A swath of land in Morganton, North Carolina, that was previously used as a furniture factory in the early 20th century will be reimagined as a campus for innovation and manufacturing, a move which stands to bring much-needed redevelopment and economic opportunities to a region with a robust industrial past. The Industrial Commons (TIC)—a nonprofit founded in 2015 to improve poverty in Burke County North Carolina, located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains—is spearheading the redevelopment. A plan from the organization will transform the former location of the Drexel Furniture 3 & 5 Plant into a work-oriented, 27-acre campus with training facilities and manufacturing spaces for local businesses and community entities. Seattle-based architecture firm Mithun has been tapped to lead the design the state-of-the-art campus.
In the early 1900s Drexel Furniture and its manufacturing plants were a “fixture” of the Morganton community due to the stable provision of economic opportunity. Drexel was bought out several times during the 20th century, and its facilities have since shuttered following an exodus of industries leaving the region in recent decades to set up operations elsewhere. A fire destroyed the empty factory in 2009, and it has remained vacant and unused since. In May 2022 the project received $500,000 in funding from the EPA’s Brownfields Cleanup Grant, jumpstarting the plan to reimagine the site.
Mithun, which was also recently named the recipient of the AIA’s 2023 Architecture Firm Award, was chosen from an RFP that garnered the talent of 17 architecture firms. The selection follows a Vision Plan for the site developed by Nelson Byrd Woltz, Landscape Architects, NVERSE Architects, and Baumgartner Urban Systems Strategy. This draft master plan drawn up for the campus shows several manufacturing and incubator buildings in addition to nearly 8 acres of public park space and walking trails, daycare facilities, and other recreational spaces. It also highlights existing constructions across the site that will be maintained in the revitalized campus, including the Historic Dust Collector Tower and a brick wall. TIC also has plans for an adjacent site 6, also previously owned and occupied by Drexel. A proposed scheme would turn that 11-acre brownfield site into a workforce housing development anchored by 55 units.
“This project represents a remarkable opportunity to resurrect the industrial heritage of this site and create a high-performing, sustainable campus that will support workers and businesses in North Carolina — and serve as an exemplary model nationwide,” said Mithun President David W. Goldberg in a statement. “We are excited to collaborate with the excellent team of national and local experts already assembled, and to contribute to the innovative work of TIC in support of a diverse working class and inclusive economy.”
Prior to the draft plan and the forthcoming design work, a Steering Committee comprising local government officials, businesses, educators, and workers, formed to gather feedback and input from the community about their vision for the campus.
“We had an overwhelming response to the RFP process, with 17 of the country’s leading architects submitting proposals,” added TIC directior Erin Kizer. “After an interview process that included workers and members of our Steering Committee we selected Mithun and couldn’t be happier with our decision—especially considering they were named Architects of the Year just a few weeks after we selected them.”
Cleaning up the site is the first step toward realizing the campus master plan. With work beginning on that this winter, design and engineering work will continue through the rest of the year with a groundbreaking slated for 2024.
“We’re thrilled to move to the next step of design and development for the Campus,” said TIC Coexecutive Director Sara Chester. “We have full confidence in Mithun, and the team of engineers and consultants we’ve assembled collectively, to design a space that is the physical embodiment of our values—including manufacturing innovation, as well as our deep commitment to environmental sustainability and to our community.”