At the height of production in the mid-1980s, Sibley Mill bustled at the edge of downtown Augusta, producing 22 million pounds of denim each year.
Since then, spindles have been de-threaded, more than 33,000 pieces of machinery have been scrapped and the bell tower has been silenced.
Only a handful of the plant’s 1,200 employees remain at the 40,000-square-foot facility, manning a set of turbines that siphon water from the Augusta Canal to generate 15 million kilowatt hours of green energy a year for residents.
Billy Power, a 40-year mill worker, is among the surviving class.
“I would love to see it come back to life,” the plant manager said. “Every corner you turn, there’s history.”
Seven years after Sibley Mill plaited its last shipment, Power might get his wish.
The Augusta Regional Collaboration Project is working to reinvent the campus – and its sister facility, King Mill – into 50 acres of cultural space where Georgia Regents University students can live, study and possibly return the level of innovation and excitement the factories once provided the city.
Matt Kwatinetz, the executive director of the collaboration project, said the group has assembled a team of land-use planners, architects and engineers to inspect the structural integrity of the plants, design a new layout and search for funding.
No official commitment has been made by GRU. Power said the plan, which closely resembles the multimillion-dollar makeover given to Enterprise Mill, is “perfect.”
The project has a “cross-subsidy” growth model planned for Sibley and King Mills.
Reborn as the Mills Campus, the warehouses would house wide-open offices walled with glass, exposed ductwork and walkways that snake around colossal coal furnaces. Cafés, hotels, retail outlets and a solar farm would possibly be built around the warehouses to help leverage investment, increase population, attract business, reduce real estate vacancy and generate tax revenues to further growth.
The state Board of Regents expressed interest in the vision this month, hiring Boston-based consulting firm Sasaki Associates to evaluate whether GRU should offer its support for the 15-year, $1 billion effort.
The initial phase is expected to cost $1.5 million; $300,000 of the total was funded by the Augusta Commission last week. Assuming all parties say yes, Kwatinetz said the mills will be rebuilt to GRU’s requirements, possibly as soon as next spring.
But that’s a strong assumption.
A tour of Sibley Mill last week by Kwatinetz’s panel of planners showed a plant that needs major safety upgrades, substantial repair to meet minimum housing standards and might be too much space for a school of about 9,000 students.
Among the problems identified in the walkthrough include:
• Outdated and disconnected light fixtures
• Chipped concrete and crumbling brick foundation
• Splintered and rotting wooden door frames
• Weed-infested outdoor drainage pipes
• Leaking indoor plumbing wrapped in duct tape
• Metal support beams, overhead walkways, and 40,000-gallon boilers collapsed and corroded
• Rows of bricked-in and boarded-up windows
• Signs of lead paint and asbestos
“Structurally the mills are in great shape,” said Dayton Sherrouse, the executive director of the Augusta Canal Authority, which owns the mills, vacant since August 2010. “It’s just the cosmetics that are lacking a little bit.”
Kwatinetz maintains the project will generate far more money than it will require for cleanup. A study by the Political Economy Research Institute estimates that for every $1 million invested in green energy, 13 new jobs are created.
The figures work well for the mills, as the new campus would be self-sustaining, powered exclusively by the on-site turbine, Sherrouse said.
The mills have been approved for a $200,000 grant through the Environmental Protection Agency to remediate contaminate soil, are Internet ready, have working sprinkler systems and are equipped with freight elevators that could be converted to passenger lifts. The roofs also appear in good shape.
Sherrouse said the canal authority has yet to talk price. However, he said the state would only negotiate an outright sale or lease.
“We ultimately bought the mills to redevelop the land, not really knowing what that might mean,” he said.
He said the plan is a “win-win” for the city, university and region, if it can be worked out.
Kwatinetz said the project will take a huge amount of work and many players to complete.
“But that’s great,” he said. “These mills are a treasure and should once again be restored to their prime, when they were an industry leader in innovation.”
This time, he said, “we’re coming back as leader in education.”