Spinning New Uses for Textile Mills in U.S. South

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
June 14, 2005

A few decades ago, when someone in the U.S. put on a pair of socks, there was a good chance they were made at a northern Alabama textile mill.

Many of those mills at the southern edge of the Appalachian Mountains are now closed, and the socks are being made by cheaper overseas labor.

But one group in Valley, Alabama, thinks it can turn one of those empty textile mills into a showcase of economic redevelopment.

"Textiles are drying up here," said Martha Cato, Valley's city clerk. "This is an answer for us to help create jobs for the city and the whole area."

Federal officials also think the Valley project has potential. Last month the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) approved a U.S. $50,000 matching grant for the project. [Full disclosure: ARC sponsors a National Geographic News series on Appalachia.]

A partnership of federal and state governments, ARC seeks to stimulate economic development in Appalachia. The region includes 410 counties in 13 states from New York to Alabama.

Valley has a population of about 9,000. It was formed from four textile villages whose mills closed. The town is on Interstate 85 roughly halfway between Montgomery, Alabama, and Atlanta, Georgia.

The town now owns a 24-acre (9.7-hectare) tract that is the former site of Langdale Mill. The tract borders the Chattahoochee River, which separates Alabama from neighboring Georgia. Valley Town Council member Jim Jones said town leaders hope the refurbished mill will bring new businesses.

"We're looking at a retail mall, stores, a hotel and convention center, a theater, and loft apartments," Jones said.

Other cities across the South also are looking for ways to reuse empty buildings that once housed industry. Grassroots organizations to help that effort are spreading.

Lynn Cowan, a regional director for Preservation North Carolina, said her agency is compiling an inventory of old industrial buildings in the state that could be renovated and reused.

"We speculate that there are probably about 200 historic mills in North Carolina that could be restored," said Cowan, whose office is in a former mill in Burlington.

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