Bringing back the mill village: Nick Piornack talks Revolution
“It would be great to rebrand this whole area as the Mill Village.”
So said Nick Piornack, general manager of Revolution Mill, when I interviewed him last week. Piornack envisions the 45-acre mixed-use development off Yanceyville as the heart of a once neglected but now revitalized Northeast Greensboro, and closer to downtown than many people realize.
“When I started here, my friends downtown were amazed I was moving ‘all the way out there’ to Revolution Mill.” But it’s actually only six minutes from his old office at Downtown Greensboro, Inc. on Elm Street. “Just one mile from Moses Cone and all the medical complexes, and 2.1 miles from downtown.”
Built in 1898, Revolution was the first flannel mill in the South. By the 1930s, it was the largest producer of that fabric in the world. But it ceased operation in 1982, and by the end of the 20th century, the huge buildings that once housed looms and other machinery were empty shells.
Revolution Mill was the second textile plant established in Greensboro by brothers Moses and Ceasar Cone, three years after their Proximity Cotton Mill became the South’s first denim plant. The Cones built two additional Greensboro mills; White Oak in 1905 and Proximity Printworks in 1912.
By the 1920s, according to “Revolutionary Design,” a 2017 O.Henry Magazine article by Yes! Weekly contributor Billy Ingram, one in every seven people living in Greensboro worked for Cone. Each of the company’s mills was surrounded by self-sufficient villages containing churches, stores, schools, playing fields, recreation centers, and company-owned houses. At their peak, the Cone Mill villages covered 450 acres, with 2,675 workers residing in about 1,500 houses, but they were all sold off after World War II. Cone Mills Corporation declined through the late 20th century until it was bought out, along with former competitor Burlington Industries, by International Textile Group, a take-over begun in the 1980s and completed in 2004. The White Oak plant at 16th Street and Fairview was the last to close, producing denim until 2017.
By then, White Oak’s one-time sister plant Revolution Mill hadn’t been an actual mill for over three decades. It closed in 1982 and was entered on the national register of historic places in 1984. In 2003, Greensboro developers Frank Auman and Jim Peeples bought the property. They converted half the mill into office and event space by 2012, when defaulting on a construction loan forced them into foreclosure. Nonprofit and community development lender Self-Help Ventures bid $8 million to acquire the property and started renovating in spring of 2013, building offices, artists’ studios and 142 apartments.
In December of 2015, the Greensboro City Council voted to give an urban development investment incentive grant of $1 million to Self-Help Ventures for development of the site, on the condition Self-Help would invest at least $85 million and generate at least 20 new jobs there by the end of 2018.
The latter was accomplished by 2017, when Cugino Forno Pizzeria opened in March and, four months later, Natty Greene’s Kitchen + Market opened in the former textile plant’s 9,000 square-foot carpenter’s shop building. As reported by Kristi Maier of YES! Weekly, Natty’s former co-owner Kayne Fisher rebranded the restaurant, butcher shop and bar as Kau last month.
Piornack told me that he’s really pleased with the rebranding. “Kayne’s butcher shop and market are great. It’s easy to pick up stuff for all the people who work here and live here, and it’s such high quality, and all local.” He said he expected Kau to experience major business this spring, “with the deck opening up and more people moving here.”
“Fantastic” was Piornack descriptor for Revolution Mill’s occupancy. “According to the projection I got last week, as of the 1st of April, we’ll be sitting on about 106 companies and will be about 94 percent occupied, with about 740 people working here in our offices.”
But what about residential tenants?
“We recently added eight luxury apartments, so we have 150 residential units. Currently, as of last week, we’re sitting at 96 percent.”
According to www.revolutionmillapartments.com, eligible single households with annual income between $24,000 and $33,900 (two-person ones earning between $28,000 and $37,500) can qualify for reduced monthly rental rates of $749 or $889 per month. I asked him about what Revolution Mill advertises as its “affordable housing” option.
“About 20 percent of our total is Affordable, and they’re 100 percent occupied.”
Revolution Mill’s website calls it “a destination campus that includes more than 100 businesses, meeting and conference facilities, 150 loft apartments, outdoor performance spaces, public art galleries, restaurants and coffee shops, greenway trails and more.” The Latin word for field, “campus” means the land and buildings on which an institution, academic or otherwise, is located. Google, Microsoft and Apple all call the land on which their offices sit campuses, and many hospitals and even airports use the term for their facilities.
“It’s definitely a campus rather than a complex,” Piornack said. “The way it’s set up now, you can virtually walk everywhere. You can hit the cafés; you can walk through office space to art galleries, apartments, everybody can stay inside.”
It’s changed quite a bit since he first came here from downtown at the end of 2014. “I’d been developing on the South end – I’m the one who kind of started all the development down there. I put the parking lot in, a couple of restaurants, back in 2011 through about 2015. When that project started to wind down and everything was complete from what we can do, a friend of a friend just introduced me to the folks here. Revolution Mill was getting ready to start their big construction push.”
