Piles of debris remain two years later

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 22, 2011

By Emily Ford
Asked to list the challenges still facing the Park Avenue neighborhood, Ray Morris didn’t hesitate.
“If you had to boil it down to what’s the problem with Park Avenue, it’s that,” Morris said. “It’s that, right there.”
From the front porch of a Park Avenue home, Morris pointed across the street to a mountain of debris standing directly behind a row of houses. The rubble is what remains of Cannon Mills Co. Plant 7, originally known as Kesler Manufacturing Co.
The abandoned textile mill, which included nine buildings dating between 1895 and 1928, was demolished in 2009. Although a contractor hauled off brick, lumber and other reusable materials after demolition, mounds of debris remain.
The owner of the site, a nonprofit Christian community development organization based in Atlanta, was supposed to remove the eyesore by spring 2010.
The neighborhood is still waiting.
Enduring an eyesore
Dennis Sturdivant jogged beside the old mill site on a recent Saturday afternoon. He was trying to keep up with his 5-year-old daughter, Wisdom, as she zipped along the sidewalk in a motorized mini Mustang.
They were headed home after a trip to Cannon Park.
Sturdivant works at Rowan Helping Ministries as the shelter assistant and moved to the Park Avenue neighborhood six months ago. He likes it.
But Wisdom often asks about the 14 acres of weeds, broken concrete and debris that occupy the heart of this mostly residential neighborhood.
“I sure wish they could do something with it,” Sturdivant said.
Residents say walking and driving past the mess every day takes a psychological toll on the fragile neighborhood, where the city and private groups have launched a variety of improvement efforts in the past decade.
The rubble detracts from hard-won enhancements like the new park, renovated community center and many rehabilitated homes.
“It appears as if the neighborhood is degrading, not getting better,” said Morris, whose son Travis Byrd lives on Park Avenue directly across from the debris.
Dozens of houses are in direct view of the rubble, which can be seen from Park Avenue, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, Kesler Street and other thoroughfares.
No other neighborhood in Salisbury endures such a site. The closest comparable eyesore is the demolished N.C. Finishing Plant near I-85, said Chris Branham, city code services manager.
Waiting for a cleanup
The old Cannon Mills site is a nuisance and out of compliance with city code, Branham said.
The city notified the owner in March 2010 that the property was in violation, including heavy overgrown weeds, piles of garbage and debris, areas of confinement where a child could become trapped and lack of a secured fence surrounding the site, Branham said.
The compliance deadline was April 20.
The owner sent someone to mow regularly and fixed the fence, Branham said.
The refuse remains, and last week, at least two unsecured portions of the fence were evident.
But because of improvements to the site and regular communication with a property manager, the city has not fined or penalized the owner, Branham said.
“It’s one of those judgment calls I make,” Branham said. “I’m trying to get them to cooperate, to spend their own $200,000 to clean it up.”
In 2002, JFS Properties of Atlanta purchased the property from Fieldcrest-Cannon for $250,000 and then deeded it as a gift to FCS Urban Ministries in January 2007.
According to the organization’s website, FCS Urban Ministries “partners with declining inner-city neighborhoods to bring about social, economic and spiritual rebirth” and “focuses on a single neglected neighborhood for an extended period of time until health returns.”
Katie Delp, director of operations for FCS, referred questions from the Post to Joel Smithgall, who she said is an FCS volunteer and manages the property.
Smithgall did not return calls from the Post.
FCS estimates it will cost $200,000 to “finish the job,” Smithgall said in an e-mail to Branham.
“We are in the process of getting funding to start the cleanup,” Smithgall wrote on Dec. 16. “The church is under severe financial restraints due to the economy but we hope to get some movement out there within the next couple of weeks.
“Thanks for being patient with us.”
Branham said he’s trying to save the city $200,000 by waiting for FCS to clean up the site. If the city hauled away the debris and tried to seek reimbursement, the case likely would end up in court, he said.
“The lien would sit there until they sold the property,” Branham said. “Financially speaking, it would not be the best alternative.”
A worn sign at the site advertises the property for sale.
Coldwell Banker Commercial Realtor Art Barry III said the 14-acre site is “very much” for sale and referred all other questions to Smithgall.
Opportunity lost
Historic Salisbury Foundation tried to stop the controversial demolition of the mill but failed.
City Planner Lynn Raker called the mill an “opportunity lost.”
“I would have loved to see it redeveloped,” Raker said.
Before demolition, hopes surfaced periodically that the mill buildings could be used for retail or residential purposes, but nothing ever came of those plans.
Raker said she believes the owner tore them down because the mill had become a safety liability and fire threat. Some of the salvaged brick was used to build the serpentine wall at Cotton Mills Corner, a public art project in downtown Salisbury.
Neighborhood advocate Garth Birdsey said developers have used replicas of old mill villages to create mixed-use districts, which could work in Park Avenue.
“This neighborhood is what they try to replicate,” Birdsey said.
Although the mill is gone, the number of intact mill houses surrounding the site makes the area a “phenomenal resource,” he said.
The old mill property has several district classifications. Eighty-three percent is zoned Light Industrial, and the remaining 17 percent is Historic Residential and Urban Residential.
Raker said she would like development of the site to incorporate live-work units, where artisans or craftspeople live close to where they work on their products, as well as Rowan-Cabarrus Community College classes.
“I would love to see classes in Park Avenue where people could walk and learn a trade,” she said. “Unemployment is at the heart of so many issues in that neighborhood.”
Residents have many other suggestions for the vacant old mill property: basketball courts and other recreation for youth, shopping, long-term mini storage with parking for RVs and boats, even a parking lot.
Almost anything, it seems, but piles of rubble.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.