This town’s largest commercial building is once again home to an active business concern.
The building, once home to The Cotton Exchange and Kemp Furniture, is now home to Third Street Screen Print.
Ed Morrell, who sold The Cotton Exchange to Delta Apparel in 2010 and watched as the company closed the plant in 2013, has purchased the equipment that he once sold and is ramping up production in the 230,000 square foot building.
The new company does the same work that The Cotton Exchange did: designing and applying screen printed logos to sportswear.
Morrell said Wednesday that he established the new company, in part to re-employ at least some of the 300 employees who worked at the plant during its heyday.
“A lot of the people who lost their jobs last year were still unemployed or underemployed,” Morrell said. As new jobs are brought online, Morrell and his partners hope to give former employees the first chance at those jobs.
Partners are a new part of the equation in this iteration of the business. Morrell and his wife, Kissie, decided to meet with a handful of key former employees to guage their interest in investing in the new business.
In the end, three of those employees and their spouses agreed to take the plunge with the Morrells.
Kerry O’Steen will serve as the operation’s general manager. Lloyd Boyette is the new company’s graphics manager. Boyette and O’Steen both live in Wendell and say they shared Morrell’s desire to re-employ former workers.
But both men said they had to think hard about sinking their savings into the project.
“There is a risk, but we like Wendell. I could have taken a job somewhere else and driven an hour to work every day, or even relocated, but we like it here and this is where we want to be,” O’Steen said.
Bridges found work after The Cotton Exchange closed, but he described himself as one of The Cotton Exchange’s underemployed former employees.
“We talked about it a lot and it just made sense for us to take the risk and be able to do something we like right here where we live,” Boyette said.
Despite the altruism, Morrell says the company still has to turn a profit to remain an ongoing concern. That meant attracting customers. O’Steen and Morrell set out on a sales trip two weeks ago and came back with a pair of solid customers. The work is enough for the men to start talking to former employees about coming back to work.
Morrell said he’d like to see the new company bring on about 25 workers in the next couple of months. Expansion, all three men say, will depend on their success attracting new customers.
“The one thing we don’t want to do is bring people back to work, then have to tell them we don’t have any work for them today,” O’Steen said.
Growing the customer base, O’Steen said, is a matter of attracting the right customers.
“The Cotton Exchange enjoyed a good reputation in this industry, so we are letting people know this is a new company with a lot of Cotton Exchange experience,” O’Steen said.
Morrell says his decision to get back into the screen printing business involved a number of factors.
“This is the biggest building in Wendell and it’s right here in downtown. I’m on the economic development committee for the town and I felt like I should do something with this space if I was going to continue to own it and serve on that committee,” Morrell said.
In addition to his desire to re-employ displaced workers, Morrell said there were other practical considerations to take into account. Throughout the transitions that have taken place since Morrell sold The Cotton Exchange, he has maintained ownership of the building, which is valued at $1.5 million according to Wake County tax records.
“We were having to heat this building and that costs a lot of money. My (real estate) partners said we needed a tenant to help cover that cost,” Morrell said.