For much of his 84 years, Jim Crossingham and the baby-blue buildings of Spencer’s Inc. in downtown Mount Airy have been inseparable.
“I worked there as a child since I was 8 years old,” Crossingham said of his lifelong association with the family-owned manufacturing complex specializing in infant apparel.
That bond didn’t end even after production ceased there in 2007, leaving Crossingham to focus on other business interests of his. “For a couple of years after we left from uptown, I could hear the sewing machines running,” he said recently.
In the interim since the shutdown, Crossingham sought to breathe new life into the now-silent light-blue buildings left behind, which got that paint scheme courtesy of Crossingham’s father during his time with the company. Jim Crossingham’s idea was to develop condominiums, retail shops and offices in the former industrial space.
He successfully petitioned the city government to rezone Spencer’s sites on Willow and Market streets in 2012 to accommodate the planned new housing and other uses. This was viewed as a way to breathe new life into historic structures while also giving an economic boost to a community that has suffered many textile company closings over the last dozen years including the demise of Spencer’s Inc.
“The city has been 100-percent cooperative in trying to help us develop something to go on the property,” Crossingham said of its role in the plans.
But despite everyone’s best efforts, the condo project never materialized — largely a victim of timing. “The economy had a lot to with that,” Crossingham said of attempts to make it a reality.
“We’ve sort of come to the end of our rope — we don’t know what to do.”
As a result, Spencer’s Inc. buildings — numbering eight in all and spread over 10 acres — will be auctioned on May 15, sold to the highest bidder. This will mean the end of an era as far as the Crossingham family’s longtime involvement with the Spencer’s properties downtown.
The veteran businessman said he simply has no solution for transforming the buildings into new uses. “But hopefully, somebody else does.”
While the upcoming sale could lead to the destruction of the buildings by the new owner, Crossingham is hoping it will bring some type of other business development there.
Held On Until End
Even if a developer buys the property and unleashes ambitious plans for it, the endeavor will be hard-pressed to match what Spencer’s Inc. accomplished in its heyday. The company employed generations of area apparel workers at what was originally the site of a tobacco company.
“In the 1980s, we employed 2,000 people,” Crossingham said in recalling Spencer’s glory years. The average sewing machine operator there made $12 an hour at that time. In addition to providing medical insurance, the company offered on-site health care in the form of a doctor and a nurse.
Spencer’s, where the oldest building dates to around 1890, was an industry leader in the manufacture of infant apparel such as shirts, pants and sleepers. It rivaled the Gerber and Carter’s brands.
As free-trade legislation began causing the exportation of textile and apparel jobs from the United States around the late 1990s, Spencer’s officials resisted the trend.
“We felt obligated to retain the jobs in the U.S.,” Crossingham said, with Spencer’s staying open in the face of growing foreign competition, “first from South America and then the rest of the world.”
As a result, it “lost a lot of money,” Crossingham said of the effort to remain loyal to employees and stay open. “Probably too long,” he added. “We just had a good group of people.”
After Spencer’s manufacturing operations ended, Crossingham offered jobs to its former workers with Landform Construction, a company he acquired at one point, and later with his longtime business Ararat Rock Products when it merged with Landform.
“We did everything we could to keep people working.”
Crossingham plans to attend the absolute auction of the Spencer’s buildings in May, for which a preview session to show them to prospective buyers will begin on April 28 at 10 a.m.
A spokesman for a South Carolina auction firm involved in the upcoming sale said the properties are being marketed on a widespread basis. Early interest has come from an unidentified California businessman seeking large buildings to house his classic auto-restoration and display operation.
“I just think a lot can be done with those old buildings by somebody that has some expertise and knows how to do it,” Crossingham said. “We’ve tried there for five or six years to do that ourselves, and just haven’t been successful.”
The ideal result, in Crossingham’s view, would be seeing the structures used for a downtown hotel or venue for entertainment events, and offices and shops or some enterprise tied to the local wine industry.
“But it’s going to take somebody…that has a vision.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.