If Josiah Sibley were alive today, he’d likely view Augusta as a worthy place for investment – just as it was in 1882, when he opened the mammoth textile mill that still bears his name.
“It’s all in how you do it, but the opportunities are there,” said J. L. Sibley Jennings, Jr., a great-great-grandson of the mill’s original owner, who has been following the Canal Authority’s quest to preserve and redevelop the vacant landmark.
During a recent public hearing in Augusta, more than two dozen people exchanged ideas for the 518,000-square-foot mill’s future. Most suggestions had been discussed before, but there were also some new ideas, said Dayton Sherrouse, the director of the Canal Authority.
“It ranged from the traditional kinds of things – residential and offices – to a center for digital technology and maybe even a place that could be used as a charging station for electric cars, tapping into hydropower,” he said. “There was also talk of research and development, and with it all, there was a definite tone that we need to create jobs.”
The ideas have been incorporated into a new application for a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant that would help clean up the mill property and bring it closer to a “redevelopment ready” status that investors would almost certainly require, Sherrouse said.
The mill has a long history, beginning with its creation atop the ruins of the Confederate Powderworks that operated during the Civil War. Sibley, a cotton broker from Massachusetts, bought 550,000 bricks from the demolished munitions plant and incorporated them into the design of his mill. Sibley’s daughter Pearl laid the last brick on Jan. 27, 1882.
For 124 years, generations of Augustans toiled night and day, but in July 2006, the Sibley’s looms fell silent and its remaining workers were idled after its owners succumbed to tough economic times. The Canal Authority purchased the site last year for $800,000.
Jennings, a Macon architect and architectural historian, hopes the site’s next life will be as long and prosperous as its past.
“The thing to remember is that retail always follows residential,” he said. “The answer is to provide a stable tax-providing base, not one that is tax absorbing and in need of constant bailouts.”
Condominium lofts, if done properly, could be a fitting future use for the site, he said, adding that the mill’s functional hydropower turbines could also be a draw for investors interested in environmentally friendly historic preservation projects.
“If you want to save and again make feasible historic and urban Augusta it must be driven by a large scale residential base,” he said. “Nothing else will work.”