Story by Sandra Davidson Photographs by Baxter Miller
On a clear day you can see the skyline of downtown Charlotte from the roof the Loray Mill, the 600,000-square-foot building situated on the west end of Gastonia. The 113 year-old-building is a behemoth with six expansive floors that peer over the historic mill village flanking its perimeter. For 20 years the future of this landmark was in peril.
In 2013, developers bought the mill and, today, phase one of the restored mixed-use property is nearly complete. When finished, it will benefit from the state’s historic tax credit program that expired at the end of 2014. Community members and city officials are hopeful the mill’s restoration will breathe new life into the city.
The road to restoration has been long.
Preservation North Carolina (PNC) started working to acquire the Loray Mill in 1993 when Firestone closed its operations there. After five years of negotiations, Firestone donated the mill to PNC, who then lobbied for its restoration until 2013 when it was purchased by the Loray Mill Redevelopment Company.
During those 15 years, PNC paid to keep the place secure and the pipes from freezing, co-hosted events in the mill to bring people through its doors and went through a series of interested buyers and developers. In 2008, a potential sale fell apart when the economy tanked. It was difficult, but the town of Gastonia, PNC, local civic groups, and community members worked to keep the restoration effort alive.
“This is such an important place in North Carolina history and in United States history,” says Myrick Howard, President of PNC, who believes historic preservation does more than stimulate economic redevelopment. He claims,
The mill’s history is well-chronicled, particularly in Digital Loray: Building Community History, a project of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Digital Humanities Lab headed by Professor Robert Allen, a native to Gastonia with deep personal connections to the mill. A few highlights include:
The mill opened and catapulted Gastonia’s growing textile industry to national prominence. The North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources states that, “By 1920 Gaston County had more cotton mills than any other county in the United States.” By then, the Loray Mill employed thousands of people.
This was a traumatic year for the Loray Mill community. Decreased wages and poor working conditions led to a contentious, lengthy strike, organized by the National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) a Communist-affiliated group. The strike began in April and lasted through September. Over the course of five months the National Guard was deployed, Gastonia’s Police Chief Orville Aderholt was killed, 16 strike leaders were charged with his murder, and Ella Mae Wiggins a unionization supporter and folk singer was murdered. Neighbors sympathetic to strikers and those against them turned against each other, and national publications like the New York Times covered the ordeal. North Carolina leaders like Frank Porter Graham, Bill Friday and Governors Max Gardner and Clyde R. Hoey were deeply involved with or influenced by the strike. Though it eventually disbanded, the strike left an indelible impact on the community for generations to come.
Firestone bought the mill where it manufactured tire fabric for 58 years. Over those decades much of Gastonia’s political, recreational, and social life revolved around the mill.
The Loray Mill’s historic, economic and cultural significance inspired those who worked to prevent its demolition. One of the mill’s biggest advocates is Lucy Penegar, a 75-year-old Gastonia native. Her ancestors moved to Gastonia after the Civil War, and she’s deeply rooted to the area.
Her family didn’t work in the mill, but her work with the Gaston County Museum of Art and History and on personal historic restoration projects stimulated a passion for local history, and as she says, “Gaston County’s roots are in textiles.” Lucy still laughs about the call she got in 1993 from Myrick Howard who said, “Y’all need to save that mill.” She says her first reaction was, “Whoa, that’s too big of a project!” But she and other local historic preservation advocates quickly got behind the effort.
For 10 years, Lucy voluntarily mowed the grass of the mill to help PNC save money. Every few weeks she hauled her own lawnmower into town to mow. “For a long time I tried to pretend like it wasn’t me,” says Lucy. People quickly rallied around her work. One neighbor always brought her a cold drink. Another joined her on a push-mower. By the time the mill was sold, Lucy had burned out the engines of two lawnmowers.
Lucy is moved by how preservation efforts have allowed the community to confront the controversial 1929 strike. In 2004, mill advocates hosted a symposium about the strike. They were hopeful 100 people would come; around 400 people showed up. “That was really wonderful. We were shocked,” says Lucy who believes that,
Mill advocates like Lucy were thrilled when developers finished the contract to buy the mill in 2013. They’re eager to see how the project will unfold. “There’s so much more spinoff from this project that’s going to happen with the neighborhood,” says Lucy who says things are changing between Loray Mill and downtown too.
