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Greenville Business Magazine

Redevelopment of 116-Year-Old Greer Mill Site Receives $35 Million Boost

Apr 12, 2024 01:20PM ● By David Caraviello

Lawrence Black knew the bankers were serious when they showed up at the site with boots and hard hats, prepared to examine every nook and cranny of Greer Mill. One of them even climbed the ladder up to the top of the facility’s water tower — something Black estimated hadn’t been done in decades — to judge its structural integrity.

“My first impression was like, wow — they walked the walk. We didn’t have to explain the significance of the site or anything,” Black said. “They just got it. The questions they asked, and the things they commented on at the site just really made them stand out. That was refreshing.”

That initial meeting in early 2023 formed the basis of a relationship between Black and Self-Help Credit Union, a financial institution best known for providing banking services to underserved communities. Black, who had converted the old Southern Bleachery site at Taylors Mill into an event space and exposition hall, was now hoping to turn the old Greer Mill into 141 residences and 200,000 square feet of commercial space. But with rising interest rates leaving many lenders overextended on multifamily projects, Black was finding capital in short supply.

Enter Self-Help Credit Union, which is headquartered in Durham, North Carolina, and has three locations in the Greenville area. The financial institution recently provided Black with a loan package worth $35.4 million toward redevelopment of the 286,000-square-foot historic former cotton mill at 300 Connecticut Ave., which was built in 1908 and produced textiles up until 1996, according to its entry in the National Register of Historic Places.

“The timing in which they came in was critical,” said Black, who confirmed the amount of the loan package. “Two lenders we had been working with got caught up in the crunch that happened with interest rates going up, and just literally stopped making multifamily loans. It’s tough to have a lender drop out because of bad loans they made in California. We went into it knowing these things take a long time, and we were prepared to carry it as long as we needed to. But we were reaching the point where that was getting more and more difficult.”

‘Part of our economic heritage’

The eight-acre Greer Mill site, Black said, is about eight blocks from downtown Greer and hasn’t benefited from the beautification efforts that have rejuvenated the city’s downtown. Since 1991, Self-Help Credit Union has operated a commercial real estate development wing that strives to revitalize distressed areas — and often involves redevelopment of historic sites like Greer Mill, whose National Register status also means navigating regulations set forth by the National Park Service. 

“Self-Help as a development financial institution, we've done our own historic renovations on properties. So, we have some background there, and our construction team has a lot of expertise there,” said Self-Help Commercial Loan Officer J.J. Froehlich, one of those who first visited the Greer Mill site in early 2023. “And in commercial lending, we've also provided financing into historic tax credit-funded renovations. So, we have experience in that. And I think it's also just part of our ethos — we like helping take disused community assets or industrial sites and making them into a real asset for the community. I think for us, that’s what made us serious.”

It certainly helped that Black and his development partners — his wife, Ashleigh Black, and Camron Gilstrap — have a proven track record of undertaking this kind of effort. The Southern Bleachery site at Taylors Mill originally opened in 1924, and converted the raw output of surrounding mills into finished goods. The facility closed in 1967 and lay dormant until 2015, when Black transformed it into a site for weddings, fashion shows, expositions, outdoor concerts, nonprofit fundraisers, and other events.

“They’re local developers, and they and their families are firmly in the community,” Froehlich said. “And that gave us a lot of confidence that this project had a high degree of likelihood of actually benefiting the community, because the developers were really invested in the community. And that that I think, was pretty attractive in terms of the opportunity. That is what really got us interested in the deal.”

Although the Blacks moved to Greenville from Washington, D.C., they quickly became enamored with the old mills that once employed thousands in the area, for a time making the Upstate a textile capital of the world. Greer Mill, which went through several ownership changes over its lifespan, was significantly enlarged after World War II, according to its entry in the National Register. It was the last textile mill in operation in Greer before it closed in 1996.

“It’s part of our economic heritage and part of our narrative,” Lawrence Black said. “You talk to people in that community today, and you still find people who had a grandfather, a father or an uncle work in that mill. So, it’s very much a piece of our heritage. It was an opportunity for us to take a wonderful piece of history with a lot of potential, and revitalize it and turn it back into sort of an economic and social center. And because of the environment we ran into last year with lending for multifamily, that would not have been possible without Self-Help.”

Residential units open in late 2024?

The Greer Mill redevelopment project has been underway since 2018, when the Blacks were part of a group that purchased the site for $1.4 million. The pandemic set the project back about eight months, Black said. Now, Black said he anticipates that the first residential units and some commercial space will be completed by the end of this year, with the rest of the Greer Mill redevelopment completed by late winter or early spring of 2025.

“I think this mill in Greer is ideally situated for people who are living there, with the shops that are going to be there,” said Michael Gates, Greenville regional manager at Self-Help. “When I'm talking to them, they're going to have a restaurant in there, and a coffee shop, and potentially a wine bar and some different things, which are going to serve Greer itself, but it's also close enough to downtown that there's going be some opportunity for people to walk there into the downtown area once it's fully developed. I think this mill is going to mean an awful lot to the city of Greer.”

For Black, that first impression made all the difference. The fact that Froehlich and Self-Help construction manager Joel Horne actually visited the Greer Mill site to begin with, he said, was rare among potential lenders. That both men put on boots and hard hats and tromped through the century-old facility left him agog. And that Horne climbed the ladder up to the top of the mill’s aging water tower? Black still raves about it.

“We’re not going forward with anyone who doesn’t climb the water tower,” he said. “That’s how we prescreen lenders from now on. We have the water tower standard.”