Lawrence Black can tell you the best place to sit to watch the sun set over the historic Piedmont Print Works Mill, now known as Taylors Mill.
“You can sit here,” he says, his back to the west, pointing east to the former boiler room building, “and watch the sun set up the smokestack. And so it goes all the way to the top and it gets right to the top and just the edge, the rim of the smokestack, is lit up by the sun, and then it pops. That’s a nightly occurrence.”
It took him almost a year of working on site at the mill to find that perfect spot.
“One of the main reasons I fell in love with this place is that I just seem to discover something different all the time,” Black says.
For Black and his wife, Ashleigh, falling in love with the 900,000-square-foot mill founded in 1924 and the 9 acres at the front of the property at 250 Mill St. meant getting involved a few years ago in the redevelopment that Kenneth Walker began when he purchased the western part of the property in 2006. The mill had sat vacant since it closed in 1965, devastating the surrounding community.
Walker bought the adjoining eastern part in 2008, and in summer 2015, he sold that portion to Caleb Lewis and Greg Cotton. Walker retained ownership of the western portion of the property.
Most of the redevelopment to this point has taken place in that eastern section, where 13 Stripes Brewery opened in 2017 and where dozens of artists have studios. But that’s about to change.
The Blacks, who already operate the Southern Bleachery event venue inside Taylors Mill, have now, in partnership with Walker and with the help of former Texas tiny home developer Kevin Duckworth, undertaken an enormous redevelopment project with an aggressive timeline for the western-most 9 acres of the property that has the ability to be a catalyst for change not just in the struggling former mill community but the entire greater Greenville area as well.
In the most basic of terms, the project, which will be named the Southern Bleachery, reviving the original name of the property, calls for four historic buildings totaling roughly 49,300 to be renovated into event venues and restaurant spaces; the clearing of 2-and-a-half miles of trails that intersect on the property that will tie into the proposed Enoree River Trail; the construction of a handful of live/work/play cottages along Mill Street; a full-scale relandscaping on the rolling hills between the sites into wide, open areas for families to congregate; a stage for concerts or events such as Shakespeare in the Park; repurposing of two concrete basin ponds; and creation of multiple parking areas.
“Most importantly, we are creating a place for gathering, a place for community, and a place for discovery,” says Ashleigh Black, who will manage all of the event spaces. “Part of that is reviving the rich history of the Southern Bleachery and Piedmont Print Works Mill and the other is repurposing several historical buildings as event venues to create an authentic place where you can see something different each time you come. Whether you are attending a concert with friends, meeting for a first date at a coffee shop, or watching the sunset against the old smokestack. And we want to be the place where they come back for anniversaries and where they host heir baby showers and children’s birthday parties. It’s a place to honor and create memories.”
How they got here
Until a few years ago, the Blacks lived in Washington, D.C. Ashleigh Black worked in international development and public policy for the last 20 years with nonprofits, the United Nations, and the U.S. government.
To say her resume is impressive is an understatement: She opened the Washington office for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and ran their Global Agricultural Development program in Washington; she was the associate director at the GW Center for Global Health and taught classes in their masters in public health program; and she worked for the United Nations World Food Program at their headquarters in Rome, which is the largest humanitarian organization in the world, working on providing relief efforts to families during times of natural disaster, wars, and civil conflict.
To sum up, she’s happily overqualified for her new role as director of several event venues.
“Feeding millions of refugees in remote parts of the world after a natural disaster or figuring out ways to boost agricultural productivity so people have enough food to eat puts everything else in perspective,” she says. “It makes operating multiple event venues, appeasing the occasional bridezilla, or catering a three-day corporate retreat a breeze.”
Lawrence Black was involved in tech startups and even served as a police officer in Washington post-9/11.
Ashleigh’s mother is from Sumter, S.C., and has many extended family members in the Greenville area.
“We spent most holidays and summers here, so Greenville has been a second home as long as I can remember,” Ashleigh says.
The Blacks were visiting Greenville for Christmas after their cousin Patrick McInerney had opened Due South coffee shop, which has since moved to Hampton Station, and he showed them around the mill.
“We fell in love with the place and the potential,” she says.
The wheels began to turn. The Blacks had been looking for a change of pace, a project, for when they got burnt out with their current lifestyle.
“After we went home, we would talk about what we would do at the mill when we would get burned out at work or have a date night,” Ashleigh says. “With a growing family, we quickly started to think of it as a way to spend more time with our kids, transition out of D.C.’s long hours, and build something long-lasting. We were wrong about the hours.”
Lawrence began talking to Walker about buying the entire property.
“I was just mesmerized,” Lawrence says.
But the vastness of the mill building was intimidating.
“I couldn’t get my head around 900,000 square feet,” he says.
Instead, the Blacks, who now have three young sons, eventually moved to Taylors and chose to open the 8,800-square-foot Southern Bleachery event venue a year and a half ago inside the first floor of Taylors Mill. It will continue to operate as The Venue by Southern Bleachery in conjunction with the new redevelopment.
“I’d been planning, executing, and facilitating everything from intimate policy dinners with members of Congress to large-scale policy forums with international practitioners, so the shift to the venue was an easy one,” Ashleigh says. “Being able to host weddings and play a small part in such an important day for clients came as a bonus. Each one reveals something unique to that couple and illuminates what binds us as couples, families, and communities. It has been more than rewarding.”
