Historic mill open for tenants

The Warren Clay Coleman Mill on Main Street looks much like it did when it opened in 1899 as the nation's first textile factory owned and operated by blacks.

The original maple floors and pine support posts remain in place in the three-story, 96,000-square-foot building. So do the 16-foot ceilings, the building's loading docks, three freight elevators and square chimney.

The wood in the building dates to before the first English settlers arrived at Jamestown, Va., in 1607, said Bill Bryant, the Charlotte marketing executive who owns the building, its parking lots and nearby smaller buildings where the mill stored its cotton..

"This is exactly as it was built," Bryant said on a tour of the mill last week. "It's in beautiful shape."

Built by former slaves, the mill was so famous in its day that W.E.B. DuBois, the African-American sociologist, historian and civil rights activist included pictures of it in an exhibit at the Paris Exposition of 1900 to highlight progress by African Americans in the United States.

Within a few years of the mill's opening, however, high cotton prices caused financial difficulties for that mill and many others.

In 1903, Coleman turned over management to a white cotton merchant who hired white workers. Coleman died in 1904, and industrialist and philanthropist Washington Duke bought the mill for $10,000 at a sheriff's sale.

The 10-acre complex is such a landmark that visitors come to get their pictures taken in front of the plaque honoring Coleman in the main building, Bryant said. U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell, D-N.C., filmed a campaign ad outside the building's front entrance last fall.

Bryant once operated a screen-printing business in the main building and now is managing director of the Charlotte office of Cincinnati-based Strata-G Communications.

Bryant estimates he's invested about $3 million in the historic mill site, which is 350 yards down Main Street from the namesake W.C. Coleman Boulevard. A state historical marker at Main Street and W.C. Coleman honors Coleman's place in history.

Various businesses now operate in 6,000-square-foot spaces in the smaller mill buildings beside the main building at 625 Main St. SW.

They include JR's Body Shop, which fixes up cars; Premiere Auto, which ships Mercedes Benz and BMW car parts nationwide; owner Mickey Cooke's Headlights-R-Us, which ships headlights, tail lights, fog lights and other car parts across the world; and owner Tommy LeBaron's Barefoot Design, which builds and installs swimming pools along the East Coast.

Concord Family Restaurant stores equipment in another space, while Love's Recycling recycles metal, copper and aluminum in another.

Only two spaces in the smaller mill buildings are without tenants, while all three floors of the main mill building remain available.

Webster Radiator & AC, a leading East Coast distributor of radiators, condensers and motor vehicle air conditioning parts, operated on the first floor of the main building for two years until moving to its own site elsewhere in Concord, Bryant said.

Bryant said the types of businesses that can occupy the main building are limitless, from distribution companies to go-kart track operators.

"It's let your imagination run wild," he said.

"If you're an entrepreneur who wants to start or grow a business with reasonable overhead, this is it."