Over the past year, I’ve spent quite a lot of time writing about Rocky Mount’s ill-conceived event center, so when I received an invitation to a discussion about economic development to be held in Rocky Mount, it immediately caught my eye.  Earlier this week, I drove out to Rocky Mount Mills for that event.

I’d never heard of Rocky Mount Mills, but I learned a lot quite quickly.  Around 200 years ago, a cotton mill was built near, what is now, Rocky Mount.  Over time, a whole village grew up around it, complete with homes for workers and a school.  And then, in the 1990s, the mill closed for good.  The economy had shifted, and the mill just wasn’t viable anymore.  Rocky Mount was left with a whole little village worth of buildings falling into disrepair.

In 2007, Capital Broadcasting bought the site, including the mill, the houses, and other associated buildings. Three years ago, they started restoration work.  This week, I saw that project, a work in progress.  It was exciting.

The old village homes have been restored and are all available for rent.  Or, rather, I should say, they’re all rental properties.  Because the truth is that none of them are available.  They’re all full.  Every last one.  Clearly, Capital Broadcasting is building exactly the sort of places where people want to live.

The mill itself is still being restored, and our event was held in one part of it.  Even unfinished, it was rustically beautiful.  We’re talking about an unfinished space with no air conditioning in late June, and still, I found myself thinking about how great this would be for weddings, dinners, or other types of events.  The space is just cool, and I have no doubt it’s going to be a highly sought after venue for all sorts of things.

There are offices and apartments coming.  There are restaurants.  And there are seven breweries that plan to rent space in the complex.  Already, you can buy beer from those breweries in the on-site shop, and this summer, they’ve been hosting “Mill Music Sessions” with live bands, and food and drinks from the on-site restaurants and breweries.

And all of this has been driven by private investment, led by private developers.  They’re building interesting, appealing spaces because they have to.  This project only works if they create spaces that people want to use.  Which means that Capital Broadcasting and the Goodmons only make any money off of the project if they rightly gauge the market and build the things consumers want.

And, because it’s largely private investment, Capital Broadcasting will benefit more than any other single entity if this is wildly successful.  But it’s pretty hard to argue that the rest of the city won’t also benefit.  Restaurants and breweries create jobs, and the breweries are even partnering with Nash Community College as part of their Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation program.  The mill complex is an attractive location for companies to set up offices.  And the development is providing a type of housing that is clearly highly sought-after in the area.  Not to mention that events like these free “Mill Music Sessions” increase the overall quality of life in Rocky Mount

Now, a disclaimer.  This project isn’t totally free of public funding.  There are significant Historic Preservation Tax Credits at play here.  I don’t love that.  I don’t think the Goodmons really needed the tax credits to make the investment viable.  Of course, investors will take tax credits if they’re offered.  And, like all state incentives, the more they’re given out, the more investors will start counting on them.  The very existence of the program distorts the market in unhelpful ways.  I’m certainly not advocating for those or other tax credits.

And the whole project would be even better without those credits.  Capital Broadcasting doesn’t have total control over the project.  There are conditions attached to the tax credits that limit the renovations they can make, determine materials that can and can’t be used, and dictate that the homes involved have to be rentals rather than owner-occupied.

But even with those credits, this is a mostly private investment.  The project is being led by private developers, and it is those developers, rather than local governments, that are making decisions about what to build and how to build it.

Contrast that with the event center in Rocky Mount that is being funded by the local government and that no one’s really sure will work.  If the whole thing flops, it’s Rocky Mount’s taxpayers that will be left to foot the bill.  And even best case scenario, no one’s expecting it to make much money.  Rocky Mount Mills is the more innovative, the more exciting, and the more market-driven project.  And it shows that private investment can drive meaningful economic development.  Local governments don’t need to play fast and loose with taxpayers’ money to make that happen.