He was first hired as business development manager. “There hadn’t been much development of business at the time. Some offices, but no restaurants, no apartments, just basically a lot of buildings that had been cleaned out and gutted.” Construction was planned but hadn’t begun.
“So, originally, I was brought in for business development. Or as we like to chuckle about it here, I kind of came in to sell the sizzle. It was really a matter of starting to connect the community back to Revolution Mill by throwing a lot of events, by doing a lot of marketing, connecting the folks from downtown to out here, showing that it’s back and it’s revitalized and there will be a lot of capital put back in to take it to the next level. I did that for two or three years, and then kind of naturally worked myself into the general manager position I have now.”
When I asked Piornack what he found most engaging about his job, he said it was “the combination of art and creativity and business,” then described a particular example.
“We took on probably about eight or nine artists and kicked off one of these new buildings. I think that really started to set the tone for the cool factor, showing that we weren’t just putting in general businesses. That gave us kind a different vibe, and then a lot of businesses piled in right around that and started filing in the gaps.”
I asked what’s been his biggest challenge.
“Well, I don’t want to go back to the subject of location, but I do think we continue to have to make sure we put ourselves on the map. Downtown is certainly getting ready to take on a lot of new projects, with the hotels and the performing art center, and I think we just have to continue to market. I never sit back and think, wow, we’re 93 percent here and 96 percent there, so it looks like we made it! I think that now, we probably have to go harder, to take it to the next level and work on this next building. We still remain with 16-18 or more acres on the Yanceyville side that are available for future development that we haven’t even started to discuss yet. With the 45 acres, we have plenty of room to grow.”
But, he emphasized, the Greensboro community has responded very favorably to what he and Revolution Mill have done so far.
“Both our full-service restaurants are thriving. Cugino Forno Pizzeria has been a remarkable success, just incredible. They’re opening their second one in Winston this spring, over by the powerplant, and they’re also seriously looking at another one in Durham. They have hit the ground running and done a great job.”
And he expects big things in the next few months.
“Just between, let’s say, February and April, we’re going to move in another couple of hundred people, just between the Kontoor brand and two or three other offices that we’re just completing now. So, a 200-person injection, which is in the 740 number I gave you. That’s going to really enhance the activity here.”
He said he expected Kontoor, the publicly-traded independent created by the separation of VF’s Jeanswear organization, to move into Revolution Mill in late March, and that “the next big retail piece” will probably be the second location of the Bearded Goat. “I haven’t gotten a final date, but I would think that will be sometime between April and May, at the latest.”
And then there’s the work being done on the 167,000 square-foot storage building on Yanceyville called the Mill House. “We’ve moved all of the storage folks out, so the building is empty, and we begin interior demolition in about two weeks.” While that’s going on, restoration will begin on the building’s exterior, including the windows and brick, and will continue over the next several months. During that time, he said that Revolution Mill would be studying its options for the interior.
“One option is about a 100 to 130-room boutique hotel. We’re looking at additional office space, and for the first floor, we’re really focused on our retail package, which might include more restaurants, perhaps the hotel lobby, that sort of thing. No matter what we do there, we’ve got to do all the work that we’re doing now anyway – the gutting and the external façade work and all that. While all that’s going on, we’ve got another few months to really finalize it.”
He said that another “really cool factor that I think people aren’t quite knowing yet” is LT Apparel Group, “which is doing most of the children’s wear for Adidas.” Their home base is in New York, but their design center has been a Revolution Mill “anchor tenant” since 2016. “And Avery Dennison is already here in a temp space, getting ready to take on about 12,000 more square-feet, with around 50 folks.”
I asked him about the latter’s permanent space.
“We’re building it right now, downstairs across from the Café. They’ll be in it probably by the late spring or early summer. And so all that’s happening, and what it’s spawning is a lot of other small folks here, that are in the arts and photography and textiles. We’re getting a real creative vibe, with everybody wanting to be part of this synergy around textiles and design. So, maybe not purposefully, but over the last three years, that’s became a real niche for us.”
And then there are medical facilities. “Moses Cone already has one big office here, and they do all their planning for it, with meetings several times a week. And Women’s Hospital is moving in here. It’s going to be, like I said, about a mile from all of the doctors and the medical center here. It certainly helps with some of our apartment rentals, as we have nurses and interns moving in, so that’s a positive.”
At the end of our conversation, he returned to the subject of creating a “Mill Village” district, anchored by Revolution Mill and the restoration, as a similar mixed-use site, of the Proximity Printworks Mill at Fairview and Ninth, which the Wisconsin-based Alexander Company has projected to be completed in 2020.
“I was also chairman of Downtown Greensboro, Inc. last year. One of the things we’ve been trying to work on is districts. And the Mill Village district, Mill District, or whatever it becomes, would be a great addition here since we are so close to downtown. Someone, the city council or whomever, will have to draw a circle around what that means, but I think it’s probably time now to start considering that, based on the time and money and everything that’s going on in this area.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.