Garco renovation lighting up

An investment group led by developer William Cogswell’s group bought the former mill on the old Garco manufacturing site from the city for $1 million earlier this week.

Developer William Cogswell cautioned a visitor who recently stepped inside North Charleston’s dark, vacant and decaying Garco mill building.

“You need to put your rose-colored glasses on right now,” he said.

What Cogswell sees there is the beginning of a $28 million project, $18 million of which will be spent on rehabilitating this historic former textile mill, while another $10 million will be spent building a new manufacturing plant for the Urban Electric Co. nearby.

The two structures will be linked by a new linear park that also can be used for parking and special events.

Cogswell recently completed an ambitious renovation of Charleston’s Cigar Factory — the Lowcountry’s only other historic textile mill and one that also has stood vacant for years. He said his planned renovation in North Charleston will use the same blueprint as far as financing and construction.

Work is expected to begin next year on the mill, which was built in 1901 and is known by the acronym for the General Asbestos and Rubber Co. business that once called it home.

Dave Dawson, CEO of Urban Electric, said he has worked with Cogswell for three years to find a new manufacturing site that also would be close to restaurants, bars and shops that his workers could enjoy.

“Historically, it was a manufacturing site,” he said. “Our craftsmen get the advantage of being in the neighborhood.”

Cogswell and Dawson originally looked at land next to the vacant mill for the company’s plant, but as the deal got closer, the uncertainty over the condition of the mill next door began to loom larger.

The city of North Charleston bought the property for $1.5 million two years ago in anticipation of renovating it as an arts center with both performance space and apartments.

But Ray Anderson, assistant to Mayor Keith Summey, said a city estimate showed it would cost the city about $15 million to do the work — and the city didn’t expect to be able to spend that on the project within the next five years or so. So when Cogswell reached out, the city listened.

“The issue with the mill was a very, very tough decision,” Anderson said. “It was a neat old building, but we knew it would be a couple of years to get to start work on it from the city’s standpoint.”

Anderson said the city feared the vacant mill would serve as a drag on other redevelopment. The Beach Co., which also sold Cogswell a portion of its 23-acre site for the Urban Electric building, plans to start construction next month on The Factory at Garco Park, a 271-unit apartment complex to the north.

Earlier this week, Cogswell’s group bought the mill from the city for $1 million, while North Charleston kept about 2.5 acres closest to East Montague for continued use as parking for the area many consider the city’s downtown.

The contract also stipulated the developer would build the linear park, which the city could use for special events instead of closing off sections of East Montague. It also gives the city an option to buy the park, which Anderson said will be designed with the city’s input.

“It was an involved contract, but the city couldn’t have been more cooperative,” Cogswell said. “They really wanted to see this building renovated.”

The deal makes sense for Urban Electric not only because the vacant mill next to its new plant will be renovated, but the company also plans to move offices into about 20,000 of the mill’s 80,000 square feet.

Cogswell said a food market and open-air dining area also are planned, as is a smaller bar and manufacturing business.

“In a week’s time, you’re going to see a huge banner on the side of the building saying, ‘Available for lease,’ ” he said, adding he hopes to begin work there early next year.

Like he did on the Cigar Factory project, Cogswell will seek state and federal historic tax credits — and the state’s credit for renovating mill buildings. Cogswell said those combined credits, which are not available to the city, help make the numbers work.

He said the property soon will be put on the National Register of Historic Places, and its renovation will be done under national preservation guidelines.

While most of the buildings that surrounded Garco’s original mill have been razed, the original mill survives. It was built in 1901, before the first part of the nearby Navy base was developed, and led to some of the first neighborhoods in what eventually would become the city of North Charleston in 1975.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this is the most historic building in North Charleston,” Cogswell said.

Reach Robert Behre at (843) 937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.