Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to see potential. For the dilapidated Clearwater Finishing Plant, Christian Morton believes he is that man.
Morton, originally from Atlanta, has moved to Aiken in order to clean up the more than 800,000-square-foot facility and turn it into a mixed-use facility.
He sees the site as something that could be an outlet mall or loft apartments, and he hopes to create upwards of 400 jobs by the project as soon as next year.
Once employing more than 2,000 workers, the Clearwater Finishing Plant printed, dyed and bleached fabric that was sent to sale as cut goods or to mills to make into clothing. In 1988, however, the plant's parent company, United Merchants, declared bankruptcy and the mill closed without even paying the employees their last few paychecks.
Aiken County Council member LaWana McKenzie represents the Clearwater area. She was born and raised in Clearwater and worked in the plant during the summers while she was in college. She remembers the day the mill closed.
"There were grown men crying," she said. "People counted on those jobs. Generations worked in these mills , and it left a big blight on all the surrounding communities."
Morton has never worked in commercial real estate before, but he said this project captured his attention . Managing partner of a clean-energy group called RBC Trade Group, Morton originally thought of the plant as a potential place for a renewable-energy operation. As he tried to get that project started, however, he could tell the community was reluctant to have the plant turned into something industrial.
"They want it to be something nice," he said.
Built in 1929, the plant is full of asbestos - something that has to be removed before the facility can be used for anything. Morton said he thinks that has been what discouraged previous developers.
"It's funny how many people are connected to it, but nothing's ever been done with it," Morton said. "We're the first to actually remove asbestos."
Morton works as the managing partner for Clearwater Power Holding, the group of individuals funding the project. They gained ownership of the property in January and have already cleaned up 90,000 square feet and have removed 250,000 pounds of asbestos.
"It's a process, and you have to work slowly and carefully," he said.
Morton said it costs between $30 and $50 for each asbestos tile that is removed from a building. In the building they already have abated, 2,500 tiles were removed.
Morton plans to demolish all but two of the 13 buildings on the site. Even for the buildings that are demolished, he and his team will have to make them asbestos-free before razing them.
Removing asbestos is a special process, and Morton said he wanted to be sure to use people who knew what they were doing - the head of his abatement team has been doing this for 17 years. They expect to have the abatement and demolition of the buildings complete in the next six months.
"We're working with a really streamlined process," Morton said. "We're going to get it done."
Morton wants the project finished in a year.
With a population of less than 10,000 people, Clearwater might not seem like an obvious spot for an outlet mall or loft apartments, but Morton has faith that people will come.
"It would be a destination," he said. "I think the locals really want it to be something nice."
Morton said 27,500 people pass by the plant every day, and the fact that it is only 3 miles off of Interstate 20 helps as well. There are also plans to widen Belvedere-Clearwater Road, he said, which would make it easier for travelers on I-20 to detour to whatever the plant becomes.
"I'm serious about this," Morton said. "I'm not just another fly-by-night company, and I think the local community knows that."
Morton isn't the first person to see the plant site as something with potential, but McKenzie said he's the first one to actually get something started .
"Christian has come in and we're seeing something happen," she said. "He knows what he's doing, and I think he sees the potential we all know is there."
McKenzie said she hopes the project will serve as a spark to the entire community's business scene.
"I feel like it could be a catalyst for the remainder of the area," she said.
According to her, the community is still recovering from the plant's closing 23 years ago.
"When the mill closed, it cut off a lifeline in our area. It feels haunted now by all the workers and all the people who depended on it," she said.
McKenzie said she has faith in Morton and his ideas .
"I am going to believe it will happen," she said. "He dreams big, and I hope that dream comes true."