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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Mill victory may be in city’s reach

Last Thursday night Hendersonville City Councilman Steve Caraker lamented that the city’s request for proposals had not attracted development offers for the historic Grey Hosiery Mill as ambitious as the council’s vision.

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The council asked developers to bring plans for a hotel with 130 rooms plus a meeting room to accommodate 200-300 guests and a restaurant. Instead, developers pitched a smaller boutique hotel, a middle-market chain hotel that would not use the old mill itself and a mixed-use development of vague if promising features.
The choice was clear from the start. An observer could tell even before City Manager John Connet finished narrating a PowerPoint presentation that Belmont Sayre had the most realistic idea, the best team and the most relevant experience.
“If we go with this recommended person, as long as they’re willing to start quickly, I think we’ve won, actually,” Caraker said.
We’re a long way from having an upscale hotel in the 102-year-old mill, even a long way from breaking ground. The council instructed Connet to negotiate the terms of a deal and bring it back for approval in July.
Carrboro-based Belmont Sayre says it has “managed the planning” of more than 1 million square feet of mixed use projects, including the American Tobacco Co. campus, a nationally recognized adaptive reuse of a cigarette factory in downtown Durham. The Belmont Sayre team is made up of general contractor WeaverCooke of Greensboro, architects Tise Kiester of Chapel Hill and manager Charlestowne Hotels. Given its North Carolina bona fides, the team ought to be able to navigate the process for winning state and national historic tax credits — the grease that makes the project go.
Belmont Sayre says it would buy the mill property for $1 million and spend $12.5 million on design and construction. The city is committed to spend $850,000 on streetscape improvement to create a safe and well-lighted connection from Grove to Main Street.
An analysis by the city and its consultant, Development Finance Initiative, indicated that the Belmont Sayre proposal would generate $16 for every $1 in public money, compared to $7.50-to-1 for the new standalone hotel. The mixed-use proposal pitched by Josh Leder, the developer of the impressive Brevard Lumber Co. project, would have generated just 60 cents in private money for each $1 of city money.
Clearly, the Belmont Sayre proposal was the best of the three.
The encouraging thing about the proposal the council has now endorsed is that it appears to have solid backing and appears to be the result of a realistic assessment of the market by an experienced historic-property developer.
If a small hotel is more of a field goal than a touchdown, a solidified deal would clearly count in the win column. Over the past 20 years, we’ve talked about a performing arts center, affordable housing, artist lofts and many other ideas for the old brick mill. Last week, for the first time, the council opened an RSVP that seemed doable.