Danville’s White Mill restoration project began with a tweet

The transformation of a massive riverfront property in Danville all started in 2018 with a tweet.

The White Mill, a former Dan River Mills site, has been sitting vacant on the banks of the Dan River for over a decade.

Now, the city has partnered with Wisconsin-based developer the Alexander Company to complete an $85 million project that will turn the building into a mixed-use space, with commercial and residential purposes.

This partnership began over four years ago, when city council member Lee Vogler tweeted at The Alexander Company about the empty White Mill.

“Would love for you guys to come take a look at our historic riverfront White Mill in #DanvilleVA. It has so much potential,” Vogler wrote, tagging the Alexander Company.

The Alexander Company was put on Vogler’s radar during a trip to Greensboro, North Carolina. He saw the company’s sign on a large mill that was in the early process of being rehabilitated, he said.

When he got home, Vogler said he looked up the company and saw that they had a large portfolio of rehabilitation projects all across the country.

“I immediately thought, wow, they’d be perfect for several things in Danville, but mainly the White Mill,” Vogler said. “The city has been trying to find someone who can tackle a project like that since before my time. I mean, the building has been sitting vacant for decades.”

Danville’s industrial development authority bought the White Mill site for $3 million in the early 2010s, and had been looking for a developer ever since.

The White Mill was one of the sites considered for the Caesars Virginia casino resort coming to Danville in 2024, but the Schoolfield site ultimately won out.

So when Vogler discovered the Alexander Company, he decided to bring the White Mill to their attention. But he didn’t want to just send them a picture of an old, empty building, he said.

The city’s economic development department had gotten some renderings of what the White Mill could look like, and during a presentation of the renderings to city officials, Vogler asked if someone could send them to him.

“As we’re sitting there in City Hall, I sent that tweet out and I picked what I thought were the four best renderings,” Vogler said. “Within about 30 minutes, I don’t even think we had left the meeting yet, I got a response.”

Kendra Bishop, who manages the Alexander Company’s Twitter page, wrote back: “And we’d love to come take a look! Just sent you a DM.”

Bishop, director of marketing and public relations at the Alexander Company, said she remembers seeing Vogler’s tweet and showing it to Dave Vos, who became the project manager for the White Mill endeavor.

“I ran over to Dave and said, look at this building in Danville, the White Mill, and that was how it took off,” Bishop said.

The beginning of this partnership was much quicker and simpler than the start of most rehabilitation projects, Vogler said. But the scale of the White Mill’s anticipated transformation and the complexity of the project in the intervening four years have compensated for the easy start, he said.

“The beginning was much easier than most, but it ended up being probably the most complex project we’ve ever worked on,” Vogler said.

The White Mill is four floors, totaling about 650,000 square feet of space. It once served as a crucial part of Dan River Mills, the textile mill that moved Danville’s economy for over a century until the industry left in 2006.

Vos said that the biggest challenge of this project was that the renovation would have to be completed basically in one fell swoop. Normally, a project of this magnitude would be completed in phases, he said.

“But with historic projects, and when we’re utilizing historic tax credits, you have a lot of concerns from investors and lenders doing a project in phases,” Vos said. “People don’t occupy a partially built-out building.”

Almost all of this project will be done at once, with a smaller addition quickly following the main phase. The main phase will convert about 147,000 square feet into commercial space and create 150 apartments on upper floors, with another 56 apartments planned in the future.

And the basement, or bottom floor, will be a parking garage area with 219 interior parking spaces for tenants, said a Dec. 6 release from the city.

The roof of the White Mill is accessible, and Danville’s economic development director, Corrie Bobe, said she’d love to see a rooftop lounge or patio in the future, but right now, the city is focusing on the interior.

“The 150 apartments will be built on the top three floors of the western two-thirds of the building and will include one-, two-, and three-bedroom units,” the release said. “Some will be in a loft-style. The future apartments will be built on the top floors of the eastern one-third of the building.”

