When Augustans learned late last year that the historic Enterprise Mill was recently purchased by new owners, it opened a whole new chapter for this local landmark.
Carlos Imery, the head of a Coral Gables, Fla.-based Enterprise Mill LLC along with Starr Porter of Atlanta, purchased the historic, multi-million-dollar property from the Melaver family of Savannah in November.
While the city of Augusta lists the property’s current value at more than $10 million, a price tag cannot be placed on the historical legacy of Enterprise Mill and its incredible transformation that occurred two decades ago.
Back in 1997, Augusta businessman Clay Boardman did the unthinkable.
He invested more than $17 million in the former textile mill, which dates back to the mid-1800s and was once operated by the Graniteville Company, and converted the abandoned structure into a mix of upscale apartments, businesses and office space located right in the heart of downtown Augusta.
This huge leap of faith in the historic mill was an enormous undertaking and it earned Boardman the nickname of “Mr. Enterprise.”
“It was one of those things that I never really had a plan written out or thought out very well,” Boardman told the Metro Spirit in 2000, not long after completing the restoration and redevelopment of Enterprise Mill. “I just kind of got going and the more you got going you just felt like, if I just go a little bit further and then you nickeled and dimed yourself up to some real money after awhile.”
Those nickels and dimes, by his own estimations, amounted to roughly $17 million and some pretty nervous times for the Augusta native, who embarked into the business world after graduating from Augusta Preparatory Day School.
“It was pretty scary there for a long time,” Boardman said. “The fear of failure is pretty high. It was developed, and designed, and conceived on the fly.
“After about two or three months, I had an interested buyer from Kentucky who was offering me enough that I could have actually made some money, and more importantly, gotten out. But, by then I had kind of fallen in love with it, so I just couldn’t really sell it at that point.”
As time went on, Boardman’s construction budget reached $50,000 a day.
There weren’t any takers on financing and he ended up selling a second house in Charleston.
“I didn’t have any financing for the longest time. I used everything I had,’’ Boardman said.
“It wasn’t a very nice home (in Charleston). It only bought me a few days of salvation.”
Looking back at the project, Boardman described it as his best and worst venture.
“From my self-satisfaction perspective, it has certainly been the best, times a million,” Boardman told the Metro Spirit in 2000. “There can’t be anything more personally satisfying.
“Financially, it hasn’t been very satisfying. It just cost a lot to redo this thing, and the market and rent and such in Augusta are not enough to support something like this.”
But Boardman said he strongly believed in investing in Augusta’s future.
“It will work out long term,” he said. “But it would never be the best thing to do if you had money burning a hole in your pocket.”
Fortunately for Boardman, he and his family sold 67 Smile Gas convenience stores throughout the area a few years after he purchased Enterprise Mill.
While the terms of the agreement with Connecticut-based Tosco Corp. prevented him from disclosing the sale price, the 67 convenience stores had combined annual sales of roughly $250 million.
It was a business that Boardman knew very well. After all, his family had been in the oil business for nearly 100 years.
The Boardman family owned Charter Terminals, a large gas depository located at Interstate 20 and U.S. Highway 25 in Belvedere, S.C.
The depository was linked to a Texas pipeline, and the Boardmans distributed gas to a number of large, independent filling stations in the area, such as Speedway, Shell and Crown.
“It’s an underground pipeline from Texas and it goes all the way up to New York Harbor,” Boardman told the Metro Spirit in 2000. “It is the largest pipeline in the country and we get 100 percent of our products from there and then we redistribute them.”
For more than 20 years, Boardman served as the CEO of Boardman Petroleum and Charter-Triad Terminals. In that role, he identified appropriate sites, negotiated for their acquisition and then developed, owned and operated more than 75 convenience stores, travel centers and quick service food locations throughout the Southeast before selling the retail chain to Circle K in 1999.
In addition, more than 20 expansion retail pads were sold for convenience stores. Charter-Triad, which owned and operated nine large petroleum storage facilities in the Southeast handling gasoline, diesel, butane and jet fuels, was sold to Kinder-Morgan Energy Partners in late 2004.
Through it all, Boardman put a great deal of time, energy and money into renovating the 260,000-square foot Enterprise Mill.
While the project was demanding, Boardman’s redevelopment of Enterprise Mill was only the beginning.
Over the years, Boardman has also renovated a number of Augusta landmarks such as the 55,000-square-foot Sutherland Mill, the Houghton School, the Widow’s Home and the William Robinson School, just to name a few.
