A century ago, Charlotte’s largest employers built the homes their employees lived in.
Most of those booming close-in neighborhoods people are flocking to today were originally built to house textile mill workers — the dominant industry of an earlier Charlotte era.
D.A. Tompkins built dozens of cottages in what is now South End around his Atherton Cotton Mill in the late 1890s. At least 300 workers lived along Euclid, Tremont, and Cleveland avenues.
NoDa was built around Highland Park No. 3. The Belmont neighborhood was built for the Alpha Mill.
In this decade, these old mill towns are experiencing a revival.
These old mills are being renovated and turned into apartments, high-end retail stores, creative office space and breweries.
The concept of a “company town” appears to be coming back as well.
Instead of textiles and mills, Charlotte’s newest employer-owned housing projects are coming from tech and finance.
The most direct example is Red Ventures, the unicorn startup just over the border in South Carolina.
[Agenda story: What Charlotte startup companies actually do]
Last week, the company announced that it would develop SoBa @ RedStone, a 260-unit apartment community on the campus of its headquarters.
Red Ventures CEO Ric Elias expects half of the residents to be employees. Construction is set to begin this summer, and it should open in 2020.
The company towns of yore had churches, libraries and parks to keep workers happy.
The new company town will have a community garden, “resort-quality” pool, yoga studio, Uber lounge and dog spa.
SoBa @ RedStone — SoBa meaning “south of Ballantyne” — will also connect by bike path to the adjoining RedStone shopping center, complete with movie theater, Menchie’s frozen yogurt and Viva Chicken.
More companies could follow suit.
LendingTree is exploring whether it will redevelop the historic Cone Mill in Pineville to become its new headquarters. The town wants the property to also include townhomes, restaurants and retail space. For its part, LendingTree has told the town they would “incentivize employees to walk and bike to work at the site.”
[Agenda story: LendingTree’s HQ would give Pineville a huge boost]
A similar dynamic could occur with Charlotte’s other unicorn startup, AvidXchange.
While AvidXchange doesn’t own the Music Factory now adorned with the company name, the new gleaming headquarters tower has just been joined by the Cadence Music Factory Apartments, with prices starting at $1,150 for a 676-square-foot studio.
“Company towns” have a mixed record. Will the new era fix those problems?
In many ways, the return to living close to work is a good thing for a growing city. After all, the advent of the automobile and the ensuing flight to suburbia brought with it a host of problems that Charlotte and other urban areas across the country are now trying to undo.
But the original “company town” era was fraught as well. It’s hard to leave a job or negotiate for better pay when you have a family in an employer-paid home.
There’s no word yet on what rent will cost at SoBa @ RedStone, or what sort of incentives there will be for employees. Will rent be in reach for entry-level workers? And what happens if they get burned out or fired?
Times have changed, certainly. And to be sure, these are different situations. Modern-day “mills” aren’t isolated from society and companies won’t control the wheels of government. Most of the people who’d live in these developments will be young, single and upwardly mobile — not former farmers with six kids in tow.
History, however, could judge them a new chapter in an old story.