By Carlie Kollath/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Tupelo attorney Greg Pirkle has big dreams for the old cotton mill he bought in downtown Tupelo.
He hopes to fill the 109,000-square-foot space with a sit-down restaurant, sandwich shop, upscale grocery, movie theater, gym, residential lofts, office space, a mixed-use performance venue, an open-format artist cooperative, a bicycle shop and an apartment for his wife and him.
“If you live downtown, I want you to be able to eat, work and exercise without having to get in your car,” he said. “That’s what I want. That’s why I want to live down here.”
The mill, also known as the J.J. Rogers building, is a complex of buildings along South Spring Street, Elliott Street and the railroad tracks. The mill was built in 1901 and is the namesake for the neighborhood it sits in: Mill Village. Its square tower and circular smokestack are part of the skyline of downtown.
The Tupelo Historic Preservation Commission considers the building an asset to the city. Karen Keeney, commission chair, said the members haven’t reviewed any plans, but they’ve had informal discussions with Pirkle about his ideas.
“We’re excited to see someone invest so much in Mill Village,” she said. “We’re behind it.”
The Rogers family bought the old cotton mill in the 1940s and used it to house their distributing company. Many elements of the now-defunct business still lend their charm to the building, such as an industrial coffee roaster, vintage wooden pallets, ancient typewriters and antique signs.
The vast majority of the complex has original hardwood floors and exposed brick on the walls, in addition to 100 windows that still open. Plus, it has a flat roof Pirkle hopes one day will be filled with diners and cultural activities.
The building has been empty since 2007, except for an office operated by Britt Rogers.
Pirkle’s plan is the second major overhaul proposed in recent years. In 2008 and 2009, a North Carolina-based company tried to obtain state funding toward converting the building into Cotton Mill Lofts.
The proposed $9 million residential rehab project called for 48 units with below-market rent, an on-site playground, a computer room, GED classes and washer-dryer combos in each unit.
But the funding wasn’t granted and the project didn’t happen, leaving an opening for Pirkle.
Pirkle bought the property in 2010 and has spent the time talking with architects, engineers, contractors, the state’s historic experts, consultants and potential tenants. He’s also won over neighborhood support.
“I think what he’s doing will be a great thing for the neighborhood as well as downtown Tupelo,” said Stacey Gregory, co-president of the Mill Village Neighborhood Association. “It’s taking a Tupelo landmark and breathing new life into it.”
Pirkle said he’s still investigating tax incentives and financing options.
He’s also putting together numbers for how much the project is going to cost. The window restoration alone will cost nearly $1 million, with each of the large windows costing about $9,000 to restore to historically accurate standards.
Other major renovations include putting on a new roof, adding modern elevators to the current shafts and removing the tin and sheet metal that cover parts of the building’s exterior.
“There’s nothing broken that we can’t fix,” he said.
He also will stabilize any deteriorating structures. The smokestack already has been a victim of the elements. In 2002, half of it was removed to prevent it from being a safety hazard.
If everything comes together, Pirkle hopes to begin construction this summer, starting with updating the utilities and running cable and Internet lines. He expects the renovations to last two years.
His goal is to secure leases for the various spaces, except for the residential areas, before starting. He’s currently working out lease prices.
Pirkle admitted it’s a big job, but the partner at Phelps Dunbar said he’s up for the challenge.
“I have a great appreciation for historic things,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to have something in this part of town. … Right now, I consider it an impediment to Mill Village’s growth. I want to change that.”