For long-time developer Mark Castleberry, The Mill at Mississippi State University represents the most challenging project of his career.
For starters, the $55-million project began as three separate projects and will ultimately be six. The financing — a combination of private and public funding — has been a challenge even for the experts Castleberry has used to sort through the complex procedures. He’s had to walk the fine line between the restrictions that govern renovation of the historic Cooley Building and transforming the massive building into a state-of-the-art convention center and office development. In a field where every surprise has a price-tag attached to it, he’s had some of that, too.
Yet, here on a cold February afternoon as he toured the project, none of those challenges seem to register on Castleberry’s face.
Why is this man smiling?
“Well, it’s not like doing a strip mall, you know?” he says.
Indeed, Castleberry says the unique challenges the project have presented have been an awful lot of fun, especially now that parts of the projects are nearing completion.
The three-story, 456-space parking garage should be completed on May 7. The centerpiece of the project, the venerable old Cooley Building (aka The Mill), will open later that same month. In fact, the first of four tenants already under contract, the MSU-operated nSPARC research company, is set to move into a sprawling office complex on the second floor by the end of May.
The third part of the project, the 105-room Courtyard by Marriott Hotel has a contract deadline of Oct 1, but Castleberry is optimistic the work will be finish earlier to take advantage of the crowds that pack town during MSU football season.
Work on three additional projects on the property that were not part of the original plan will begin soon, although there is no timetable for completion as of yet. The new projects are a 6,500-square-foot fine dining restaurant and a 4,000-square-foot casual dining restaurant located on either side of The Mill, and a four-story mixed-use structure that will include 20 condominiums and retail space.
“It’s really coming together now,” Castleberry says. “It’s really getting to be a lot of fun walking around now because you can really see it for what it’s going to be. It’s taking form.”
12 years in the making
Castleberry is far from the only person who is eager to see the project finished.
The Mill at MSU has been a dream of both the university and the city of Starkville for a dozen years now as leaders in the city and the university recognized the strategic value of the old building as both a gateway to the university and the city and a way to integrate the two entities.
Plans to develop the MSU-owned property began in 2003, but the project existed only on paper for years due to difficulty in acquiring financing. The recession of 2008 put the project on hold indefinitely.
It wasn’t until September 2012 that signs of life began to emerge, when Castleberry was chosen to take over as the projects developer. After months of weaving through the labyrinth of agreements, deals, requirements and negotiations, work officially began on the project in May 2014 as a collaboration between the university, the city of Starkville, the State of Mississippi and private investors.
That, upon completion, the actual construction will be finished in less time than was required to put the deal in place speaks to the complexity of the project.
Blending old with new
The centerpiece of the project is the 93,000-square-foot Cooley Building, long referred to — although incorrectly — as The Cotton Mill.
Built in 1902 and expanded in the 1920s and 1940s, the building was constructed as a textile factory called The John M. Stone Cotton Mill. The cotton was not milled at the site, however. The factory was where the cotton was turned into fabric until 1962, when the business closed.
Mississippi State purchased the building in 1965, and renamed it after the school’s former utilities superintendent, E.E. Cooley. The building was used as the university’s physical plant until 2012.
The Mill was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
The building’s historic status has presented its own challenges, but also opportunities, Castleberry says.
“The National Park Service has been very involved in the process,” he says. “Their goal is to maintain the historical integrity of the building. They want it to look as it looked when it was built when it comes to the major components. That’s presented some challenges, but at the same time, I think keeping some of those original ideas really make the building interesting.”
One of the most obvious nods to history is the paint on the interior brick walls and the ceilings of the 93,000-square-foot building.
“Everything has to be painted white,” Castleberry says. “Back when it was built, the idea was that white paint maximized the natural light that came through all these windows. It seemed odd at first, but now that we see it, it still makes a lot of sense.”
Not your typical office space
The biggest challenge, Castleberry says, has been maintaining the original components of the structure and transforming it into a modern, efficient facility.
Even at this stage, you can see the success of those efforts.
Much attention has been paid in blending the old with the new. There are open spaces, breezeways, odd little nooks and crannies that turn what could have been cookie-cutter office space into something unique.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the tower that looms far above the building.
“Everybody calls it the clock tower, but there never was a clock in it,” Castleberry says. “Really, the tower was the building’s emergency fire system. The water was stored there in the event of a fire, which makes sense for a textile factory.”
Castleberry says he hopes to light the tower.
“At night, you can see it from far away,” he says. “It’s pretty impressive.”
Another quirky part of the building is its “upper basement,” a dark, low-slung 3,200-square-foot space.
“I can see this being a place for special events,” Castleberry says. “It has sort of a tavern-feel to it and I think it would be great to treat it along those lines. It could be used for small private parties, things like that.
“That would be fun,” he says.
You could say that about the entire project.
“Yeah, it has been fun,” Castleberry says. “It’s been a lot of work and we’ve had some challenges, but mostly, it’s been fun.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]