Going south: Textile tank opens up prime real estate

As a driver heads west on Ivy Road, the Institute of Textile Technology resides in the last of the four stately homes built by Hollis Rhinehart for his sons.

The first one, past Bellair Market, burned. The site became home to the National Legal Research Group. Next door is White Gables, where developer/architect Vito Cetta wants to put high-end condos. Beside that is Kappa Sigma fraternity, and finally, Boxwood, which has housed this textile think tank since 1944.

Next July, when the Institute leaves for North Carolina to team with N.C. State's College of Textiles, Charlottesville will lose its last link with textile manufacturing.

When the nonprofit was formed as an industry research and educational center, this town had a thriving textile industry. Woolen Mills was cranking out uniforms for the boys fighting World War II, and Frank Ix & Sons manufactured parachutes for the war effort.

And there were still a lot of textile companies in New England. Charlottesville's location and its good railroad access– between there and the rest of the South made it an ideal spot for an industry think tank. "At the time, we thought it important to be close to a university," says Gilbert O'Neal, the Institute's president.

But that was before free trade and cheap foreign labor ravaged America's mill towns and the U.S. textile industry. Now, the few remaining American textile companies that once supported the Institute are struggling to stay alive, and foreign competition has driven the institute into the arms of N.C. State.

"The problem is that the U.S. textile industry is paralyzed by imports, and the industry is shrinking," says O'Neal. "That's what's behind the alliance."

The Institute lost $1.3 million during fiscal year 2001, according to its tax returns on Guidestar.org, and many feared it would close its doors. By joining forces with N.C. State's College of Textiles, the two can consolidate graduate programs and research facilities. The Institute will remain independent.

Seven or eight of the Institute's 20 employees will move to Raleigh, estimates O'Neal, leaving the rest to look for new jobs.

The employees were not necessarily surprised by the November 12 announcement.

"People have been anticipating something for a year," says one, who requests his name not be used. "We're relieved it was a move and not a closing."

This employee still doesn't know whether he'll be asked to go to North Carolina but says employees feel that they've been treated fairly, especially compared to layoffs in which employees have come in to find their desks packed up. "People are disappointed, but not feeling bitter," he adds.

The textile industry's predicament is not unique, and O'Neal compares it to shoe manufacturing and the steel industry. He says the country has abandoned basic manufacturing and lacks the leadership to maintain its capabilities.

Despite such positives as decent wages for textile work in the post-Norma Rae era, worker safety standards, and environmental controls, consumers still want the cheapest materials, even if they're made using child workers in factories that pollute rivers and worse. "People in textiles have been left out in the cold," O'Neal declares.

One major asset for the institute is its primo location on Route 250 west. The current tax assessment for the 12.48-acre parcel and research facility, auditorium, and classrooms surrounding the house is $5.67 million. "There's been significant interest in the property, and we want to get the best value the market will provide," says O'Neal.

"If I were a betting man," says Chamber of Commerce executive, Larry Banner, "I'd say it's the perfect venue for an institution or nonprofit."

Make that a foundation with a pretty hefty endowment– because in the opinion of commercial realtor Lane Bonner, the property could go for as much as $9 million.