Plans to renovate mill fall to pieces

A plan to transform one of Augusta's largest and most historic landmarks into a mixed-use development along the Augusta Canal has been abandoned.

Sibley Mill, with 518,000 square feet of polished maple floors and five stories of heart-pine beams, had been under contract to a group of investors led by developer Clay Boardman, who successfully renovated nearby Enterprise Mill a decade ago.

"We thought it was going to go through, but it just didn't happen," Mr. Boardman said of the plan to buy the mill from its current owner, Avondale Mills Inc. "We made a lot of plans and had a lot of meetings, but it didn't work out."

A purchase option on the property has expired, he said, and earnest money has been returned.

Stephen Felker Jr., Avondale's vice president, said the mill is for sale.

"We don't have it listed, but it is available, and we do have some interest," he said. "We believe it's a beautiful and historic building with a lot of potential."

He would not discuss an asking price, saying it is subject to negotiation and could depend on stipulations between buyer and seller.

Mr. Boardman's plan included renovating the building into housing, retail and commercial space that would be located across the canal from the Salvation Army's planned Kroc Center in the Chafee Park area.

"We'd held a lot of discussions about how we could work together, maybe connect both areas with bicycle paths," he said.

Mr. Boardman would not elaborate on why the purchase failed but said it involved contractual obligations that could not be met by the seller. The ailing economy, he said, was not a factor.

The decision not to pursue the purchase occurred before a Superior Court ruling last week that upheld Augusta's authority to order the mill to cease generating hydropower because of low water flow in the Savannah River, he said.

"I will say, though, with them not being able to produce and sell electricity, that is bad news for the building," Mr. Boardman said. "At least then they make electricity they can pay taxes and insurance and keep those nine employees who watched over the building."

Two years ago, Sibley was included on Historic Augusta Inc.'s list of the city's most endangered historic properties. In 2008, it was listed as "saved" because of the planned renovation by the Boardman group.

Erick Montgomery, the group's executive director, said its future is uncertain.

"Clay would be an ideal owner because we know what he's capable of," he said. "We mainly want to make sure it's not torn down. Maybe the existing owner could find a use for it and put it back in service. It's an important historic building, and it needs to be preserved."

The Augusta Canal Authority, whose offices and interpretive center are housed in the renovated Enterprise Mill, is available to help, said Dayton Sherrouse, the authority's executive director.

"Unfortunately, though, I don't think there will be a lot happening till the economy turns around," he said. "It's probably going to sit there for a while."

The mill's location near the planned Kroc Center should make it attractive to developers. The 20-acre center will include a park and greenspace, classrooms, worship and conference space, offices for arts and social service groups, a 500-seat performing arts center and chapel, aquatics center and many other amenities.

Kroc Centers are part of the vision of Joan B. Kroc, widow of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc. Mrs. Kroc, who died in 2003, left a $1.5 billion endowment to establish such centers across the nation and chose the Salvation Army to help implement her dream.

Mr. Boardman said he has faith that the Kroc Center in Augusta will raise the matching funds needed to trigger a $60 million gift from the Kroc endowment.

"I think the Kroc Center is really going to happen," he said. "And in the long term I think things are going to work out with Sibley. I just hope Avondale will eventually sell at a fair, proper price that reflects the current condition of the property."

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

SIBLEY MILL HISTORY

- Sibley Mill's namesake, Josiah Sibley, was a respected Augusta cotton broker whose son William was a partner in the venture. In 1870, they traveled to New York to recruit investors for their milling company.
- The Sibleys bought 550,000 bricks that remained after the demolition of the Confederate Powderworks, which was erected there in the Civil War, for $5 per thousand. The Powderworks Monument is a preserved remnant.
- William Sibley's daughter Pearl Sibley laid the first cornerstone during a ceremony Oct. 13, 1880. She also laid the last brick on Jan. 27, 1882.
- Construction cost $788,452.
- Sibley Mill opened in 1882 with 536 looms and expanded to 880 looms by 1885.
- Sibley built neighborhoods of mill-owned stores, churches and schools. The last seven mill-owned homes were sold in 1969, and the mill closed in 2006.

-- Rob Pavey, staff writer