They could easily have been mistaken for coal miners or cave explorers — being issued dust masks and flashlights before beginning a 90-minute trek into the deep, dark catacombs.
Instead, members of the recently formed Mount Airy Redevelopment Commission were involved, and they weren’t heading underground but into the former Spencer’s Inc. manufacturing facilities on Willow Street downtown.
For about 80 years, the Spencer’s complex was a hub of activity as generations of local textile workers turned out apparel for just as many generations of infants.
But on Wednesday when the redevelopment group went on a tour of the facilities, which was not unlike an archaeological expedition, they were venturing into a dark and empty space that has sat silent since production ceased in 2007 at Spencer’s.
And while taking a step back into an important part of Mount Airy’s history, the group also was exploring ways in which the old buildings — some dating to the 1890s — can play a key role in the city’s future.
The formation of the redevelopment commission in April coincided with a city government decision to buy former property of Spencer’s a month later. The new group’s first order of business is to forge a redevelopment plan for the now-blighted site which could allow it to be viable once again.
Possible new uses include some type of housing such as condominiums or even a hotel, retail shops, a distillery, a convention center and others.
An important first step in the conversion process was taken Wednesday when the redevelopment commission strolled through the cavernous facilities with baby-blue exteriors, which boast 22 buildings altogether.
And it proved to be an eye-opening experience for visitors getting their first look inside a complex they had seen only from the outside.
About 15 people took the tour, including those on the seven-member redevelopment commission; city council members Jim Armbrister, Shirley Brinkley and Steve Yokeley, who also chairs the commission; City Manager Barbara Jones; Main Street Coordinator Lizzie Morrison; city planner Andy Goodall; downtown businessman Gene Rees; and other interested observers.
The tour was led by Benton Culler, now a municipal worker, but who in a former life was a Spencer’s employee for more than 20 years. He passed out the flashlights and dust masks at the start of the journey. “It’s dark in there,” Culler warned of the conditions inside — also ripe with the musty smell of neglect.
“When I came here in January 1976 it was full of people,” he recalled as the group meandered through the now-darkened hallways, and up flights of long-forgotten stairs to shine those lights on large rooms where manufacturing once thrived.
Culler paused in one such room on the second floor. “This whole thing was covered with knitting machines,” he mused while pondering its heyday.
“The women had to wear dresses,” Culler recalled in reference to a directive issued by Les Hatcher, a founding partner in the company who held sway there even in his advanced years. The former employee offered one distinct memory of Hatcher’s supervisory style from his days at the Spencer’s No. 4 plant, which later became home to Eagle Carports.
“He’d ride a golf cart around,” Culler said of Hatcher’s efforts to ensure everything ran smoothly.
Gone are all the sewing machines where baby clothes were made in assembly-line style, the dye house where large tubs were used to process the garments, the shipping department once filled with boxes of finished products.
In their place, the tour group viewed the remnants of an industrial dynasty: cobwebs, floors wet from leaking roofs, old signs for long-abandoned restrooms and offices, empty spaces on walls painted red where fire extinguishers once hung, pipes from sprinkler systems still attached to ceilings.
But even in the darkness, signs of hope for a brighter future for the old buildings were still visible on Wednesday.
“It’s got beautiful floors,” Jones the city manager, said of the ample use of hardwood flooring throughout the Spencer’s complex.
Elsewhere there are old wooden beams, 13 inches square and still sturdy despite the passage of time.
A visit to the basement produced the sight of stone and granite walls yet providing a strong foundation, laid years before brick was the prevailing building material. The group was reminded that years ago, the property had been home to such businesses as a livery stable and blacksmith shop and also were used by the tobacco industry.
“I had no idea there was a basement here,” Commissioner Brinkley said, marveling at the expansiveness of the site. “You can go on and on and on — you could be a mole in here.”
Other notable features spotted were an old spiral staircase made of metal, and one room with antique pressed-tin ceiling tiles.
The group also went on top of one of the buildings.
“I See Opportunity”
Though some might have judged the old Spencer’s facilities on face value, that was not the case Wednesday with Tom Webb, a member of the redevelopment commission who has experience with such reclamation projects.
“I just see opportunity,” Webb commented near the end of the tour.
“It’s a very solid building — it has good bones and history,” he added of the Spencer’s infrastructure. “I look at a lot of projects over the state and this is just solid.”
Webb says he envisions the day when many people will want to live at that location, should it be transformed into new housing that would maintain the historic features.
“With the programs that are still existing, I think it’s going to be a rebirth with this complex,” Webb said of tax credits and other incentives available for rehabilitation of such structures.
“I see a lot of mixed uses, not just housing,” he said in eager anticipation of what might result in the future through the new commission’s efforts.
“It’s just exciting to be involved in this phase in the development of Mount Airy.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.