Everyone in Danville, Virginia, knows about Dan River Mills.
How it dominated life in Danville as the largest textile firm in the South for many decades. How it employed over 14,000 people in a city of 40,000. How it struggled to survive as the industry moved toward cheaper, imported textiles.
How it finally closed in 2006, delivering a heavy blow to Danville’s economy.
“Dan River Mills existed in Danville for over 100 years,” said Ken Larking, Danville city manager. “You don’t have a business that employs 14,000 people that doesn’t have an outlandish impact.”
Now, everybody in Danville knows where the mills used to be. The giant, empty White Mill on the river is hard to miss. The Schoolfield mill district only recently saw the demolition of its finishing plant.
And several other sites in Danville bear the physical reminder of what was once a thriving industrial town.
“I think it did hurt the psyche of the community,” Larking said, “over the last two decades, seeing Schoolfield with a bunch of rubble and a large old building that was clearly blighted.”
Civic self-esteem has been one of the biggest obstacles for the city in its revitalization efforts, said Diana Schwartz, executive director of the River District Association in Danville.
“The community sustained massive loss through what happened at Dan River,” she said. “And seeing those empty buildings, psychologically, is a reminder of that loss constantly.”
Since the mill’s closure in 2006, the city has been trying to bolster the economy again. This included buying up Dan River Mills properties with the hope that they could be transformed into something new.
And now, that investment is starting to pay off.
But before we look at what the Dan River Mills sites are becoming, it’s important to know what they’ve been.
Dan River Mills History
Dan River Mills was established by six local men in 1882. Originally, it was called the Riverside Cotton Mills, because of its location on the banks of the Dan River.
The firm expanded quickly, building four mills in the first decade of operation and creating a mill village, a place for employees to live. Providing housing to retain workers was a common strategy for textile firms in the South.
The mill village of Schoolfield existed independently from the city of Danville until its annexation in 1951.
“Although conditions in Schoolfield were harsh – it did not have a sewage system until it was annexed by Danville – many residents embraced the close community that existed in the old mill village,” according to Encyclopedia Virginia.
That close-knit community stayed intact throughout the life of Dan River Mills.
Terry Towler, who began working at the mill when he was 17 in 1977, said “it was like a big family.” On Christmas and Thanksgiving, employees got an hourlong lunch break to eat a holiday meal together, he said.
“It was probably a 50-yard long table,” Towler said. “Everybody would bring a plate and the table would be full of food.”
Like many other mill employees, Towler had family who also worked at the mill. His grandfather had worked at Dan River, and his mother worked there at the same time that he did, on the same floor.
“Everybody knew everybody,” Towler said. “You may not have known their name, but you knew them well enough to talk to them. I had a lot of friends.”
Former Dan River employees and their family members still keep in touch through a Facebook group where they post old photos and share stories from their time there.
Towler drove trucks for Dan River, going plant to plant around the city. He said he left the company around 2003, because he could see business and volume declining.
“I could see it going downhill,” he said. “When I started working at Dan River there were 14,564 people working there. When I left it was 4,000 and some.”
Towler now lives in Rockingham, North Carolina, but he said he wishes he still lived in Danville.
Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, also worked at the mill as a teenager. He worked in inspection at the finishing plant at the Schoolfield site, moving denim from conveyor belts into dollies to carry them to shipping.
Marshall said he remembered that it was “hot as heck” inside the plant.
“I only worked there for about a year and a half,” he said. “But there were families who worked there generation after generation. It was a great opportunity for families there. They could reach the American dream, go to college, but all that kind of evaporated when [Dan River] did.”
The mill saw a few worker strikes, one in 1930 and one in 1951, but Odell Hutson, former chief engineer for Dan River, said the company took good care of its workers during his time there.
“People thought [the company] was taking advantage of people who didn’t have a college education, and I think that was an absolute misnomer,” Hutson said. “Dan River was really good about allowing people to improve themselves.”
The company had a tuition assistance program for almost any class Danville Community College offered, he said.
“If you got a C, they would pay for the class, your books and all your expenses,” Hutson said. “It didn’t matter if it related to the work or not.”
Hutson started working at Dan River in 1972 and stayed there until it closed down. When the company was preparing for bankruptcy and starting to dispose of properties, Hutson said he did a search in the city’s GIS system to see how much land Dan River owned.
