Old mills being revitalized around the Triad

The old guys are cool again.

For decades, American cities tore down what had been built throughout the 20th century to make way for the modern. Of course, they didn't get to everything -- a lot of the buildings from both the 20th century and a few even older survived -- and now, the current generation of entrepreneurs is seeing its value and capitalizing on it. The key root word there is "capital." Because it takes expert capitalism to make it happen.

That's particularly true of the textile mills that once dotted the North Carolina landscape with the same frequency of today's Starbucks.

Most disappeared in the latter half of the 20th century -- those that didn't were almost all killed when President Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.

The buildings that then sat empty for a decade or so have often found Prince Charmings that have awoken what we now see as Sleeping Beauties.

"They just need to get reused," said Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina. "And they're cool -- the Millennials love them -- they're great spaces, they're easy to convert because they're big, open spaces but you've gotta have good horsepower to pull off a building that's a half-million square feet."

Howard's Preservation NC has much of that and has poured $2 billion into renovating mills and other historic buildings across the state.

One of the first of the recent wave was in Saxapahaw, where the mill was the town, for more than a century. Claire Haslam's hip restaurant and pub in the old mill is a favorite of those who visit the not-much-more-than-a-turn-in-the-road town; and is a place that is almost holy to those who had family here.

"There was such value in the history of this mill, in this village, that when the revitalization happened, it allowed new life and energy here," said Haslam, of the way the town changed once the mill was renovated.

In Saxapahaw, bringing the mill back to life saved the town, to a degree. Similar projects are under way in Burlington, Mebane, Thomasville, Lexington and Winston-Salem, where most of the renovations are of old RJ Reynolds tobacco buildings.

Greensboro is too big for a mill renovation to have the impact it's had on Saxapahaw, but sentimentally, the complete makeover of the legendary Cone brothers' Revolution Mill has been just as big.

It's done more than just put an old building "back into circulation."

"These projects bring in a huge number of private investors," Howard said. "There's not just what happens here at this site, it's all the things that happen around it."

For Revolution Mill, that's a series of private investments with the crown jewel being the new Natty Greene's Kitchen & Market.

Back in Saxapahaw, they are content with being smaller but just as successful, in their own way. Ben Woodward opened the highly-acclaimed Haw River Farmhouse Ale Brewery, making and selling beer on site.

"All of us try to keep a little physical and emotional nod to what came before us because there's no reason not to," Woodward said.

See the renovations of those and other mills in this edition of the Buckley Report.