Preservation on pause for historic Athens property

In the early 20th century, at the height of success for the cotton empire, April would have been a month of production for the Southern Manufacturing Company. Now, over a century later, Southern Mill, as locals call it, stands as a vacated industrial building, inhabited by only insects and vermin.

This historic site represents a possible fulfillment of a national trend of converting historic mill properties to economic developments.  Athens Clarke Heritage Foundation generated enough interest to host a symposium with experts in economics, historic preservation, and architecture. The symposium was an initiative to highlight the possibilities of rehabilitating Southern Mill and ultimately attract a buyer. A year after this symposium, Southern Mill still sits untouched and unclaimed.

“From a business perspective, it’s 18 acres,” said Amy Kissane, director at ACHF in an interview with WGAU radio station. There’s a lot of open space on the property, which makes it a little more flexible if you got parking requirements you have to meet, or add more buildings, it’s a very intriguing site.”

The Athens Clarke Heritage’s interest extends further than protecting the historic significance of this 18 acre property. They hold a façade easement on Southern Mill. This means a potential buyer cannot adjust the exteriors of the buildings, which also encompasses tearing them down, without going through the foundation.  Construction requirements are a stipulation to purchasing this property, but the foundation doesn’t mean to restrict development. At the symposium hosted last year multiple examples were used to show the success of mill restoration.

One project revealed the success that is not only achievable but also attainable. Tom Liebel, an architect form Baltimore, Md., explained at the symposium the socially sustainable project, Miller’s Court. Miller’s Court was once an abandoned industrial building similar to Southern Mill. It was transformed into a community resource that provides affordable housing and office space. Baltimore’s large number of Teach for America volunteers, now have safe and budget friendly inner-city housing. Area nonprofits also benefit by now having office space. This same fate may ensue for Southern Mill, granted a buyer funds it.

“With the right developer it could be rehabilitated and used for another hundred years,” said student Milton Perry.

Another comparable project, in closer proximity to Athens, is the Fulton Cotton Mill in Atlanta, Ga. Once an operating mill in the early 20th century, it is now a lavish residential loft. The project installed a swimming pool to accompany its multi-family residences, while still maintaining the integrity of the original 9 brick historic buildings. This property shares more similarities with Southern Mill, than physical composition. Both properties are owned by Aderhold Properties. The funding for this project utilized the federal historic preservation tax credit program.

The previously installed Planned Development (PD) for Southern Mill destines the property for multi-family residences. To increase the chances for development there are multiple tax and manufacturing incentives. Tax credits exist for rental properties that reserve occupancy for low income tenants, seen in the relationship between the Baltimore Mill and the Teach for America volunteers. Other incentives are tax credit for historic sites and state tax credits under Georgia’s Business Expansion and Support Act (BEST). Numerous other incentives exist in an alphabet soup of acts and tax exemptions; Freeport and Homestead tax exemptions, Local Option Tax Incentive for Historic Property, Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act, The Georgia Sales & Use Tax Exemption, Athens-Clarke County Urban Redevelopment Plan (URP), Historically Underutilized Business Zones (HUBZone), and other

“With the right amount of money, any building surely can be saved. But you have to weigh the economic return over time with its significance and the structural assessment done,” said Jennifer Lewis, a professor at the UGA College of Environment and Design. Significance meaning, just because a building is old, doesn’t mean it is a significant part of the community. When you lose buildings that tell that story, you lose the story.”

The story of Goat Farm in Atlanta demonstrates the type of economic incentive that Southern Mill could mirror. Goat Farm is not listed as an example on the website designed by UGA students, but is a model for the possibility Southern Mill possesses.

“It has been turned into an artist’s paradise, they have studios, performance space, galleries, said Lewis. The buildings have not been fixed up, restored and shiny. They still look fallen down and ruined, but they are stabilized. It’s an interesting interpretation to go in and see it in its existing condition, yet adapted for a new use.”

Lewis worked closely with students in the UGA design charrette hosted after the symposium. The design charette is a way to take several months worth of work and condense specific rehabilitation possibilities within three days. Now a year later, those involved with Southern Mill are not disappointed with the lack of production, but anxious.

“The symposium proved to us that southern mill was not too far gone,” said Lewis. Sometimes a building is just too far gone and that was a question.”

The symposium reassured designers and doubled as a marketing tool to attract developers. It proved the century old property still had potential even if it remains undeveloped.

“Experts who had seen the building could say, we’ve seen worse,” said Lewis. With the right amount of money, any building can be saved.”

A for sale sign rests on the property a year later, under the realtor’s name, Geoff Wilson. Lewis is hopeful for the property and the potential it contains.

“There have been rumors floating around a developer is interested,” said Lewis. But we’re anxiously awaiting the news that someone is going to give some love to that building.”

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