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Old factory complexes across North Carolina are finding new lives. But in downtown Davidson, developers for years have tried to redevelop an aging cotton mill - without success. That's because cancer-causing asbestos is buried on the site. Between the cost of cleanup and the risk of stirring up asbestos, nobody has been willing to take on the job.

Agreement could clear the way for redeveloping Davidson asbestos mill

The old Carolina Asbestos Co. in downtown Davidson, also known as the Metrolina Warehouse.
David Boraks
The old Carolina Asbestos Co. in downtown Davidson, also known as the Metrolina Warehouse, is seen in January 2021.

A company that wants to redevelop an old mill in downtown Davidson has reached a tentative agreement with North Carolina environmental officials on how to manage asbestos buried on the site.

Carolina Asbestos discarded shingles and other asbestos waste in a pit behind the mill from the 1930s to around 1970. Charlotte developer Mark Miller of Lat Purser & Associates said it would cost at least $5 million and take several years to permanently cover the asbestos and convert the mill to shops and offices.

Asbestos fibers can cause lung cancer and other diseases if inhaled. In the past, the material has leaked and is now under a temporary earthen cap.

Davidson Town Manager Jamie Justice said during a public meeting with environmental officials Monday night that the agreement offers long-term health and safety for the town and residents.

David Boraks
The rear of the Metrolina Warehouse/Carolina Asbestos factory in Davidson is seen in July 2020.

"This permanent solution is really what we need to address the environmental concern," Justice said during the online meeting. "And that's something that we have been working with you all on and are happy that we're heading in this direction. Doing nothing at this site is just simply not an option."

The draft "brownfields agreement" limits redevelopment to offices, shops, restaurants, a brewery, warehousing and other non-residential uses. It also requires the developer to get approval from the state Department of Environmental Quality for work that might disturb lead or asbestos and to regularly test air and soil.

DEQ is seeking public comments through early November. Brownfields project manager Carolyn Minnich said the agreement could be approved by late November.

Miller has had an option to buy the property, now known as the Metrolina Warehouse, for several years. But solving the asbestos problem has been a barrier. Once the brownfields agreement is approved, Miller would acquire the property from its current owners, the family of the late Robert Kenyon, who bought it in 1976.

Then, he would have to draft and get DEQ approval for specific asbestos removal and environmental work plans.

Miller has shown conceptual drawings of a redevelopment that includes a restaurant/brewery and shops. But he has said what the project eventually looks like could change because the real estate market has evolved amid the pandemic. Any project would still have to go through public input meetings and Davidson's planning process.

Miller said he doesn't know yet when the project might get built.

"We’ve been focused on completing the brownfields agreement," he told WFAE. "That’s been the priority and we haven’t spent much time on redevelopment plans. It could be a while before those plans come together."

The project, at 301 Depot St. next to the railroad tracks in downtown Davidson, is tentatively called the Linden Mill.

There's more information on the DEQ website.

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Draft agreement

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.