The 220-foot-long “grand hall” seemed to swallow me.
As I stood alone in the new Mount Holly Citizens Center, listening to the air conditioning hum and watching sunlight spill through 15-foot-high windows, I imaged the space filled to capacity with 1,000 people.
The old city hall, about a block away on Main Street, was a shoebox compared with this.
The grand hall is also the entrance into the building, a renovated textile mill dating to the late 19th century.
Scattered around the 56,000 square feet are City Council chambers, offices for planning and zoning, utilities, parks and recreation, and administration. The police department will move in on July 30.
Plans for the grand hall include renting it out for such things as birthday parties and wedding receptions.
About 10,000 square feet of undeveloped space will be leased for retail – shops, restaurants and the like.
Inside and out, the new citizens center is something to see. But a lot of folks didn't want it. The project cost a lot, about $8 million. And the building fanned controversy.
For some tastes, it was much too grand and a big waste of time and money.
City Council member and former Mayor Frank McLean, who voted against the project, still feels that way.
“I didn't want to spend that much money,” he said. “We could have torn down the old city hall and built a new one. I think we should still have the city hall uptown.”
McLean believes the citizens center issue was a factor in three longtime council members getting ousted by voters last November.
He's probably right. Phyllis Harris, Jim Hope and Pat Hubbard took the heat. The voters had their say. But I still think these council members who got the ax made a sound decision.
If you were looking for a symbol of change in Mount Holly, and the whole region for that matter, you couldn't find a better example than the two-story citizens center.
According to Robert Allison Ragan's “The Textile Heritage of Gaston County,” the building went up in 1888 as home for Mount Holly Knitting, the city's third textile mill.
The Catawba River flowed about 150 yards to the east; to the north were tracks that later became part of CSX Railroad.
In 1889, the cycle of change began. Mount Holly Knitting became a yarn manufacturing operation. Soon afterward, the company restructured into Albion Manufacturing Co.
And so it went, down through the years. One change after another. In 1930, the mill was sold to the city of Mount Holly and Gaston County at a tax foreclosure.
American Yarn & Processing bought the plant in 1950 and 20 years later it became home for American & Efird Mill's new consumer products division. There were other uses, and then American & Efird shut the operation in the late 1990s.
In 2003, Mount Holly bought the building. I walked around inside with former City Manager David Kraus. I remember how the place looked like the folks who'd worked there had just walked away on a coffee break and never come back.
The city's ambitious plans for the building began to take shape. When construction finally began in May 2007, layers of additions and modernizations were stripped away, exposing the original wood and brick.
The work wrapped up a year later. On June 20, city employees began moving into their new offices. An open house for the public will be in late summer or early fall.
On my recent visit, I couldn't believe this was the same place I'd seen five years earlier. It was like a classic car that had been overhauled: The shape was the same, but the insides were totally new.
Moving toward river
The sprawling citizens center has an inviting feel.
The thick beams, pine floors, high windows – a 100-year-old-plus mill transformed into a government-retail complex – I didn't know of anything quite like it in the region.
The closest example is probably Morganton's City Hall, which is also inside a former textile plant built in the late 1880s.
Morganton moved into its space in 2002, paying a developer $3.4 million. The rest of the building is used for residential and retail purposes.
Mount Holly has a different dynamic. Shifting the governmental complex off Main Street and moving it a little closer toward the Catawba River symbolizes the refocus that's going on in the city.
As Assistant City Manager Jamie Guffey told me, “downtown is no longer one street.”
Mount Holly's ongoing streetscape revitalization project includes a greenway that links downtown with the Catawba.
The path will run in front of the citizens center and tie in with a greenway along the river – one that will eventually run all the way from the Mountain Island dam to the north to Interstate 85 to the south.
As the new Mount Holly makes better use of the Catawba River as a resource, the citizens center will be in the middle of a revitalized district.
The former textile mill building is a link to the city's past and future. I hope the whole community will be proud of it in time.