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Old Mills Come Back to Life as Tourist Attractions and Commerce Sites

September 19, 2016  |  Gale Gay
This article appeared in the September 2016 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
In the 1900s textile mills were a vital part of the Georgia economy. Now, some of these former industrial spac­es—many of which have sat vacant for decades—are finding new lives as entertainment and trendy commerce spaces drawing new audiences in­cluding tourists.
 
In Gainesville, the Left Nut Brew­ing Company opened in the Chicopee Old Mill earlier this year. The building was erected in the 1920s by Johnson & Johnson as a textile mill. Now it houses about a dozen businesses such as a discount goods warehouse and a trucking company.
 
Left Nut Brewing produces craft beers and cider and plans are in the works to open a tasting room on site later this year.
 
Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said the tasting room has the poten­tial to attract tourists to a section of the city that visitors don’t usually fre­quent.
 
“I think it will be great for the area,” said Dunagan, who described the part of town where Chicopee is located as a light industrial area and off-the-beaten track for tourists.
 
Danny Scroggs, owner and developer of Chicopee Old Mill, agrees.
 
“I think people who drink craft beer would go out of their way and come to the area,” he said, adding that he’s heard that a number of special events are al­ready lining up to book an event at the tasting room.
 
Left Nut Brewing is located inside a historic building in Chicopee Mills, and across from historic Chicopee Mill Village, where mill workers were once housed. The mill and village are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
 
Scroggs said he purchased the prop­erty that included approximately 10 buildings with 800,000-square-feet of space on 45 acres. He said that after gutting what was the mill’s administra­tion building and taking it down to bare walls and floors, he brought it back to a “vintage look” that currently appeals to tenants. Scroggs also has construct­ed two additional buildings and plans to erect another structure. When com­plete, the entire complex is expected to total 900,000 square feet, he said.
 
The Rivermill Event Centre in Columbus
Located on the banks of the Chat­tahoochee River, the Rivermill Event Centre in Columbus is a special event venue built in a renovated cotton mill. The original mill was built in 1902 but now the property is home to a chapel, gardens and indoor spaces suitable for weddings and other events. Although new construction has taken place, Riv­ermill still retains some its industrial feel through exposed brick and extremely high walls.
 
In Atlanta, the live music venue the Masquerade has to find new digs and leave its home for the past 28 years in what was once an old mill. According to published reports, the concerts are coming to an end at the old Dupre Ex­celsior Mill site. Located in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, the property is set to be redeveloped as a $60 million mixed-use development with residences, restau­rants and shops. The property is across the street from the trendy Ponce City Market, where restaurants, shops and apartments are housed in a renovated historic Sears, Roebuck and Company building. Plans call for parts of the his­toric structure to be saved and incorpo­rated into the new design.
 
Some communities have had a dif­ficult time finding new uses for mills whether due to their often vast size, location or economics. However, there are many exceptions.
 
In Clarkesville, the Old Clarkesville Mill has taken on a new life as an en­tertainment center with a bowling alley, special event center, live music venue, a Habersham County parks and recreation gymnastic program, restaurant, arts and antiques mall as well as light manufacturing. The original cotton mill was built in the 1950s.
 
Clarkesville City Manager Barbara Kesler said the city draws tourists at­tracted by hiking, biking and other activities focused on the mountains and river as well as dining and explor­ing downtown.
 
“There’s a lot that goes on in Clarkesville that draws a lot of tour­ists,” said Kesler. “It’s [Old Clarkes­ville Mill] an added alternative for tourists that are here. It gives them a whole other thing for them to do.”
 
In Augusta, the Augusta Canal Discovery Center at Enterprise Mill, which tells the story of the industrial revolution in the American South and how a city used its waterways to rein­vent itself, is thriving in a former cot­ton mill. Restoration of the mill began in 1998 and the center opened in 2003. It’s one of Augusta’s most popular tour­ist attractions with an array of models and interactive exhibits that encourage children and adults to engage and touch as they learn.
 
Some 15,000 to 18,000 people come to the Discovery Center and take Augus­ta Canal tours annually, according to Re­becca Rogers, director of marketing and public relations for the canal and center.
 
Asked about the impact of Discov­ery Center’s mill heritage, Rogers said, “I think it lends real authenticity to the visit.”
 
It also creates a different connection for some visitors.
 
“So many people in this part of the country have family ties to some part of the textile industry…so for a lot of Geor­gians we’re a way to reconnect to part of their family story,” Rogers said.
 
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