The corner where East and West Center streets in Mebane meet has seen both the rise and the fall of North Carolina’s old-line manufacturing economy.
That economy is gone now, but finally something is ready to take its place at that same spot in downtown Mebane. The former White Furniture factory, dubbed by the history books as the oldest furniture factory in the South, has been bought by investors who plan to turn the old 300,000-square-foot building, with its soaring ceilings and vast expanses of windows, into a combination of retail, dining and recreation uses plus living space for as many as 300 new residents.
“We don’t really have anything like this — it would be an entirely new kind of venture for our downtown,” says Mebane Mayor Glendel Stephenson, who met with the developers about a week ago to talk about their plans.
“We’ve been developing rapidly over the last few years and we’ve got a lot of active merchants, and we’re getting new restaurants and such, but bringing in 300 people to live downtown would really bring some new life to it,” Stephenson says.
It seems only fair that Mebane breathe some new life into the old building, because White Furniture in no small way brought Mebane itself to life. Established on that same site next to the railroad tracks in 1881, the same year the little town of Mebanesville was incorporated, the “White of Mebane” brand became known as one of the top-quality furniture names in the industry, and inseparable from its home.
“In its heyday, it really was the town,” says Cathy Davidson, an English professor at Duke University whose book “Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory” chronicled the factory’s fate up to what was recently thought its end (with poignant photographs from Mebane native Bill Bamberger). “Others like Kingsdown have come in too, but there was time when, if you moved to Mebane, it was to work at White Furniture. Even as the town became a bedroom for RTP, everybody there still knew somebody who worked at the factory.”
The White family controlled the business for more than a century, finally selling to Hickory Manufacturing to form the modern company Hickory White in 1985. The factory lasted just eight years into that new era — the shutdown in 1993 cost 203 people their jobs.
Shutdowns and layoffs would become an epidemic in the furniture industry in the years to follow, as the pressure to reduce costs moved most of the wood manufacturing overseas. But the closure of the White plant 15 years ago was a bellwether, Hicks says.
“That was probably the beginning of the end,” she says. “There had been closings before and many more after, but when the oldest factory shuts down, that means something.”
The historic building has been used for little more than storage since the closure, but the sad story told about White Furniture and repeated in countless mill towns in the East since then has proven an opportunity for Tom Niemann, the CEO of Niemann Capital, who will lead the renovation project.
Niemann did not return a call seeking comment after the property sale was finalized, but he told The Business Journal last summer that he planned to spend about $30 million on the Mebane project. At that time he had been expecting to get started on construction by last month, so the timeline appears to be slipping by at least a little bit.
That’s not unexpected in a major historic renovation, and probably nothing Niemann isn’t used to. In addition to the big Civic Plaza project in downtown Winston-Salem, which itself has taken years to get started and is still in some degree of limbo, Niemann has made something of a specialty of turning old industrial sites into new mixed-use developments.
The first phase of West Village in Durham, for example, uses 350,000 square feet of old tobacco warehouses for residential, retail and office space and will eventually add nearly a million more square feet.
Niemann has worked in other states as well, including Maine where his firm turned an abandoned cotton mill into a riverside live-work “creative center.”
When towns like Mebane spring up around manufacturing sites, a plant closure can leave a big hole in a community, says Rodney Swink, the director of the Main Street Center at the N.C. Department of Commerce. That makes efforts like the one planned for the White factory especially valuable — both for boosting the town but also preserving the past.
An abandoned building is an eyesore, but a “Here once stood …” plaque isn’t much to get excited about either.
Preserving a building and turning it into an economic asset again is “very exciting” when it works, Swink says, but it’s still too early in the life of most of the projects that have taken place so far to gauge whether or not they’ll all survive long-term. He wasn’t aware of any outright failures of completed projects.
But it still takes more than a little bravery to buy a huge old building in a relatively small town and hope the real estate market can absorb all the new space and still provide a profit, especially in a teetering economy.
Maybe it will work in Mebane and maybe it won’t, but Swink says in the case of White Furniture and the town it built, it’s worth a try.
“Going in with this kind of scale can kind of be seen as defying the market, but it can also be so bold that it helps to establish and create a market,” Swink says.
Tech time in Winston-Salem
This coming week (March 24-28) will be busy on the technology scene in Winston-Salem. In addition to the N.C. Nano Conference (see story, page 6), a whole series of events collectively dubbed “Funding the Future Week” will be taking place.
Also on the agenda: The Chamber of Commerce’s annual Technology Briefing, which gives a number of young companies a chance to step into the spotlight for a moment to explain how they’ll change the world.
The week will also feature a “Capital Symposium and Information Exchange” at Wake Forest, as well the famous “Elevator Competition” business plan challenge at Wake’s Babcock School.
Last but not least, the Piedmont Angel Network is hosting the Southeast Angel Conference, happening partly alongside the Nanoconference. The Angel Conference will draw more than 60 investors representing 20 funds from as far away as Boston to hear pitches from 14 companies (and probably a lot more during cocktail hour).
Most of the events of the week are already regular occurrences in the Triad, and PAN fund director Troy Knauss says the way the Angel Conference is coming together, we may see it here again too.
“If we pull this off, I truly believe that we can make this an annual event,” Knauss says.
There’s more information about all the week’s events at www.ptrp.com/ftf.
Forget the diet
A sweet treat will be arriving in Old Salem this spring. Mayberry Ice Cream plans to open a shop above the more than two-century-old Winkler Bakery by the end of April.
The space was home to a since-closed soda shop. The new Mayberry shop will offer sandwiches, hot dogs, milkshakes, ice cream cones and hot fudge sundaes, among other items, said Eric Hoyle, vice president of finance and chief administrative officer at Old Salem.
With seating for 35 to 40, the new store will bring a food spot to the north end of the historic district, which as been missing a place to eat for years, Hoyle said. There are food offerings at the visitors’ center and the Salem Tavern, but the new location will mean people don’t have to walk up and down campus to grab a quick bite to eat, he said.
Hoyle said the new location will get a boost from Winkler Bakery, which saw sales increase more than 20 percent last fiscal year and has been working to improve food quality, among other things, Hoyle said.
“Having the soda shop will bring even more traffic,” he said.
Yoga with a purpose
For cancer patients, peacefulness is not a feeling associated with uncertain diagnoses and draining treatments. But that sense of calm can be a powerful palliative, according to research done by a Wake Forest University researcher, with the help of a Winston-Salem yoga teacher.
Suzanne Danhauer, a researcher and clinician at the Comprehensive Cancer Center of Wake Forest University, worked with Lynn Felder, owner of The Arts of Yoga, in 2006-2007 to study the effects of the ancient Eastern practice on cancer patients.
The results are encouraging: Women who participated in a 75-minute class once a week for 10 weeks reported lower levels of fatigue and “higher levels of social well-being, and feeling calm and peaceful,” Danhauer said.
The findings are not surprising to Felder, who is an ovarian cancer survivor. After a lifetime of sports and dance, Felder found herself buckled by the effects of cancer treatment. “Yoga ended up being a great way for me to get my body back. Yoga is so patient.”
Lead item: Matt Evans. Contributors: Laura Youngs, Lane Harvey Brown. Reach Justin Catanoso at (336) 370-2896 or firstname.lastname@example.org. His business reports can he heard Fridays on WFMY-News 2 at 6:35 a.m. and WFDD-88.5 FM at 7:35 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.
Article source: http://www.bizjournals.com/triad/stories/2008/03/24/tidbits1.html?page=all