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Sterling trust needs financing to buy mill

The Sterling Land Trust aims to purchase the Plush Mill to renovate it and lease it out to commercial tenants. (Photo/Liz Segrist)
The Sterling Land Trust aims to purchase the Plush Mill on Greenville’s West Side to renovate and lease it out to commercial tenants. (Photo/Liz Segrist)

Editor's note: GSA Business has updated this story to reflect the accurate amount of square footage the undisclosed tenant plans to occupy at the Plush Mill should the project proceed. We regret the error.

By Liz Segrist
Published May 14, 2013

The Sterling Land Trust is in a race against time to raise the financing needed to buy the Plush Mill, which signifies Sterling’s rebirth on Greenville’s West Side.

The trust, a nonprofit formed in 2010, must raise $450,000 to buy the mill land by June 1 or its deal with the mill owner expires. The trust has raised $605 thus far, according to its website.

The Sterling Land Trust wants to buy, renovate and lease out the Plush Mill and its 3 acres to commercial tenants to bring jobs and hope back into a community plagued with poverty and blight.

Dot Russell, Sterling Land Trust chairwoman

“The mill will serve as the catalyst to bring jobs back into the community for its residents.”

— Dot Russell, Sterling Land Trust chairwoman

An undisclosed, health services-related tenant plans to occupy 35,000 square feet of the mill — if financing can be secured in time.

Time has taken its toll on the vacant mill along Highway 123 in Greenville. But the Sterling Land Trust, a group of residents led by Dot Russell, sees potential.

“The mill will serve as the catalyst to bring jobs back into the community for its residents,” said Russell, the land trust chairwoman and Sterling Neighborhood Association president. “It will jump-start everything.”

The trust would use the rent revenue to fund other community projects, such as affordable home ownership, urban agribusinesses and microenterprise opportunities.

It would enable residents to stay within the community and avoid displacement by the rapid growth of downtown, according to trust leaders. It would help make the community, which is split between the city and county, self-sustaining.

“Through the mill, the land trust has something that it can control. It will funnel money back into the community to buy more land for gardens, businesses, a senior center or housing,” said Rev. Allen Freeman, the land trust vice president. “The city is coming this way and we want something we can call our own.”

The proposed Plush Mill project with the proposed tenant originally cost an estimated $5 million. The Sterling Land Trust secured $4.5 million in New Market Tax Credits financing through TD Bank and an undisclosed equity partner providing $500,000.

The Furman Co. also entered into an alliance with the land trust earlier this year in which it offered pro-bono services, including valuation of property, advice on arranging public-private partnerships and property negotiations.

Following the initial assessments, it was discovered in March that the mill would cost roughly $6 million, rather than $5 million due to unforeseen expenses related to extensive renovations and uncalculated square footage. The trust needs $450,000 to purchase the land, removing the expense from the debt and lowering the costs back down for the proposed tenants.

The trust received an extension on the lease until June 1. The land trust and undisclosed tenant have worked together for nearly three years on this project.

“We need help to raise this money and I have faith in the heart of Greenville. If you simply ask of this community, they will assist you,” Russell said. “This could be another part of Greenville’s legacy, blending Greenville’s and Sterling’s history to show how Greenville has evolved.”

Debbie Yeager, the broker-in-charge with Chuck Yeager Real Estate, took over the listing of the Plush Mill after her husband, Chuck, passed away a few years ago from pancreatic cancer. She’s trying to raise funds as well.

“Chuck loved community revitalization and helping people,” she said. “When I was first contacted about this, it was like a sign from heaven because that’s what Chuck would have wanted more than anything else.”

A view from the past
Freeman grew up on Dunbar Street and graduated from Sterling High School in 1950. His parents owned and operated Freeman’s Grocery Store and Freeman’s Laundromat.

Rev. Allen Freeman, a Sterling resident, believes ownership of the mill will change the community. (Photo/Liz Segrist)
Rev. Allen Freeman, a Sterling resident, believes ownership of the mill will change the community. (Photo/Liz Segrist)
“I recall the days when everyone owned their own home here and lots of people owned their own businesses,” said Freeman, an active community volunteer and Sterling resident. “You were raised up in the community by everyone.”

The residents hope the renovation of the Plush Mill will restore the community they once knew.

The Sterling High School was destroyed by a fire in 1967. The cause of the fire was never discovered.

The high school was never rebuilt and many graduates, like Freeman, left Greenville to attend college and advance their careers elsewhere.

As some return decades later, they find their childhood community quite different then when they left it. High crime rates, kudzu curtains and unkempt rental properties plague their community. Job opportunities are scarce.

Residents wanted change and they wanted it from within. They created the first community land trust in South Carolina — the Sterling Land Trust.

The trust signifies a community working to lift itself out of poverty and crime with residents leading the charge to recruit business, homebuyers and quality of life.

Growing your own
Residents are working hard to rebuild the community themselves.

Peggy Baxter works in the Odessa Street Community Garden on the land she donated to the Sterling community. (Photo/Liz Segrist)
Peggy Baxter works in the Odessa Street Community Garden on the land she donated to the Sterling community. (Photo/Liz Segrist)
Peggy Baxter remembers the beautiful flowers that used to grow around her childhood home on Odessa Street. She donated the vacant lot next to it to create the Odessa Street Community Garden.

“I was sitting in a neighborhood meeting hearing about their visions and I thought, ‘What can I do?’” Baxter said. “It’s not easy to get access to fresh fruits and vegetables in the Sterling community and this provides food for seniors and residents.”

Residents and volunteers tend to the 6,000-square-foot garden, growing tomatoes, okra, green beans, eggplant, potatoes, onions, herbs and both fig and persimmon trees. Anyone can benefit from the garden for free.

Sterling has other redevelopment plans in the works, too. In conjunction with community partners, the trust turned the only building that survived the high school fire into a community and senior center at 113 Minus St.

A plot of land along Dunbar Road, across from the St. Francis Hospital, has been transformed from a kudzu field into the Sterling Tiger Trail, which connects to the Swamp Rabbit Trail.

The trust also is creating The Sterling Pride Farm, a multisite farm that would train and employ people to work there, producing healthy foods for the surrounding neighborhoods. Residents in Sterling and neighboring communities could work at the farm with the goal of each person making at least $10,000 annually.

The Huddle soda shop will also become a training center for residents to hone in on their skills, such as tailoring. A sandwich shop might become a tenant as well.

“We want to bring jobs in for the people that need them — and it all starts with the mill,” Russell said. “The trust wants to buy the mill, own it and lease it out to show that this can happen for our community. We can redevelop from within.”

Those that are interested can donate here.

Subscribe to GSA Business to read the full story in the May 20 issue.

Previous coverage

Park could spur Westside development
St. Francis promotes healthier Sterling community in West Greenville

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