Businessman pulls out of plan to overhaul plant

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Businessman Michael Bay, owner of Merinos Home Furnishings, spent $3.2 million in March to buy Hanebrands' historic Weeks textile plant in Winston-Salem. Bay planned to convert the plant into a furniture showroom, but is now trying to lease the space instead. (David Rolfe/Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — A Mooresville entrepreneur has pulled out of plans to transform the historic Weeks textile plant in Winston-Salem into a retail destination for home furnishings.

Instead, Michael Bay, the owner of Merinos Home Furnishings, said Wednesday he wants to lease the 850,000-square-foot property at 401 W. Hanes Mill Road to one or more manufacturing, warehouse or distribution tenants.

“I’m an optimist by nature, and so I look at this next direction as one that could benefit the local community even more if we can attract companies hiring hundreds more than the 100 to 200 we would have,” Bay said.

Bay spent $3.2 million in March to buy the Weeks plant from Hanesbrands Inc., which would have served as his fourth Southeast furniture showroom.

By comparison, when Hanes Hosiery Mills Co. opened the Weeks plant in 1960, it was the largest manufacturing plant in North Carolina at that time. Hanes Hosiery spent about $30 million on the plant, which would be about $219 million in today’s dollars, according to calculations from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Bay said in March that he would open the showroom within three months. He projected that the local showroom could attract $24 million in annual sales at full capacity, touting a made-in-the-USA appeal since more than 50 percent of furniture available would either be made by U.S. manufacturers or sold by U.S.-based companies with a significant import presence.

However, Bay said that by early June he had struggled enough with getting key manufacturers to commit to supplying product for the planned showroom — including some serving his Mooresville facility — that he decided to change directions.

“We were too much of a business threat,” Bay said.

Although Bay declined to identify any local competitors who pressured suppliers not to supply the planned showroom, he told trade publication Furniture Today he believed that Furnitureland South, based in Jamestown, considered his facility to be too close for their comfort.

Jason Harris, Furnitureland South’s executive vice president, told Furniture Today that “we don’t make distribution decisions for our suppliers. I’m sure they take many factors into consideration when choosing their retail partners.”

Bay said his company has good relationships with 68 vendors.

“But when you can’t get them to provide you with the product you need, it wasn’t worth it to proceed,” he said.

The east side of the Weeks plant was dedicated to knitting and research and development, while the west side served as an East Coast distribution center. Both sections have been gutted to bare walls, floors and support beams with a few office and restroom spaces preserved.

Bay said he kept his decision to himself and a few associates until recently so he could undertake renovations that include painting and making repairs. “It was a tired building that we’re giving a makeover to,” Bay said.

Bay said he expects to have an unidentified tenant taking space by March. He plans to begin working with Winston-Salem Business Inc. and Piedmont Triad Partnership to market the plant.

“We recognize there is a shortage of this kind of space in the local market,” Bay said. “I will make leasing space in the plant so affordable that it will be very attractive to companies who need this kind of space.”

Bob Leak Jr., president of Winston-Salem Business Inc., said he will work with Bay to place the plant into the county and regional database for available commercial property.

Local real-estate officials say Bay may find success in leasing portions of the plant since it is close to an established retail node, including Walmart, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Lowes Foods and others at University Parkway and Hanes Mill Road.

“The site has broad regional access via U.S. 52 to retail customers and provides easy highway access for warehouse distribution uses,” said Ray Collins, president of Collins Commercial Properties Inc. in Winston-Salem.

Michael Clapp, of real-estate research firm Michael S. Clapp & Associates, said Bay may be challenged in finding tenants.

“The Weeks property is unique in terms of the age of the building, as well as its size,” Clapp said. “In my opinion, it would be difficult to lease it to one tenant, and I am having a hard time seeing multiple retail tenants in the building. It may be better suited for storage or distribution space.”

By Richard Craver/Winston-Salem Journal