Will new uses for old facilities drive economic turnaround?
By Sam Boykin
CABARRUS Co. — It was a cold, gloomy February afternoon in 2004 when Tom Cotter first stepped inside the old Gibson Mill in Concord.
“It was like a ghost town,” Cotter said. “There were still family pictures, Bibles and coffee cups on the desks.”
The former Pillowtex Plant 6 had shut down the previous summer, along with several other textile mills throughout the region, leaving about 4,500 without jobs. It was a devastating blow to North Carolina, but Cabarrus County — where for more than 100 years townspeople had worked at the plants — was hit particularly hard.
Since that afternoon five years ago, Cotter and his partners have transformed the abandoned mill into a burgeoning commercial center with offices, retail space, manufacturing and a banquet facility.
The repurposed mill is one of several projects that many people hope will bring a much-needed shot of economic vitality to Cabarrus County, an area that has had more than its share of setbacks and still continues to struggle.
About 150,000 people live in Cabarrus County, which includes Concord, Kannapolis and Harrisburg. Just northeast of Charlotte, the area is perhaps best known for NASCAR, as home to Lowe’s Motor Speedway, zMax Dragway and the Concord Speedway. The state’s largest tourist attraction, Concord Mills, is also in Cabarrus County. The Great Wolf Lodge, a sprawling indoor water park and resort, opened in Concord this year.
But while tourism and entertainment venues bring in revenue and create jobs, it was always the mills and factories that formed the county’s economic backbone. And when those jobs disappeared, so did much of the area’s identity and spirit.
George Liles, president of Liles Construction Company in Concord, knows the hardships first-hand. He was born and raised in Concord, where his father served as mayor from 1993 to 2001.
“We’ve taken it on the chin in many ways,” he said.
It was Liles who first showed Cotter the old Gibson Mill. The two friends brought in two other local businessmen, Bertram “Trey” Barnette and Joe Liles (no relation to George). They formed Southpaw Investors, LLC, and in July 2004 paid $1.25 million for the 674,000-square-foot facility.
To kick-start their newly acquired purchase, each partner opened a business in the old mill.