“At one point, it was a little over 100 pieces of property, and 1,000 or so acres,” he said.
These properties have gradually changed hands. Some went to historical societies, Huston said, some to developers. And others, of course, like the Schoolfield site, were bought by the city.
Hutson said it was a little sad to see the Schoolfield finishing plant torn down, but it’s nothing new.
“There were lots of [Dan River] buildings that have been torn down over the last 15 years,” he said. “They’re beautiful buildings, and there’s potential for redevelopment. But getting people to fund those kinds of things and getting the money, it’s not the simplest thing in the world.”
Still, the city decided that owning some Dan River properties was the best way to ensure that they’d be redeveloped, Larking said.
That redevelopment is finally starting to happen.
Schoolfield → Caesars Virginia
The most obvious example of transforming a Dan River site is the Caesars Virginia casino resort that is coming to the city in 2024.
The city’s Industrial Development Authority bought the Schoolfield site about 10 years ago for $5 million, with funding provided by the city council. This covered around 80 acres of land, including the finishing plant that was recently demolished, where the casino will be.
There was some talk about rehabilitating the building instead of tearing it down, but that would’ve been extremely expensive, Larking said.
“We tried to market [the Schoolfield site] for a long time,” he said. “And we had some interest, but nothing ever came to fruition.”
But in 2019, when Virginia legalized casino gambling and approved Danville as one of five locations to build casino resorts, casino operators started considering Schoolfield (among other sites in Danville) for this purpose.
The city used a competitive request for proposals process to find an operator, Larking said, which ended up being Caesars Entertainment. Caesars bought the Schoolfield finishing plant site for $5 million.
“Remember, we paid $5 million for it, but we also got surrounding property in addition to that,” Larking said. “So the IDA actually made money on the property, I suppose you could say. And it still owns land, which will be of high value to future developers.”
Caesars broke ground Aug. 11 after the demolition phase. Bricks from the original building were given out at the groundbreaking ceremony to community leaders and businesses.
The $650 million investment from Caesars is expected to bring 1,300 operational jobs and 900 construction jobs to Danville. Without the casino referendum, it could’ve been years before the site was developed, Larking said.
Marshall called Caesars “a real win” for Danville, and praised the city’s foresight in purchasing the Schoolfield site.
“There’s always a risk and reward,” Marshall said. “What else do you do? Do you just let it sit there? If they had not done this, it would’ve just been sitting there, and that would’ve been a real albatross around Danville trying to rehabilitate itself.”
White Mill → mixed-used space
A few years after the IDA bought the Schoolfield site, it also bought the White Mill, a 650,000-square-foot historic property that sits right on the Dan River, for $3 million.
This location was a second possibility for casino operators, although Schoolfield was ultimately chosen.
“The council’s thought process was that we really want to see both sites develop,” Larking said. “So when one was selected, revenue generated from that project would help to make sure the other also happened.”
Since there will be no casino at the White Mill, the city plans to convert the building into a mixed-use space with apartments on upper floors and 110,000 square feet of commercial space on the first floor.
This project is a public-private partnership between the city and the Alexander Company, a Wisconsin-based real estate developer. The IDA will vote next month on an agreement to get the $85 million project underway.
At Danville’s housing summit in August, the city’s economic development director, Corrie Bobe, shared reasons why the White Mill site is attractive to developers.
It’s in a highly visible location leading into the River District, which has seen substantial growth over the last 10 years, she said. The property has beautiful views of the river and direct access to Danville’s river walk trail, 13 miles of paved walking and biking trails.
“In purchasing the building, the land surrounding it on the south banks of the river came as part of that,” Bobe said in an interview. “That allows the city to invest in public amenities, such as the riverfront park that will soon come under construction, as well as the whitewater feature that we’re currently planning as a repurposing of the historic canal around the property.”
The riverfront park plans are being handled by Danville’s Parks and Recreation department. Bobe said the park will include playgrounds, splash pads, boat access into the river, and a performing stage.
The whitewater rafting plans include a facility for whitewater kayaking and tubing, which could also hold river rescue training and recreational competitions. The Danville Regional Foundation is pledging almost $1 million for this conversion.
The city would need to construct a whitewater facility and operate it for at least 15 years to get this grant.
