Michal Bay was fishing on Italy’s Lake Como 3 1/2 years ago when he got the call that would ultimately change downtown Mooresville. It was a real estate agent who had heard about Bay’s penchant for restoring old mills. Bay had a chance to buy a 120-year-old textile mill on Mooresville’s S. Main Street, the agent said. But there was a catch: Local officials were moving forward with plans to demolish it, so he had to close on the property within weeks—and pay cash. Bay had never been to Mooresville, and wasn’t sure where it was. But he checked out the dilapidated Burlington Mills complex on Google Earth, and agreed to buy it for $500,000—sight unseen. When Bay finally laid eyes on the 40-acre, 1.1 million-square-foot complex, the place was a shambles. The 1893 buildings had thick brick walls, two-foot beams and 20-foot high ceilings. But they had been vacant for more than a decade, and rain poured through holes in the roofs. Many of the floors were rotten. Surrounded by barbed wire, the site was littered with condoms and needles. “This was an impossible project,” says Bay, 51, who grew up in a small village in Turkey where the residents made due without electricity or indoor plumbing. “But I was so dumb I didn’t know it was impossible.”
That was then Today, the old brick buildings house one of the nation’s largest furniture displays—the 600,000-square-foot Merinos Home Furnishings complex. And it will soon be home to a restaurant, a boxing gym and, if Bay has his way, much more. Once Mooresville’s largest employer, the Burlington Mills plant was shuttered in 1999—and subsequently became the town’s largest eyesore. Now, local leaders say, Bay has transformed the complex into a town asset once again. “He’s bringing life back into that community,” said Brad Howard, a developer of Langtree at the Lake, another massive project now underway in Mooresville.
A new way of life One of nine children, Bay grew up in a three-room, mud-walled house in the Turkish village of Urfa, just north of the Syrian border. His father, a farmer, never had much money. But at age 16, Bay managed to borrow enough money from his family and friends to travel to London, where he started working low-wage restaurant jobs before moving up to better-paying work selling and making windows. Every few weeks, he’d wrap money in black paper, put it in an envelope, and mail it home to his family. About 13 years ago, Bay decided to seek his fortune in America. His first job in the U.S.: selling furniture from a van. It was elaborate metal furniture from Morocco, France and Egypt, but the living was hard. Initially, he lived in his van, sometimes driving 500 miles a day. In 2003, he opened a small furniture store in a dilapidated cotton mill in Jefferson, Ga. Four years later, he’d earned enough money to buy and renovate the 250,000-square-foot mill building. He gradually filled the space with rugs, antiques, and furniture. Bay had learned that the cavernous space afforded by abandoned textile mills provided an excellent way to keep overhead costs low. So in 2009, he bought and renovated another former textile mill—this one in Chester County, S.C.—and opened a discount home furnishing center there as well.
Old building, new technology Not one to waste time, he started work on the Burlington Mills in Mooresville the following year. Until then, Bay had never tackled anything as ambitious—or daunting. He and his workers spent two years replacing roofs, refinishing maple floors, and reopening bricked-up windows—all while working to preserve the architectural integrity and 18th Century charm of the Mooresville buildings. Bay’s life revolved around the project. Living in a renovated 1-bedroom mill home next door to the factory, he worked 70-hour weeks. The space was too cavernous to cool with air conditioning, so Bay’s workers installed massive fans. Bay hopes to eliminate his electricity bills altogether. He plans to install 1 million square feet of solar panels on the roofs of the buildings—enough to cover all his energy needs and to sell plenty of electricity back to Duke Energy. “It will be like the oldest building in America with new technology,” says Bay, who this year won the Entrepreneur of the Year award given by Mooresville/South Iredell’s Chamber of Commerce. Today, Bay isn’t the only one who understands the potential of the old mill village. Neighboring rundown mill homes that once were listed for $30,000 are now selling for more than $80,000. “Thank God (Bay) happened to see the mill and turned it into the biggest asset in the downtown area,” said Brad Howard’s father, Rick, another Langtree developer.
‘Land of opportunity’ But this, Bay says, is only the start. He has imported three hand-made pizza ovens from Naples to create a traditional pizza joint – Don Michal pizza, which is scheduled to open in September. The ovens, made with volcanic sand, are capable of holding temperatures up to 1,000 degrees. Bay got training in Italy so he could coach chefs how to make pizza the traditional way. He also plans to open a branch of the world-famous Gleason’s gym, the Brooklyn gym where boxing greats like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson trained. Even after those projects are finished, there will be ample room under the mill’s immense roofs for more. Bay says he’s also thinking about opening a gelato shop and an art gallery. Before closing in 1999, the mill was the industrial heart of Mooresville. At its peak, it employed 2,000 workers and supplied nearly a fifth of the nation’s towels. Most of Mooresville’s population once lived in the compact houses that the mill had built for its workers. Now, Bay says, he’s thrilled about his plans to assure the factory’s future—and his chance to keep living the American dream. “What is beautiful is we will save this building for the next 100 years,” Bay says with a smile. “This is the land of opportunity. Truly, it is.”