Renovated Mills Offer a Perk in the Age of Social Distancing: Space

Developers are converting former grain, textile and water mills into vibrant destinations, saying they offer strategic locations, scenic views and flexible designs that offer ample room.

Developers are converting former grain, textile and water mills into vibrant destinations, saying they offer strategic locations, scenic views and flexible designs that offer ample room.

On a typical evening at the Wool Factory, a renovated textile mill in Charlottesville, Va., guests savor local wine and hors d’oeuvres in a spacious courtyard decorated with festive string lights. Between bites and sips, their eyes might gaze at the factory, a 100-year-old red brick building where as many as 200 workers once made military uniforms, but which now houses a fine-dining restaurant, a brewery and an event space.

“It has become a place where people gather because they’ve created a really beautiful public space,” said Ashley Schreiber-May, who owns a design business with her husband, Tanner.

The couple have visited the Wool Factory at least once a week since its July 2020 debut, grabbing dinner at Selvedge Brewing and coffee and pastries from the Workshop and using the courtyard as a second office. Last fall, the Wool Factory’s surrounding woods and Rivanna River served as the picturesque backdrop for their marriage celebration.

The Wool Factory is part of a larger effort by developers to convert grain, textile and water mills that came of age during the Industrial Revolution. Across the nation, they are turning them into vibrant destinations after years of vacancy following a manufacturing decline. Mills have been transformed into apartments and offices for decades, but developers in Maryland, South Carolina, Missouri and elsewhere are now turning them into hot spots that appeal to consumers craving surroundings more inspiring than typical cookie-cutter buildings.

“They’re incredible spaces to be in, with 15-foot-high ceilings and huge windows with great views, which makes them a desirable place to develop,” Catherine De Almeida, an assistant professor in the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Modernizing historic buildings and making them flood-resistant are challenges for developers. But tax credits make the painstaking process of updating them financially viable while the ample open space makes them easy to configure and attract guests who want to socially distance during the pandemic.

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Ashley and Tanner Schreiber-May have been visiting the Wool Factory at least once week since it opened in July 2020.Credit…Parker Michels-Boyce for The New York Times

The former manufacturing sites are near cities and the water, making them convenient and scenic venues. Containing 100,000 square feet or more, the buildings make it easy to design flexible restaurants and event spaces, said David F. Tufaro, a principal at Terra Nova Ventures, a developer in Baltimore.

Terra Nova recently transformed a 19th-century flour and cotton mill into the $25 million Whitehall Mill, which attracts diners to its 190-seat oyster farm and seafood restaurant, True Chesapeake Oyster Company. Its 200-seat food emporium, Whitehall Market, features eight tenants, including a cheese seller, Firefly Farms Market and a nationally renowned pastry vendor, Crust by Mack.

When Whitehall Mills’ events venue couldn’t open last year because of the pandemic, the developer could use that space to allocate an additional 75 seats for the restaurants, bringing in more business at a time when they were forced to operate in a limited capacity, Mr. Tufaro said. Guests cautious about indoor dining can sit in the mill’s substantial outdoor space, with 125 patio seats between the restaurant and market.

“I think it’s partly the attraction for the old that inspires people,” Mr. Tufaro said. “The other is, it turns out, they’re very adaptable to new uses.”

Brian Roy, the developer and owner of the Historic Woolen Mills, which houses the Wool Factory, likens the property to a “blank canvas” that can be configured to suit the needs of each tenant. Big, open spaces with no walls make the 7,000-square-foot Selvedge Brewing suitable for weddings and other events.

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Renovated mills like the Wool Factory have high ceilings and tall windows.Credit…Parker Michels-Boyce for The New York Times

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The Workshop, a coffee and wine shop at the Wool Factory.Credit…Parker Michels-Boyce for The New York Times

Federal and state historic tax credits, which were created for the restoration of historic buildings, offer another incentive for developers to save old mills.

State credits vary, but the National Park Service administers federal tax credits and reviews detailed plans of how a preservationist will restore buildings. Federal tax credits offset 20 percent of the rehabilitation costs, so for a $10 million building project, a builder is entitled to $2 million in credits.

“If the historic tax-credit program didn’t exist, then you would have just seen them all bulldozed,” Mr. Roy said. “It’s way more expensive to preserve a building like that than just to bulldoze and build something new.”

The space is a draw, but it can also hinder developers when there’s just too much. Taylors Mill, a 97-year-old former fabric dyeing and bleaching mill near Greenville, S.C., is 750,000 square feet on 63 acres. Its owner, Caleb Lewis, said he had yet to lease half the space and was using a lot of warehouse space for storage and his recycling firm, Carolina Recycling.

It is nonetheless a popular destination that attracts several thousand weekly visitors to its businesses, which include a brewery, a makers space and an ax-throwing venue. Diners at the Farehouse restaurant can expect wait times of up to 90 minutes on the weekends.

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The Farehouse restaurant inside Taylors Mill, a former fabric dyeing and bleaching mill near Greenville, S.C.Credit…Travis Dove for The New York Times

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Caleb Lewis, the owner of Taylors Mill, said he had yet to lease half the space.Credit…Travis Dove for The New York Times

“Visitors enjoy the massive scale, but from our perspective, it’s a lot of real estate to cover,” said Kari Walker, the Taylors Mill property manager.

Updating a historic property takes due diligence, Ms. Walker said. The mill’s old barn doors were not compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, so the developer had to find creative solutions to bring them up to code while maintaining their historic character.

“Striking that balance can be a challenge at times,” Ms. Walker said.

Being near waterways is a perk for visitors, but developers need to insulate the mills from flooding risks. At Whitehall Mill, for instance, Mr. Tufaro installed floodgates and inch-thick aquarium glass to protect it from floods.

Before the Ozark Mill at Finley Farms in Ozark, Mo., reopened in the fall with a farm-to-table riverfront restaurant and general store, its foundation had to be elevated and strengthened to mitigate the risk of flooding, said the site’s developer, Megan Stack. The mill, on a 40-acre property, was built in 1833 and retired in 1992 as Missouri’s last commercially operating water mill. The Bass Pro Shops founder and Ms. Stack’s father, Johnny Morris, spearheaded the project, which also includes a coffee shop, a chapel, an organic farm and a historic truss bridge used for events.

In spite of the challenges, developers are still looking for new opportunities to transform these buildings. Mr. Tufaro now has his eye on a former 1916 flour mill 12 miles west of Baltimore in Ellicott City, Md., that he hopes to begin redeveloping in the first half of next year with 190 apartments, a restaurant overlooking the Patapsco River, a historical museum, shops and possibly a brewery.

As the mills generate more attention, some have become tourist attractions for people interested in their evolution. John Nolan, owner of Greenville History Tours, has been taking six to eight people a week to tour 10 former textile mills that have been converted into loft apartments, arts centers and rock-climbing facilities.

“Textiles were a big industry, so I think there’s a curiosity to know more in depth about what it looked like,” Mr. Nolan said. “It’s part of Americana and something that shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Mr. Nolan and others note that the mill workers often lived in houses surrounding the factory, forming tightknit communities. That history inspires people to revive the buildings as a social hub.

That’s certainly the case for the Ozark Mill at Finley Farms. Plans for the site include a brewery, a speakeasy, a self-guided history tour and overnight accommodations.

“The authenticity and the natural beauty of the area and the Finley River will continue to draw people there,” Ms. Stack said. “Longstanding generations of people in the Ozark have memories of the mill.”

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