Greensboro Journal: Revitalization of Historic Carolina Mill Town

Night skyline of Greensboro with downtown in background, and Amtrak station foreground. (Photo courtesy Greensboro Area Convention & Visitors Bureau)

By Ron Bernthal

In the mid 1950′s Greensboro, North Carolina, was the second largest city in the state, only Charlotte had more people, but Greensboro was the state’s industrial and manufacturing powerhouse, where busy textile mills and nearby furniture factories resulted in a prosperous downtown and wealthy residential neighborhoods.

In the 1960′s, however, as the mills and furniture factories in Greensboro, and in nearby High Point, closed due to lower labor costs in Asia, Greensboro’s economy went into a tail spin, and the civil rights protests, which overtook the South during this period, added to the city’s malaise.
“The African- American civil rights protest movement in the South began here in Greensboro, at our downtown Woolworth’s, with the January, 1960, lunch counter sit-in,” said Matthew Young, assistant director of the Greensboro Historical Museum. “After the 1781 Revolutionary War Battle of Guildford Court House, where General Nathaniel Greene led the patriots into battle, and who the city is named after, and the surrender of Confederate of troops in Greensboro in 1865, the 1960 protest was the third most important event in the city’s history.”

Mr. Young said that the Woolworth store sit-in, started when four students from the city’s Agricultural & Tech College were refused service at the store’s lunch counter, quickly spread throughout to other cities throughout the South, which in-turn led to marches and other demonstrations leading up the passing of the country’s instrumental Civil Rights Act of 1964. “This first protest in downtown Greensboro helped define the city. Although it presented a negative picture of the city at first, the community came together, both whites and blacks, a major event that, in the long run, actually made it a better city. ”

Elm Street, downtown Greensboro (photo courtesy Greensboro Area Convention & Visitors Bureau)

The historic Woolworth store and its iconic lunch counter is now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum (www.sitinmovement.org), a major city attraction. Many of the city’s old apparel mills have been converted into loft apartments or commercial spaces, and a professional theatre company now occupies the former Montgomery Ward department store. The new Carolina SciQuarium (www.greensboroscience.org/attractions/sciquarium), part of the Greensboro Science Center, opened during the summer, 2013, at the same time as the Greensboro City Council voted to spend $60 million to build a modern, downtown performing arts center. The Greensboro Coliseum Entertainment Complex (www.greensborocoliseum.com), opened in the late 1950′s, is undergoing a $24 million restoration, and the nearby 78,323-square-foot indoor Greensboro Aquatic Center, opened in 2011, is a state-of-the-art facility featuring state-of-the-art concepts in aquatic design. Several national and international swimming and diving competitions have taken place at this facility. Greensboro also continues to expand its environmentally friendly greenways, a city treasure that has grown to almost 90 miles of parks, biking and hiking trails, and public art projects.

New Greensboro Aquatic Center has hosted international and national diving and swimming competitions (photo courtesy Greensboro Area Conventiuon & Visitors Bureau)

The revitalization of the Southside neighborhood, once one of the city’s most prosperous residential districts, has been especially gratifying to local city planners. City View at Southside has been one of the most successful multi-family residential developments in downtown in recent years. Now at 272 total apartments, the complex is at 95% occupancy. Other projects include the $10 million Greenway at Fisher Park apartments, the $3 million Deep Roots grocery store and the $26 million Lee Street/South Elm redevelopment, all contributing to the revitalization efforts. Another major development in Greensboro was the construction of The Proximity Hotel, undertaken by the local firm, Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants and Hotels. The award-winning Proximity, built from the ground up in 2007, was the first LEED Platinum-certified hotel in the country.

The Proximity Hotel (pictured above) and its sister property, The O’ Henry Hotel, both with unique art and design features, attract business and upscale visitors to Greensboro. (photo courtesy Proximity Hotel)

Two of Greensboro’s largest former industrial facilities, Revolution Mill and the Mock-Judson-Voehringer hosiery mill, while not technically in downtown Greensboro, are part of the city’s overall revitalization plan. The Mock-Judson-Voehringer project involves a $20 million conversion to 150 loft-style apartments, and Revolution Mill is currently filled with office and event space, with plans to continue restoring and redeveloping the 630,000-square-foot former Cone Mills textile plant.

Greensboro’s historic Revolution Mill has been converted into offices for local firms. (photo Ron Bernthal)

The 196-unit Greenway at Fisher Park apartments is a modern, eco-friendly residential project on the edge of the 4-mile Greenway downtown biking loop. Situated on 4.5 acres, on the former site of a 50 year-old automobile dealership, the design and location of the these new apartments are luring singles and families back to downtown Greensboro. Two developers in Greensboro are looking to add to the downtown skyline by proposing to build new hotels in the city. “The decision to fund the new Greensboro Performing Arts Center has incluenced by decision to look into building a hotel in Greensboro,” said Roy Carroll, one of the local developers. Another developer, Randall Kaplan, announced that he is working with Wyndham Hotels & Resorts on a multimillon-dollar new property in downtown.

“These new investments in downtown Greensboro are validating the things that have been put in place, and the direction that the community is going in for some time, and it is becoming a reality,” said Pat Danahy from the Greensboro Partnership.

Greensboro resident Emerson Spivey outside the former Woolworth Department Store, site of 1960 lunch counter civil rights protest,. now the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in downtown Greensboro. (photo Ron Bernthal)

We have so many amenities downtown now,” said Emerson Spivey, a longtime resident of the city. “We have a downtown food market, sports facilities, art galleries, and they are building more residential units. There are people moving downtown because there are things to do here these days.”

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