Children help plan Cooleemee mill’s future
COOLEEMEE — The old cotton mill in town should be made into a movie theater, said fifth-grade students at Cooleemee Elementary School.
Or maybe a bowling alley, an indoor park, a shopping mall or all of them at once.
Mayor Lynn Rumley told the children at a Thursday assembly to keep their ideas coming.
“We’re here today because Cooleemee’s future depends on you,” Rumley said. “We hope to leave you something, and we need your help with what we’re leaving you.”
The Cooleemee Historical Association is asking local children for their help to redevelop the town’s old Burlington Mills plant.
Fourth graders at Cooleemee Elementary School are tasked with writing an essay about what they’d like to see in a mill, and then drawing it.
The fifth graders will use their math skills to sketch plans, creating their own scale and legend, of their vision for the restored mill.
The finished projects will be displayed during an open house on Feb. 23, when the students and their parents will get to take a look inside the building.
After their assembly, several of the fifth-graders said they were excited about opening the mill again.
“More people will come to Cooleemee... and it would be a nicer, better town,” said Brooks Johnson, 10.
The students said they don’t want to have to go to another town to have fun with their friends or go shopping.
“We’ve got to go from Cooleemee to Mocksville just to get groceries and stuff,” said Seanna Welch, 11. “We need more grocery stores.”
Lenny Adame, 11, said there should be a movie theater at the mill and a room where kids can go to parties.
Lexi Teale, 10, said she would like to see a shopping mall there, and people could live in another part of the mill.
“I think they should put stores, restaurants, apartments and places where you can go hang out with your friends,” said Brittany Wooten, 12.
Johnson said he wants an indoor basketball gym.
Faith Kiger, 10, also said she likes the idea of putting a gymnasium in the mill, so people can have a place to play sports and do gymnastics.
“There’s some fun stuff to do in Cleveland, but not a lot,” Kiger said. “There’s the park and the Bull hole.”
A reason to stay
During an assembly for fifth-graders Thursday, Rumley asked how many of the children want to live in Cooleemee when they grow up. Only a few raised their hands.
When she asked how many wanted to leave, hands shot up all around the room.
“We want to make it so that if this mill project starts now and takes 10 years, we hope by the time you get out of high school, you change your mind,” Rumley said.
The mill was built originally in 1898, and the town of Coolemeee grew around it. It once employed 1,800 people. But in 1963, Burlington shut down the plant to save costs. Now, only about a dozen people with Stokes County Yarn Co. use the building for office and warehouse space.
Now that the town’s business square is gone, its grocery store has shut down down and its bank is closing, there are few places to shop and work in Cooleemeee.
Rumley said she wants to change that.
Cooleemee has received a $200,000 brownfields grant from the Environmental Protection Agency for redevelopment planning and assessment.
The National Endowment for the Arts also has awarded Cooleemee a $35,000 grant, which required a $35,000 match from the Davie County Economic Development Commission. The historical association will use the money to pay for architectural drawings and renderings, Rumley said.
She said the people she worked with at the National Endowment for the Arts had never heard of a program including elementary school kids in reuse planning.
The project is meant to generate ideas from the children and inspire the adults’ own creativity, Rumley said. After the open house, Cooleemee will hold a community design workshop on May 18 to hear more specific suggestions.
“As to what will go in the mill, that’s basically up to us and whether we can find business people to do what we want done,” Rumley said. “We want to see people shopping in the mill, working in the mill and playing in the mill.”
John Fuller, a Mocksville architect, told fifth-graders at Cooleemee Elementary on Thursday that they have the chance to be architects and designers themselves.
“You have the opportunity to do something most people haven’t, which is to think about the future of the mill and create it,” Fuller said. “I challenge you to have fun with it and be creative.”
Consultant Mac Jordan then spoke to the students about how he helped redevelop another old mill in Saxapahaw, a town smaller than Cooleemee in Alamance County.
Jordan’s family, who used to run the mill, sold it to Tennessee-based Dixie Yarns during an energy crisis in 1978. His father got involved in historic preservation and renovation, buying houses and fixing them up to sell or rent.
Then, Dixie Yarns closed the mill in 1994. It had been in operation for nearly 150 years.
“All the stores in town, we only had about five or six, but they all closed,” he said. “There was no place to get gas, no place to go get a candy bar. The town was dying. There was no place for people to work, so we had to drive somewhere else to get a job.”
In an effort to keep the town alive, Jordan’s father repurchased the mill property and started redeveloping it.
Now, the mill features condominiums, apartments, a general store, a music venue, a coffee shop and a pub. Soon, it also will house a microbrewery and a butcher and baker. The tiny town of Saxapahaw is thriving again.
Jordan, of Sellers Inc., now wants to help Cooleemee do the same thing.
On Thursday, he asked the fifth- graders, “What is your favorite thing to do?”
Hanging out with friends, they answered. Listening to music. Going to movies, plays and parties. Dancing, swimming and playing basketball and football.
Jordan encouraged the children to think about doing those favorite things in the mill.
“If you’re going to live here,” he said, “you’ve got to decide what you want it to be.”
Kristen Whitaker, who teaches fourth grade at Cooleemee Elementary, said she thinks the project is “awesome.”
“The kids live here, go down to the (RiverPark) Bullhole and play here,” Whitaker said. “If they have a vested interest in what the future of Cooleemee is going to look like, they’re going to want to stay here.”Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.