For 200 years an abandoned cotton mill along the Tar River in Rocky Mount has been a symbol of resilience, burned down by Union troops, rebuilt, accidentally burned again, rebuilt again and then ceasing operations in 1996 with the collapse of the textile industry.
Now the plant is churning back to life as a multimillion-dollar redevelopment project called Rocky Mount Mills, a mix of offices, lofts, cottages, common areas and start-up breweries that could help the economically distressed region an hour’s drive east of Raleigh.
Its 60-some mill houses are being turned into rental dwellings, each with a washer-dryer, charcoal grill, free landscaping, and an American flag on the front porch. There is a waiting list for the next vacancy.
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The project will have 300,000 square feet of offices. Another 49 loft apartments renting from $950 to $2,200 a month are on the way. Three restaurants offer wood-fired oven pizzas, chef-inspired tacos and upscale American cuisine.
More is on the way, including a coffee shop, a small outdoor amphitheater and an indoor event space in an old power house. There is plenty of room for expansion, as most of the 160 acres have not been developed.
The idea is to create a district that connects downtown with the mills.
We are setting our sights on where we want to be in 10 years.
Evan Covington Chavez, Capitol Broadcasting Co.
“We are setting our sights on where we want to be in 10 years,” said Evan Covington Chavez, development director for the project, which is owned by Capitol Broadcasting Co
Raleigh-based Capitol, which owns three TV stations including WRAL and five radio stations, is betting that the area’s history and riverside setting – as well as the scale of the project – will allow it to replicate the success it has had in Durham with the American Tobacco campus. With its mix of offices, restaurants, community gathering places and technology start-ups, American – developed out of a sprawling, shuttered tobacco manufacturing complex – has been credited with helping to revitalize downtown Durham.
Rocky Mount Mills, which Capitol bought in 2007, has a few challenges the company didn’t face in Durham: no large university to act as an economic engine, high unemployment, and a dwindling population in Nash and Edgecombe counties, which Rocky Mount straddles. The mill development is in Nash County.
Capitol Broadcasting says it is confident it will fill its residential and office spaces, citing the brisk pace of tenants who have already signed up. Economic development officials like Norris Tolson, executive director of the public-private industry recruiter Carolinas Gateway Partnership, says he sees signs of a turnaround.
Tolson, formerly a top state official and state legislator representing Edgecombe County, points to major manufacturers that have been enticed to the region recently with financial incentives. Tolson says he always shows prospective clients Rocky Mount Mills.
“Many of us, myself included, think it is changing the landscape in Rocky Mount considerably,” he said “I can’t say enough good things about that project.”
Rocky Mount Mills has been partially financed through state and federal tax credits, as have hundreds of preservation projects throughout the state, in places such as Loray Mill in Gastonia, Revolution Mill in Greensboro, Spray Cotton Mill in Eden and American Tobacco. More than $1 billion has been spent on mill preservation since 2006, according to Preservation N.C.
Beer was catalyst
The Rocky Mount project relies substantially on North Carolina’s newest economic driver: craft beer. The number of independent breweries statewide has increased in seven years from 45 to more than 230 and has built a $1.2 billion industry, according to the N.C. Craft Brewers Guild.
Eastern North Carolina, however, has lagged in breweries. This new beer outpost could shift the market eastward.
At Rocky Mount Mills there is a brewery incubator where start-ups will perfect their craft. Underlining that central theme, every mill house has a small refrigerator with a beer tap called a kegerator.
Beer wasn’t in the original plan. Ten years ago, Capitol Broadcasting paid about $4 million for the property and announced plans for a mixed-use development.
The company’s CEO, Jim Goodmon, and his son Michael Goodmon, had visited the riverside mill and immediately agreed it was both scenic and viable as a development. Michael Goodmon, now Capitol’s senior vice president, was the driving force behind American Underground, the business incubator at American Tobacco.
At the time, most of the company’s efforts were focused on the American Tobacco project, Chavez said, and there was some uncertainty about whether to build residential or commercial first in Rocky Mount.
Then someone suggested a beer incubator.
“Brewery incubators were sort of the catalyst for getting started,” Chavez said. “This idea that if we could break down some of the financial hurdles that brewers face, we could expand and change the complexion of the brewing industry, or at least offer an alternative for folks that may not have all the financial resources ready and available to them to buy a half-million dollars worth of equipment and real estate.”
Start-up brewers share equipment and knowledge with each other. The chosen brewers commit to three-year leases. They pay a fee for each barrel produced to use the equipment.
It’s a very good learning experience. You’re not starting by yourself. You’re on your own, in some sense, but not completely.
Sebastian Wolfrum, executive brewmaster
Capitol hired as its executive brewmaster Sebastian Wolfrum, a German-born brewer who moved to North Carolina in 2005 and has worked around the state. Wolfrum says a managed brewery incubator like this has never before been tried.
Wolfrum said the brewers will try to determine their market and establish a following, which should make it easier to obtain a bank loan or investor support. Bottling or canning and distribution plans are developed. Those who decide they don’t want to brew beer after all can walk away from it without having gone deeply into debt.
“It’s a very good learning experience,” Wolfrum said. “You’re not starting by yourself. You’re on your own, in some sense, but not completely. There’s a lot of just figuring it out by talking to your neighbor.”
Four of the five incubator slots have been leased and all but one are operating; the fifth will be in place soon. One of them brews a nonalcoholic line of natural sodas that use the fermentation process to create botanical infusions; one tastes of hibiscus and the other ginger beer. They can be used as mixers or sipped on their own.
