Wineka column: After four years living with debris, residents around old mill property wonder who cares
SALISBURY — Jake Williams’ house on Park Avenue backs up to what used to be the mill.
The 1896 Kesler Manufacturing complex, which included nine buildings, 300,000 square feet and eventually became Cannon Mills Plant No. 7, is gone now — long gone.
In its place are 13 acres of weeds, an ugly metal fence, long stretches of concrete pads and mountains of rubble left from the demolition of the mill in 2009.
Williams, sitting on a porch across the street with friend Bobby Wise, has to look at it every day. He and his neighbors are tired of it, to say the least, but hold out little hope anyone’s going to help them.
“You know, if somebody’s got something sitting for five years doing nothing, they don’t plan to do anything,” Williams says.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood’s property values are going down, the mill district risks losing its National Register of Historic Places designation because the industrial centerpiece, the mill complex, no longer exists, and residents see daily the varmints and wildlife attracted by the debris.
In its current condition, the site could never be redeveloped.
Williams has killed a snake in his front yard and routinely sees snake skins around his house. A couple of doors down, Mary Johnson says she has watched raccoons and field rats coming off the site. Others on her porch report seeing ground hogs, rabbits, foxes and more snakes.
“I don’t think they care about cleaning it up,” says Stacey Johnson, Mary’s next-door neighbor. “It doesn’t cost that much to take that stuff out of there.”
The latest estimate of what it would cost to haul the mounded materials away is $162,000 — the price of tipping fees at the Rowan County landfill.
The city of Salisbury has asked the Rowan County Board of Commissioners to waive the tipping fees for the property’s owner, a non-profit organization in Atlanta, but that proposition seems to be a negotiation in process.
“The ball is in my court at this point,” city Planning Director Janet Gapen says. She has been communicating with Rowan County Commissioner Craig Pierce, and Gapen plans to draft a preliminary agreement about waiving the tipping fees to present to the county.
Gapen and Brian M. Davis, a Park Avenue resident and executive director of Historic Salisbury Foundation, think more of the materials in the debris piles can be recycled, thereby reducing the amount of trash ending up in the landfill.
Several residents, including Davis, have written letters or emails to the five-member Rowan County Board of Commissioners asking it to consider waiver of the fees, to make cleanup of the site feasible.
Davis says he heard back from three commissioners. One was adamant against waiving any fees. Another commissioner said maybe the fees could be deferred or lessened. A third commissioner said he was willing to do whatever it took to clean up the property.
Davis toured the site last November, and he thinks a demolition contractor would have plenty of room on the site for grinding leftover concrete, asphalt and brick so it could be reused.
The debris piles are the residual trash left from the February-May 2009 demolition of the mill site.
George Culver, owner of Applied Abatement Demolition of Kings Mountain, salvaged all the steel, wood, brick and concrete he could from the mill and left the piles of rubble.
“They got more money out of it when they tore it down than when they built it,” Williams says.
According to Garth Birdsey, Culver apparently offered to return to the site and for $150,000 clean up what was left, but it never worked out with the Atlanta owner.
Birdsey lives in what used to be one of the three homes Cannon Mills built for supervisors in the 400 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, so he’s staring at the old mill property from another angle every day.
He says the long stretches of concrete slabs still remaining on the site have deep voids underneath them, offering accommodating sanctuaries for animals while posing danger to any children who might crawl underneath the concrete.
After attempts to sell the vacant mill property didn’t happen, Atlanta developer Developer Bob Lupton made a gift of the property to FCS Urban Ministries in 2007. The nonprofit is a community development organization in Atlanta that partners with declining inner-city neighborhoods to bring about social, economic and spiritual rebirth.
Birdsey says Lupton was a member of the FCS Urban Ministries board and hid from the organization what a mess — a situation exactly opposite to its community development goals — the Kesler Mill site had become.
A new nonprofit group is now listed as the owner, Birdsey claims.
“For all the properties surrounding this mill,” Birdsey says, “the property values are going through the floor.”
He notes his recent purchase of a house in the neighborhood for $42,000, even though its tax-assessed value was $77,000. “That’s a good illustration of what’s going on with property values,” Birdsey says.
Come January, Birdsey adds, he will walk down to the county offices, point out what he paid for the home and ask that his taxes be reduced. “I’m sure that groundswell will happen with other properties, too,” he says.
C.J. Peters, owner of the historic McCanless-McCubbins House on Park Avenue, said county commissioners need to look at the long-range economic prospects for generating tax revenue, rather than focusing on a short-term goal of charging the landfill fees.
“A trash heap in the middle of a very good neighborhood is bringing down property values,” Peters says.
But if the site were cleaned up and it was redeveloped for something such as an apartment complex or storage warehouse, the county has new tax revenues, plus a neighborhood on the rise.
Increase the tax values of 100 houses by just 10 percent, Peters says, and you easily absorb the cost of waiving landfill fees. Simple economics tells him that $162,000 now can translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars down the road, he adds.
“That site is costing us as a community lots and lots more than $162,000,” Peters says. “... If I were a commissioner, I could do the math in my head.”
The site pays nothing now to city or county coffers, though the Arlington Street end of it is within two blocks of O’Charley’s restaurant and about a quarter-mile from Interstate 85.
In his own correspondence to commissioners, Peters noted the site’s distance from I-85. But he can’t overlook the obvious, either: “If it’s got a problem on it like a big trash heap, it’s going to sit there forever.”
For residents who live here, it’s easy to trot out the old observation that says if these mounds of rubble were in most any other neighborhood in the city, they would have been cleaned up long ago.
But what’s the use of saying even that. After you’ve lived with something like this for four years, you begin to believe no one else cares.
“It ain’t nothing but a sore eye,” Wise says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.