But they weren’t done yet.
Where they’re going
Lawrence continued talking with Walker about the untouched western-most 9 acres. Two of the four historic buildings on site had been used as artist studios, but the others were in disrepair. The rolling grassy, wooded areas where the former mill workers and their families would have congregated had become a dumping ground for large automobiles and other non-biodegradable junk.
But in order to do something about it, Lawrence needed more education. He enrolled in the Clemson Master of Real Estate Development program and is using the knowledge he’s gaining to inform what he has planned for the property.
“What I like about this part of the property is that it’s manageable,” Lawrence says. “You have individual projects. You can have a flow to it. The vastness of the main part of the mill is overwhelming.”
He has also enlisted the services of Michael Spangenberg, principal of Framework Architecture, and a partner with The Sherbert Group based in Charlotte, N.C., which provides investment, accounting, architectural, tax, consulting, development, and management services to the real estate tax credit industry.
Spangenberg specializes in adaptive-reuse architecture and planning, and historic preservation and rehabilitation and has assisted the Blacks in taking full advantage of the historic mill revitalization act tax credits. He has worked on such rehabilitation projects as Drayton Mills in Spartanburg, The American Tobacco Campus in Durham, N.C., and Revolution Mill in Greensboro, N.C.
Phase One of the project, which is scheduled to be completed later this summer, will include demolition of a non-historic house currently serving as the Southern Bleachery office, creation of parking areas, the complete overhaul of a 25,000-square-foot warehouse that will be turned into a marketplace to be used for trade shows and makers events, the creation of an exterior courtyard, and the landscaping of the whole property, which includes a stage and concession truck currently being outfitted for an operator to serve snacks outdoors. The pedestrian trails, which are well underway, will also be completed as part of this phase.
A coffee shop concept by local barista Alex Medina will move into a second building on the property that currently sits at 8,800 square feet, part of which was used as an art studio and is fully ADA compliant.
“There’s not civilization without coffee,” Lawrence says.
The additional space in that building, which housed the former boiler room and has the potential for the construction of two additional floors that would expand the square footage to 26,000, will be listed as build-to-suit and marketed toward a long-term tenant that would fit in with a venue destination.
Lawrence says the marketplace was designed specifically with Indie Craft Parade in mind, and so the popular annual Makers Collective festival, which has outgrown its previous location at the Huguenot Mill, will move to the new marketplace for this year’s festival, Sept. 14-16.
“We’re creating a space that will allow people to come and families and have spaces that are spread out and make it a full day,” Lawrence says.
The renovation of the building will cost about $800,000, not including a 2,400-square-foot commercial kitchen that will cost in the $250,000 range.
The marketplace will feature 100 trade show-rated stalls, all of which will have their own outlets, USB connections, and “very robust Wi-Fi,” Lawrence says.
It will have an occupancy of 1,000 people and should be able to turn 30,000 occupants per weekend.
“That’s what we’re shooting for,” Kevin Duckworth says.
Bacon Bros. Public House chef Anthony Gray and COO Jason Callaway are consulting on the project and designing the kitchen to be a top-of-the-line show kitchen that could be featured in trade publications. The kitchen will be available for full catering operations for all of the venues. Up to this point, all catering for the current Southern Bleachery venue has been brought in, rather than prepared on site.
“Us as businessmen are looking at it like, ‘Wow, you’re leaving tons of money on the table,’ and we thought that it could be done within that space for them to do better for themselves,” Gray says.
Gray says that having successfully opened Bacon Bros. with a similarly small space for a kitchen, they have the experience to be able to design the Southern Bleachery kitchen very efficiently.
He says in the future, he’d love to host guest chef dinners using the new kitchen and the available event space.
“The possibilities are limitless,” Gray says, adding that this consulting project will not take their focus away from continuing to operate Bacon Bros.
Phase Two includes the renovation of the 10,000-square-foot building that will have the Southern Bleachery signage painted on the roof and potentially house a barbecue vendor with a walk-up window.
“We’re looking to create an unlimited number of front porch areas, place[s] you can sit with different views,” Lawrence says.
At the same time, the 4,400-square-foot filtration plant at the southwestern edge of the property that used to be sculptor Doug Young’s studio will be completed along with the repurposing of two concrete basin ponds measuring 180 feet by 200 feet and 180 feet by 160 feet. One could remain a pond with an overlooking dock, and the other, which sprung a leak, could be drained and turned into an amphitheater.
Lawrence calls the filtration plant, with its location at the top of the hill, the “crown jewel” of the entire mill. He says the projected timeframe for Phase Two is to begin immediately after the completion of Phase One. The construction of five live/work/play cottages along Mill Street will be one of the last stages of the project.
“I think the greatest narrative about this place is that we’re taking a place that 200 people had their livelihoods here, and one day, they’re all gone,” Lawrence says. “One person decides that it’s cheaper to make something somewhere else, and the community dries up. The neighborhood is still recovering. But then that same space could be reused, repopulated by entrepreneurs, small businesses, family businesses, artists, people that for them one person doesn’t hold their destiny in their hands. That’s the 21st-century narrative. That’s really hopeful. We really do have a maker community and entrepreneurial community that sees beauty in places like this.”