Two additional brewers have smaller capacity but have taprooms with beer for drinking on the premises. There is also a shop that sells beer and wine to go – the only bottle shop in Rocky Mount – in a former carpenters’ workshop that also has eight rotating taps.
Nash Community College also holds its beer brewing course in one of the incubator’s rooms. Chavez said they hope to bring in young brewers from around the state who want to improve their craft, and a guest house has been set aside for them.
A neglected downtown stirs
Cheryl Graham, 50, grew up in Rocky Mount and recalls Saturday trips downtown with her grandmother to buy a root beer float at Almand’s Drug Store. Most of those downtown storefronts emptied a long time ago as businesses spread outward from the downtown core.
Now she is a server at Washington Street Grille, a new restaurant owned by Darrell Brown, formerly executive chef of The Pit in Raleigh and Maggiano’s Little Italy in Durham, and his brother. Signs of life like that make people like Graham see things turning around.
“I hope so,” she said, adding that the mill is just one part of the hoped-for comeback. “They’re going to bring us a lot of jobs.”
Graham said she hasn’t visited the mill project but wants to catch some concerts there next summer. Success there will add to the region’s recovery, she said.
But for now, the numbers still tell the story: 5.9 percent of Nash County’s workforce – 2,591 people – were out of work in November. Edgecombe County had 1,721 unemployed, making it the second-worst unemployment rate in the state at 7.6 percent (Tyrell County was 8.1 percent). Rocky Mount by itself was at 6.5 percent. The state average is 4.5 percent.
Population has been dwindling for years in both counties.
Manufacturing accounts for the largest sector of those who do have jobs. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer is the top employer, with 2,400 workers in Rocky Mount.
Downtown, though dismal in places, is beginning to stir. In addition to Washington Street Grille, there is a newly improved office building the size of a city block. An apartment complex near downtown was recently completed.
A performing arts, museum and science center is part of the downtown revitalization in an old tobacco plant less than a mile away. The city is building a $48 million indoor sports and civic center, paid for with bonds, tax credits and property taxes, which will open in October. There are plans for a nearby hotel and park. All of it is meant to encourage additional downtown revitalization, and there is talk that investors have been buying up the vacant buildings.
Last month, a Chinese tire manufacturer announced it would open its first two manufacturing sites in the U.S. in Edgecombe County, with a promise to hire 800 people over five years and to invest $580 million in the facilities. Also in December, glassware manufacturer Corning announced plans to add 111 jobs and invest $86 million in a warehouse in the county over two years beginning in 2019.
Chavez said when the mill project began there wasn’t much of a housing market in Rocky Mount, and that’s one reason the mills’ new houses and apartments have started filling in briskly.
She said the mill house renters are people who already work in Rocky Mount at one of the major employers, such as Pfizer, the Cummins engine plant or Honeywell Aerospace. Workers looking to shorten their commute, some from as far as northern Wake County, she has heard, and retirees are also moving in, Chavez said.
“It is a very unique opportunity for Rocky Mount to revitalize itself, rekindle the spirit that used to be here when the town was booming,” Tolson said.
Mill lured firm to stay
Tenants have moved into the mill village houses. Renovation of the mill began this summer and is now about 40 percent complete, with offices and lofts still being built. The apartment lofts should be ready for people to move in near the end of next year, Chavez said.
Rocky Mount Mills came along at the right time for Envolve Vision, a vision benefits division of a health care company. The division had been in Rocky Mount for 30 years, but by 2014 it was growing out of its offices in a business park.
CEO David Lavely said it looked like the company would have to move its 200 employees to a larger site in Raleigh. He was skeptical that the new development on the Tar River would work out for the company, until Chavez convinced him to visit American Tobacco and meet Michael Goodmon.
He said local business leaders and others urged him to sign up with the mill project, and so he did. Envolve’s parent company, Centene Corp., encourages community investment, and so he was also looking for that opportunity.
Lavely was also impressed with the project’s commitment to preserving green space and the owners’ plans to activate three long-dormant hydro turbines to generate electrical power from the Tar River. He said it seemed like the entire community was pulling for the project.
“It needed some good news,” Lavely said.
This summer, Envolve became the project’s first corporate tenant, which was heralded in an event that included federal, state and local dignitaries.
“It’s a very good magnet attracting people’s attention about what can happen in one of the older cities in rural North Carolina,” Tolson said.
Beer and elixirs
Planetary Elixirs will be bottling at the incubator soon. It was founded by Scott Meyer, who brought his experience in brewing, winemaking and culinary skills together for exotic non-alcoholic drinks with flavors that include lime, ginger, basil and lemongrass.
HopFly Brewing Co. was opened in the incubator in November by Triangle native Cameron Shulz. He aims for full-flavored but low-alcohol styles that work at indoor tastings as well as outdoor adventures.
BDD Brewing Co., the dream of a trio of 26- and 27-year-olds, is expected to join the incubator this winter.
Bull Durham Beer Co., which makes the beer served at the Durham Bulls minor league baseball stadium, has expanded into an incubator space.
Koi Pond Brewing is open now in a standalone building on the campus. It’s an enterprise from Eric Ghiloni, who wants to start selling and distributing the home-brewed beer that his friends and family rave about.
Tarboro Brewing Co.mpany West is open now, also as a standalone business. It serves beer and tacos under the name TBC West: Tacos & Taproom.