Prospect Brands’ relocation from Rockingham County to the former North State Milling Co., also known as “Eric Robert’s mill,” in downtown Greensboro is a perfect example of how a fantastic facility and a great location can combine to create an irresistible allure for a rising company.
Landing Prospect, the owner of the Duck Head and Gerbing’s Heated Clothing brands, was a coup for Greensboro.
We should be thinking about repurposing our classic industrial building stock when it comes to our economic-development recruitment efforts. And that brings me to the Cone Export and Commission Company Building, a gorgeous Elizabethan Revival built by Cone Mills to house its commodity exchange in 1924. It’s next door to the similarly grand Carolina Theatre and just down the block from the Nathanael Greene statue at Holliday Circle. And the owners of the building are reportedly working on a project to develop a hotel in the adjacent parking lot.
The Cone Export building, owned by John Lomax and Daniel Craft, is currently occupied by the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro and the Cemala Foundation. There seems to be a mismatch here. Much as foundations play an important role in the economic and social development of a city, they should be behind the scenes as opposed to occupying downtown’s showiest piece of real estate. Think about the formidable Bryan Foundation, situated in a glass office building on Wendover Avenue.
Imagine what kind of company could be enticed with the Cone Export building. I don’t have any specific ideas, but they’d have a bigger workforce and economic impact than Prospect Brands. Red Wing Shoe Co. is probably too similar to Prospect Brands. Maybe there’s a design or marketing firm at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham that’s looking for a location where they’re more likely to stretch out. Or, who knows, a multimedia company that wants a Southeastern beachhead.
North Carolina is richly endowed with a stock of early 20th Century mills, renowned for their high ceilings, hardwood floors and exposed brickwork. They’re perfectly suited for adaptive reuse as offices, retail stores and residential units. Cone Export, like the Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem, is on another order as a representation of the managerial wealth of the region’s past industrial barons.
Consider this description from a 2011 post on the Greensboro Daily Photo blog: “The walnut paneling, checkerboard floor, historic photos, flowers and touch of chinoiserie make this entrance grande. Visiting children love to stand in the center, look overhead at the rotunda, listen to their voices echo and ponder echolocation.”
Occupying the Cone Export building as an emerging-economy company would make a statement.
If there’s a company that’s interested, my bet is that the Community Foundation would graciously step aside.
“Obviously, we would be supportive of anything that brings jobs to our community so if there is a role for us to play we are willing to listen,” Community Foundation President Walker Sanders told me in a recent email.
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