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Crews Begin Transformation of Former Avondale Mills Site in Alabama

Thu April 27, 2023 - Southeast Edition #9
Cindy Riley – CEG Correspondent


Clearing and teardown at the site began in January 2023.
(Difference Architecture LLC photo)
Clearing and teardown at the site began in January 2023. (Difference Architecture LLC photo)
Clearing and teardown at the site began in January 2023.
(Difference Architecture LLC photo) Crews at the former Avondale Mills site are sifting through piles of rubble, preparing the site for construction of the East Alabama Rural Innovation and Training Hub (EARTH).(Difference Architecture LLC photo) In Sylacauga, Ala., property resembling a war zone is being transformed into a space that will merge education and workforce development.(Difference Architecture LLC photo) An environmental report showed some contamination at the site, but nothing beyond what was expected.
(Difference Architecture LLC photo) Crews are about halfway through the designated timeframe for the cleanup.
(Difference Architecture LLC photo) The design team estimates a total of 13,516 cu. yds. of inert material and 7,602 of non-inert material being moved as part of the project.
(Difference Architecture LLC photo)

In Sylacauga, Ala., property resembling a war zone is being transformed into a space that will merge education and workforce development. Crews at the former Avondale Mills site are sifting through piles of rubble, preparing the site for construction of the East Alabama Rural Innovation and Training Hub (EARTH).

"EARTH is about providing an effective and efficient workforce development system, cradle to grave, that's responsive to the current needs of individuals and businesses," said Margaret Morton, executive director of the Sylacauga Alliance for Family Enhancement (SAFE). "It's an economic development solution for rural Alabama and rural America, focusing on the individual, the family and the region, allowing organizations, businesses and the community to serve, train and collaborate."

The EARTH campus will focus on incubation and preparing East Alabama's workforce for on-demand jobs in K-12 education, agriculture, hospitality training, IT and healthcare. It will house SAFE staff offices and include an interpretive center, public and private meeting spaces, classrooms for adults and children, incubation offices for local businesses, co-working space, flex spaces and cooking/catering kitchens.

Morton said the $48 million project will touch many lives.

"There are citizens from across the community, state and nation who are invested in EARTH, and realize the economic impact for the present and for the future that is created when we work together for a common vision and a common purpose," she said.

Clearing and teardown at the site began in January 2023. Crews clearly had their work cut out for them, according to Sylacauga Mayor Jim Heigl.

"In 2011, while workers were preparing to demolish the mill, a lightning strike caused the complex to burst into flames," he said. "While as many as 50 firefighters battled to contain the burning, thick black smoke-filled Sylacauga. Days later, firefighters were still extinguishing hotspots. Since that fire occurred, the charred broken skeleton of the mill has stood as a testament to its loss.

"The intended use for these properties will bring life back to a long-abandoned area physically, economically and in job marketability," Heigl added. "So many of our industries, especially trades, are suffering with more work than they have the labor to complete."

Heigl noted the EARTH project will provide initiatives that draw people to the Sylacauga community. He applauded the decision to build at the Avondale Mills site.

"It was a long-standing textile industry for Sylacauga before its closure in 2006," he said. "Sylacauga and the surrounding areas were once filled with multiple generations of Avondale employees. Similar to many textile mill areas, thriving and vibrant residential communities surrounding the mill location were devastated after its closure. Witnessing new life returning to the location after its 17-year decline is sure to bring a breath of fresh air."

Workers have spent months clearing all the structures above ground. According to architect and project manager Ryan Coleman, G&H Ventures was selected as the qualified lowest bidder on the clean-up.

"The Talladega Board of Education owns the property, and the funds used to pay for this part of the project came from PSCA dollars," Coleman said. "When the cleanup is finished, we will start the remediation process and work with an environmental engineer to lead that process."

An environmental report showed some contamination at the site, but nothing beyond what was expected.

"One of the contaminants present was arsenic, which is a naturally occurring element," said Coleman. "The report noted that the presence of arsenic might be naturally occurring, due to the site's proximity to bedrock."

Coleman said the biggest challenge the contractor and design team face is the unknown.

"This site was in a state where we could only use educated judgment on what lay beneath the rubble. The current work is debris cleanup. This site contained inert and non-inert material. The plan for the non-inert material is to take it to a certified landfill for disposal. The plan for the inert material is to crush and store it on site to be used at a later time in the development of EARTH, or to be used for other community projects around the region."

Crews are about halfway through the designated timeframe for the cleanup. Most of the structures were in a state of disrepair to begin with and are being demolished with a hydraulic shear.

The design team estimates a total of 13,516 cu. yds. of inert material and 7,602 of non-inert material being moved as part of the project, which has already won the support of the community.

"A major milestone was the day the main structure came down," said Coleman. "It was an eyesore, and it's now down and ready to be repurposed."

While workers must keep an eye on the forecast at all times, wet conditions have been beneficial at times.

"Rain can actually help keep the dust down when the contractor is screening and crushing, so it has not affected progress," said Coleman, who added this scope of work ends at grade level.

"We have asked this contractor to get surface level and up, and we will address what's beneath the grade in future development projects."

Heavy equipment on site includes a crusher, hydraulic shear, screener and various earthmoving equipment, both large and small.

The hours can be long and the work tedious, but Coleman is proud to be part of a dedicated group of individuals committed to carrying out the overall vision.

"It's very rewarding to be involved with such a wonderful team. The project will have a lasting impact on this region for many years."

Morton added, "EARTH is a vehicle to cataclysmically transform not only the blighted textile mill property where EARTH will reside, but the region's economic future for years to come." CEG




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