Many of the mill's 189 loft apartment units are being leased, and developers are working to bring in commercial and retail renters. There’s talk of a brewery and a restaurant, and a wing of the mill will be used as an event space. The positive developments of the mill’s restoration trickle into the surrounding neighborhood. PNC recently secured a low interest loan to begin renovation on several historic houses around the Loray Mill, and this spring, over a dozen University of North Carolina-Greensboro students drafted renovation blueprints for three prototypes of mill houses in the neighborhood that will be available for public use. Myrick Howard hopes the renovation of the Loray Mill will do to Gastonia what the renovation of the American Tobacco Campus has done to revitalize Durham.
These projects wouldn’t work without the Historic Tax Credit Program.
North Carolina has long-recognized the economic and societal impact and potential of historic preservation. The state has incentivized historic preservation through state tax credits since 1998. These credits have enabled the rehabilitation of over 2,100 projects and brought $1.67 billion of private investment into the state. As a testament to the tax credits’ popularity, projects have occurred in 90 of NC’s 100 counties. Despite a history of success, the tax credits sunsetted December 31st when the NC legislature did not renew them during the 2014 legislative session.
Since then, preservationist, state and community leaders, and representatives from various industries including banking, architecture, real estate, chambers of commerce, city planning and construction have rallied to restore the tax credit in the current legislative session.
Governor McCrory, an outspoken advocate of the program, included the tax credits in his 2015 budget and praised their economic benefit in December’s State of the State address. Over the last six months, Department of Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Klutzz has toured the state, making over 50 stops, to spread tax credit awareness and to highlight how the credits have transformed and positively impacted communities. As a former mayor, Secretary Klutzz has experienced first-hand what the tax credits can mean to communities large and small, urban and rural, culturally and economically. Reflecting on her tour, Secretary Kluttz says, “These sites tell the North Carolina story. In Raleigh it is all about tax reform, tax credit, budget, numbers. But, what I’ve learned is that it means more than that to people in North Carolina. We have an incredible history and people in North Carolina value that history. It’s their parents, their grandparents, their memories, their values, their traditions. This is what comes out what these buildings represent.”
Historically, the tax credit program is low-risk for the state. The state does not provide money upfront for new projects, and its rehabilitation standards are high. To qualify for a historic tax credit, a property must be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and applicants must first qualify for federal credit before applying to the state. Applicants must follow a particular rehabilitation process guided by the Department of Cultural Resources. The project must be certified as successfully completed and taxes must be filed before the tax credits can be claimed.
Proponents believe historic preservation is a key component in maintaining and restoring pride in communities across the state. Restoration is a conservative way to spur economic vitality by incentivizing private investment, creating jobs, generating income, stimulating tax revenue, and encouraging heritage tourism; all factors that elevate communities’ quality of life, re-invigorate downtowns, and help to deter crime.
In a July 4th op-ed in the News and Observer, Myrick Howard rehashed a legislator's comment during a recent economic development committee meeting, ‘South Carolina is eating our lunch.’ Myrick goes on warning, “First we lost the race for Volvo to South Carolina, and now we’re losing our advantage in the preservation of architectural and historic resources.” Secretary Kluttz echoes this sentiment and is reminded daily that developers and private investors are currently leaving North Carolina for neighboring states who offer more competitive tax credit programs.
“If you live in North Carolina, you are so proud to say our state has the mountains and the coast and you claim them both because they are North Carolina. And, that is the way I feel about these buildings,” says Secretary Klutz, “From the mountains to the coast, they tell the story. If we lose these buildings and homes or only let them be renovated in the towns that can afford it, we don’t tell the entire story.”
Story is huge with the Loray Mill. Its advocates understood and fought to preserve the storied legacy of the building, and its developers even donated a space within the renovated commercial and retail area for a community history center. Redefining the Loray Mill as a structure cements its place as a part of Gastonia’s past, present, and future.
Preservation protects the historical character and architectural heritage of the state and serves as tool of economic development that re-envisions how old buildings and landmarks can become new and restored hubs of community and commerce. Preservation allows for North Carolina’s buildings to become monuments to history and time capsules of our story. Without historic tax credits, we risk losing part of our story.