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Bringing the magic back to Main Street

The future of a once-abandoned Mooresville textile mill boils down to two weeks, $500,000 and one Turkish-born entrepreneur’s vision.

For 104 years, Burlington Industries mill in downtown Mooresville was the heartbeat of the town. At its peak, the mill employed 8,000 people and dominated the local economy, producing denim in its later years.

But in 1999, the plant closed, putting 640 people out of work and setting off a stream of hopeful developers’ well-intentioned revitalization plans – none of which panned out.

Then came Michael Bay.

Recently recognized as the Entrepreneur of the Year by the Mooresville-South Iredell Chamber of Commerce, Bay has executed his vision for the 1.1-million-square-foot mill, naming it Merinos Home Furnishings.

His goal is to build a regional destination for furniture and home accessories.

Bay operates other Merinos stores in old mill buildings he refurbished in South Carolina and Georgia, and he recently purchased an old mill site in Winston-Salem.

Since he bought the property at 500 South Main St. in Mooresville two years ago, Bay has opened 360,000 square feet of showroom space.

Each day, he gets 10 to 12 truckloads of office furniture, children’s furniture, flooring, patio and exotic stones. About 60,000 square feet of space is dedicated to rugs alone.

And that’s just phases one and two. He’s also got plans for an art gallery, a pizzeria, a building of just American-made goods, a spot where people can watch artisans make their goods, and a massive vegetable garden, accessible to the surrounding community.

“So far, everything (Bay) has said he was going to do, he’s done,” said Mooresville Mayor Miles Atkins. “What community wouldn’t want someone to come in and transform a blighted property into what will be an economic engine?”

‘Where’s Mooresville?’

Less than three years ago, Bay had never heard of Mooresville.

Bay was born in eastern Turkey and raised in a mud hut. He estimates he’s 51.

One of nine children, he dropped out of high school to work. Bay moved to the United States in 2002 at 40 years old.

His first gig was selling iron furniture out of the back of a GMC 3500 white passenger van.

It wasn’t long before he had two furniture stores of his own, one in Jefferson, Ga., and another in Fort Lawn, S.C.

Bay’s business plan has always been about quality furniture at low prices.

“We make a small margin,” Bay said, “but we do it do it 200 times a day.”

In late 2010, Bay was on a small fishing boat with his nephew in northern Italy when he got a phone call. An abandoned textile mill on 42 acres in Mooresville was on the market, and if it was not purchased the buildings could be demolished.

If Bay wanted the property, he had to come up with $500,000 – cash – and close on it within two weeks.

“I turned to my nephew and said, ‘Where’s Mooresville? Texas?’ ” Bay recalls.

After pulling up the town on Google Earth, Bay decided it was worth a shot. But he didn’t have that kind of cash. And even a blowout sale at his other retail stores wouldn’t generate a half-million dollars that quickly.

So what did he do? He sold furniture from his Georgia and South Carolina stores to other retailers at 20 percent below their wholesale value.

“People thought I was crazy, but they didn’t know I was buying this,” Bay said, gesturing inside the showroom that extends nearly as far as the eye can see.

The mill is not much smaller than SouthPark mall, which is 1.6 million square feet.

Nod of approval from neighbors

Bay opened the first phase of the Mooresville Merinos Home Furnishings in 2011, after months of revitalization efforts.

The five derelict mill buildings had become hot spots for graffiti, vandalism and even drug deals, Bay said.

His construction crew replaced the roof, rehabbed the plumbing and electric systems, and reopened bricked-over windows.

But maintaining the mill’s history also was important, so Bay and his team kept the original hardwood floors and exposed brick walls. They sorted through trash to find leftover relics for display and framed old mill photos from the public library.

And in May 2011, when the first phase of the store was finished, Bay held an open house for former mill workers and their families to see the refurbished building.

Bay, who lives in a small white wooden home adjacent to the property he now owns, had already met many of them; they’re his neighbors.

Between the construction and retail, Bay said he currently employs about 50 people in Mooresville, and the base salary for Merinos employees is $10 an hour.

He hopes to eventually offer about 200 jobs to area residents, when all construction is finished. His target date is in September.

Atkins, the mayor, said Bay’s efforts are an integral part of the downtown revitalization that’s been taking place over the past few years.

The mill village – the nation’s oldest still intact – was recently added to the National Registry of Historic Places, Atkins said. And with a number of new restaurants and businesses moving into the downtown area, he said Merinos could be a linchpin in the revitalization of the whole area.

Bay “has taken a blighted area, preserved it and turned it around to be an investment and a gem to our community,” Atkins said. “It’s an exciting time to be in Mooresville.”

Bay’s advice to other entrepreneurs: seize opportunities, always consider the customer, and don’t be afraid to dream big – even in tough times.

Bay never got rid of his first “storefront,” the white passenger van he sold iron furniture from. It barely works anymore, he says, but he keeps it parked near the main entrance to the showroom nevertheless.

After all, it’s a visible testament to an unlikely success story, one that’s not yet finished.

Observer researcher Marion Paynter contributed.

McMillan: 704-358-6045 Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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