On top of that, there are plans to convert the abandoned covered bridge beside the White Mill into a pedestrian bridge.
“We have done quite a bit of work over the last six months doing environmental remediation on that bridge, taking down metal panels,” Bobe said at the summit. “Now, our Parks and Recreation department will begin designing this bridge and will incorporate it into our riverwalk trail system.”
Possibilities for the pedestrian bridge include spaces for live music, and colored lights illuminating the bridge for different events and holidays.
These projects are separate from the effort to rehabilitate the White Mill itself, but the combined efforts will make the entire White Mill area “truly a destination for residents and visitors,” Bobe said at the summit.
Right now, for people who have been living in Danville for a while, the White Mill almost blends into the landscape. People are so used to looking at it, Larking said.
“But to see that transformed into something where people will be living in it, people will be working in it, that’s going to be just amazing,” he said. “Especially because it’s right there on the road, with so many people driving by.”
Larking said he thinks people will come a long way to see the White Mill area when it’s finished.
“Just to experience that whole development and see what was once a quite blighted area transformed into something that people really enjoy coming to see, that’s going to give hope to people,” he said.
Executive Office → Police Department
In August, the Danville Police Department moved to its new location – the former Dan River Inc. executive office.
The building was built in 1967, but sat empty for years after Dan River stopped operating.
The police department moved from the basement of City Hall, where it had been located since 1926, to this renovated building.
The $18 million project, a private-public partnership between the City of Danville and Roanoke-based developer Ed Walker, made use of historic tax credits to lower the cost.
During his remarks at the department’s soft opening in August, Walker said he immediately adored the building. He initially thought it would make a great hotel or apartment complex, which he is more familiar with, but then he found out about the need for a new police department, he said.
“I’m always looking for the sweet spot between what a community needs and what a building can be,” Walker said at the soft opening. “And this seemed really neat. I’d never done anything like it.”
Unlike the Schoolfield and White Mill sites, the city does not own the police department site outright. It is leasing the building from Walker and plans to put in an offer to purchase it after the historic tax credits expire, Larking said.
“We’ll have a right of first refusal to purchase it if it goes for sale after the tax credit holding period is done,” he said. “[The city] will probably be the best candidate to purchase it at that point.”
Also unlike the Schoolfield finishing building, this site was not a lost cause for rehabilitation.
“When they started looking at this and they started peeling back a lot of the old material, getting back to the steel infrastructure, one of the architects said it was the best preserved site that he had ever worked on,” said Lt. Col. Dean Hairston, deputy police chief and project manager.
Still, there were naturally some updates that the 1960s building needed. But because of the use of historic tax credits, the corridors and exterior couldn’t be altered with the exception of making spaces ADA compliant, Hairston said.
“They originally designed this as a business and not a police department, and police departments have different needs,” he said. One of those needs was security.
Ballistic glass was added around the front desk, gun boxes were added in the hallways, and all doors are controlled entry.
As of Aug. 30, all police department operations are now housed in this new location, which is finally meeting the needs of the Danville police department.
It’s also yet another example of how former Dan River Mills sites can impact the community in a positive way after sitting vacant for so long.
The IDA still has ownership of some of the properties around the Schoolfield site. Toward the end of next month, the city will rebuild its master plan for the Schoolfield district, as well as other areas like the West Main corridor, with recommendations for how to best develop those parcels, Bobe said.
The city understood that it was playing a long game by buying these parcels, she said.
“We knew through our Industrial Development Authority that we needed to acquire strategic property and we needed to hold this property until the right use and development project came about,” Bobe said.
This wasn’t a very popular decision at the time, Bobe said, but it was “the right decision to be patient and wait for the appropriate entity.”
Schwartz, the River District Association leader, echoed this sentiment. She said the city never would’ve attracted this level of development if it hadn’t been so forward-thinking.
“It was a gamble,” she said. “I know that some people criticized that gamble. However, your option is to do nothing, or to do something.”
Larking said that the city “never could’ve dreamed this scenario would have played out so quickly” seven years ago when it made the decision to buy former Dan River sites. The main reason it’s happening so fast is because of the casino resort project, he said.
Now, the transformed mill sites can continue the impact that Dan River made on the city’s economy for so long.
“[The city] took calculated risks,” Schwartz said. “And they’ve paid off.”