Raleigh-based Preservation North Carolina. “This has been discussed for decades. It’s really been a struggle. But the guys who bought it stuck with it for a decade… . This is a testament to their perseverance.”

According to Howard, the Camden Group got other investors involved, steered the project and developed a partnership that bought the building for $660,000.

“We could have made more money from salvage,” he said. “There’s a lot of fine wood in the building. But salvage is not what we’re about.”

The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and Myrick said the original Loray plans are in the Smithsonian Institution’s collection.

Closing the financial transaction, which included federal and state historic tax credits along with a HUD guaranteed loan, took nearly seven years.

A key factor involved in the financing was the development team’s commitment to preserve the original building’s architectural features.

Dedication of marker

Local leaders think the mill redevelopment will have a major impact.

Gastonia Mayor John Bridgeman said the redevelopment will “be the catalyst for millions of dollars in reinvestment in the surrounding area and will be of great economic benefit.”

“The citizens of Gastonia will see more taxes,” he said. “The city will see more jobs and also see a very nice electricity fee every month. This will be good for the whole city.”

Bridgeman chaired the first committee formed by former Mayor Jick Garland in 1995 to explore ways to reuse the old mill building.

Jack Kiser, the city’s special projects executive, has been involved with the Loray for 18 years and recalled that projects to save the building “died and resurrected a number of times.”

“Something like this is very difficult to pull off,” he said. “The building is so big.”

He called the sale a “historic event,” marking the end of one journey and the beginning of another with actual construction.

Kiser said phase one should be completed by mid-2014.

On April 28, a North Carolina historical marker identifying the location of the 1929 strike will be dedicated. The 4 p.m. ceremony will be on West Franklin Boulevard at Firestone Street.

The marker has been in storage since 2007, awaiting a final resolution on the Loray.

The 1929 strike made headlines around the world as violence claimed the lives of Gastonia police Chief Orville Aderholt and union activist and balladeer Ella May Wiggins.

Firestone Textile and Fibers bought the building in the 1930s and stayed until construction of a new tire cord manufacturing plant in Kings Mountain in 1993.

When the company announced the building would be demolished in 1997, the Loray name was back in the world news. A headline in the International Herald Tribune read: “A Historic Textile Mill Faces the Wrecker’s Ball.”

According to a story, the old Loray was coming down “short of a last-minute miracle.”

Then, in 1998, Firestone donated the building to Preservation North Carolina.

Symbolic lighting

The upcoming Loray redevelopment follows two other major redevelopment projects in which Preservation North Carolina has been involved: the 1921 vintage Armstrong Apartments as 18 market-rate apartments and the historic Gaston Memorial Hospital on North Highland Street as 75 affordable apartments for lower-income senior citizens.

On April 28, a preservation celebration for the three properties – Loray Mill, Armstrong Apartments and the hospital on Highland Street – will be held at the Gastonia Conference Center.

During the Loray construction kickoff on April 9, there will be a lighting of large Christmas stars atop the mill building – put there by volunteers.

“It will be symbolic, like there’s life still there,” said Lucy Penegar, vice chairwoman of the Gaston County Historic Preservation Commission, “and that there are possibilities that something is still going to happen.”

A longtime advocate of the Loray, she worried at times about the old building’s future.

“Now, I’m totally relieved – and excited at the same time,” Penegar said. “This building is going to evolve into something great.”

DePriest: 704-868-7745
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