It was “a monumental task” to put together all the pieces needed to be able to complete the project in almost a single phase, Vos said.

Vos emphasized the sheer size of the White Mill, saying that it’s easy to underestimate how big it is because everything on the building is oversized. The windows alone are over 20 feet across and 14 feet tall, he said.

“The building doesn’t seem that massive just looking at it, but its footprint is almost exactly the same size as three football fields,” he said. “It’s only four stories tall, but each story is 18 feet, so it’s as tall as an eight-story building.”

Accomplishing a project that big takes a lot of collaboration, Vos said. The Danville IDA set up a limited liability company after purchasing the White Mill, he said, and the Alexander Company and its investor partners are stepping into that partnership.

“The IDA will be securing a certain portion of the debt, and the Alexander Company will be securing a certain portion of the debt,” Vos said. “When you look at all the people that are being independent in the partnership and the sub-partnerships, it really is a complicated transaction.”

When it’s complete, Vogler said the White Mill will be the “crown jewel” of Danville.

And the White Mill’s riverfront location means there will be “phenomenal views” from future restaurants and apartments, said Bobe during a tour of the White Mill that Cardinal News attended.

Bobe also pointed out a space that will be converted into outdoor patio seating for a future restaurant, facing the Dan River and the formerly covered bridge that the mill used when it was operational.

The White Mill rehabilitation project is happening simultaneously with two other projects: converting the bridge into a pedestrian bridge that will connect to the existing river walk, and building a riverfront park on the acreage around the White Mill building.

“Our plan is to have the White Mill, the riverfront park and the bridge all come along right at the same time, which is maybe easier said than done, but that is the goal,” Vogler said.

The tentative timeline to finish these projects is 2024. Bobe said the White Mill is scheduled to be complete between Q3 and Q4 of that year.

The building has concrete slab floors and ceilings, supported by large white columns. The rehabilitation process will first focus on removing lead paint and leveling the uneven floors.

Construction began this month, after many delays, and in January, crews will come to remove the concrete blocks that walled over some of the building’s large windows.

Many of the windows that aren’t walled over are painted blue or black. Even so, there’s still lots of natural light that illuminates the White Mill.

“I’ve heard two stories about why the windows are painted,” Bobe said during the tour. One is more dramatic and romanticized than the other, she said.

“They produced a lot of fabric, especially during World War II, and they were afraid of a flyover, because they had production around the clock,” Bobe said. “They painted the windows so they could continue manufacturing and not risk someone flying over and seeing the light from the facility.”

But there’s also a more practical explanation.

“They had to maintain a certain level of humidity, so the fabric wouldn’t dry out,” Bobe said. “Obviously the sun beating in would dry out the atmosphere.”

Either way, the windows are one of the White Mill’s best features, and they’ll all be restored during this project.

Seeing the White Mill rehabilitated will mean a lot to Danville residents, said both Vos and Vogler.

“When you drive along Craghead Street and Riverside, you can see all the progress that’s been made [in Danville],” Vos said. “But when you’re crossing the Main Street Bridge, you see this empty, big monolith sitting there, and it kind of takes away from all the progress.”

When the White Mill is done, people will be able to see the city’s revitalization on both sides of the road, he said.

And Vogler emphasized the economic and cultural importance of the White Mill in Danville’s history. “It was a symbol of Danville for so long,” he said.

The roof of the building was where the “Home of the Dan River Mills” sign stood and lit up at night. People who were traveling would see the sign on their way back into town and know they were home, Vogler said.

“Then it became a symbol of decline,” he said. “And now I believe it will be a symbol of our comeback. It’s an interesting lifespan for a building.”

For years, the vacant White Mill showed that Danville’s best days were in the past, Vogler said. “Now, once it’s done, it’s going to show that our best days are in front of us,” he said.

Article by Grace Mamon | Cardinal News