Boardman is also the treasurer and site selection committee chairman of Turn Back the Block. It is a faith-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to revitalize the Harrisburg neighborhood through the rehabilitation of existing housing and the promotion of home ownership by local residents.
Recent statistics show that 14 percent of Harrisburg homes are vacant or abandoned, and that less than 25 percent of the homes are owner-occupied.
Turn Back the Block is trying to return the Harrisburg community back to the thriving neighborhood it used to be decades ago, Boardman said.
“What’s been so lovely about this situation is the neighbors have seen the activity with the building materials and trucks and they are excited about the change,” Boardman said. “The whole key is that we develop the pride in the neighborhood and, hopefully, it will spill over to block after block.”
Change will not happen overnight, Boardman said, but the organization is gaining more attention and volunteers each and every day as the community realizes this group is committed to making a difference.
“It’s a long, slow slog,” Boardman said, chuckling. “It will take 25 to 50 years, but it’s going to happen.”
While Boardman has touched many areas throughout Augusta, the restoration of Enterprise Mill is probably considered his crown jewel because of the impact it had on downtown Augusta.
After Enterprise Mill opened its doors in 1998, all of a sudden, living downtown was once again a viable option for many residents. And what better place to live than a mill that dates back to the mid-1800s which offers luxury apartments with high ceilings, loft bedrooms and incredible wooden floors.
Boardman put his heart into Enterprise Mill and honored its history.
In fact, most of the wooden floors in the residential section are dotted with embedded metal rings called travelers, which were left over from the spinning process.
Such unique touches added a rugged charm to the apartments in Enterprise Mill, something that ordinary complexes in Augusta couldn’t offer.
Even after being renovated into apartments and office space, it’s still clear that this former mill on Greene Street has a story to tell.
Enterprise Mill was first developed as a flour mill by James L. Coleman in 1848.
Coleman was influential enough to persuade the Augusta City Council to change the route of a proposed power-generating canal to pass by this land.
In 1877, the building was converted to a textile mill by the Enterprise Manufacturing Corp. Graniteville Company combined two separate mills on the property, and began operation as a textile mill in 1940.
But, unfortunately, the mill closed in March 1983.
It stood vacant for almost 15 years until Boardman came along and saved it.
Although renovating Enterprise Mill was an extremely expensive venture, Boardman said he felt he would have been letting the community down if he walked away.
Many involved in downtown development perceived the mill as a major first step in improving the appearance of the city, yet most weren’t willing to take on such a formidable project and some didn’t have the vision.
“Nobody could see what the project could be and I felt like I was seeing that,’’ Boardman said.
Not to mention the fact, Augusta was home.
“I think sometimes, from a pure financial perspective, there are a lot better places to invest, but it’s home, too,’’ Boardman told the Metro Spirit in 2000.
“We need more people in Augusta to take pride in their home and to take pride with their dollars and their involvement. It’s not just a money thing.”
As soon as Enterprise Mill reopened, Boardman received a great deal of praise throughout Augusta.
Monty Osteen, then-chairman of the Richmond County Development Authority, said Boardman represented the new leadership in Augusta.
“He really is the leader of what I’ll call the new generation of leadership that’s going to continue the redevelopment and revitalization of Augusta,’’ Osteen said in 2000. “And I couldn’t be more pleased, because as the older generation phases out, there is clearly a smooth transition to the new generation and that didn’t happen before and I think it’s great for the community.”
While Boardman ended up selling the property in 2006 to Savannah, Ga.-based developer Melaver Inc. for about $13 million, his determination and hard work on Enterprise Mill helped inspire other such downtown restoration projects such as The White’s Building, formerly the J.B. White department store, on Broad Street.
Just last year, a group called the Augusta Innovation Zone — which was founded by local business people including former Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver, John Cates, Virginia Claussen, Tom Patterson, George Claussen and Tommy Wafford — announced plans to renovate both the historic Woolworth Department Store and the Johnson Building located on the corners of Eighth and Broad streets.
Downtown Augusta has really grown up with the addition of more restaurants, bars and hotels over the past 20 years.
Such growth is exactly what Boardman was hoping for when he invested in Enterprise Mill back in 1997.
“Nothing else breeds success more than success,’’ Boardman told the Metro Spirit in 2000.
“I think Enterprise Mill helped a lot in telling people that you can make it in this type of business in downtown Augusta.” Hopefully, we can get the momentum going. We’re hopeful that more and more people will choose to either develop their properties or redevelop their properties, or sell them.
“It’s kind of the lead, follow or get out of the way syndrome.”