By Debbie Adams
The Gish Mill Redevelopment Project is now underway to return life and prosperity to the founding structure of the Town of Vinton. Gish Mill was built in the 1770s and was in continuous operation in one form or the other since then–until it closed as Holdren’s Country Store in 2015.
Much of the debris and accumulated dust have been cleared and cleaned out, leaving Gish Mill with a treasure trove of milling equipment, silos, mill stones, dust collectors, grain shakers, pulleys, storage bins, enormous Archimedean-type screws used to move water and grain through the levels of the building, stone walls, beamed ceilings, antique signs, and even old receipt books (which may be turned into menus).
The mill is situated above a bubbling stream, which powered a water wheel to operate the gristmill.
Sections of the building date from different eras and centuries. Parts of the building have burned and been rebuilt several times. The basement area has been under water several times, as well. Almost all of the building will be preserved and used. The shell of the most recent addition to the far right of the building will be removed, leaving the flooring slab for an outdoor patio area.
The town purchased the property located on Gus Nicks Boulevard at a cost of $126,000 in October 2015 as Town Council and much of the citizenry wanted to preserve the historic mill, which appears on the Town Seal, and put it back into use. In 2019 the town issued a Request for Proposals.
David Hill of Hill Studio and developer David Trinkle, incorporated as Gish Mill Davii, presented their proposal to council for converting the property to mixed-use development and signed a contract of sale with the town in April 2020—contingent upon environmental, structural, and historic assessments of the property, and obtaining funding.
The project includes a restaurant and seasonal market on the first floor, a special event space in the basement, conversion of the original mill structure, concrete silos, and upper floors into lodging or apartments, along with outdoor dining on a deck with patio space. The historic “sluice” will be utilized as an intimate seating area with stairs that cascade down to the creek.
The building will be designed to feature several uses that take advantage of the creek-side location, the unconventional construction methods, and varying dimensions and angles featured by the mill space.
In an interview at the time of purchase, Hill, Trinkle, and then Assistant Town Manager Pete Peters talked about the project and the challenges in returning the property to use. As a gristmill operated by a water wheel, Gish Mill, in serving its historic purposes, is located in the regulatory floodway and Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHA) of the Glade Creek floodplain.
Trinkle commented that he and Hill “approached the project with a healthy level of hesitation.” Hill anticipated that the redevelopment project would “not be easy,” and “a steeper climb than usual,” but “the easy ones have been done, the real challenge is to restore historic sites.”
They acknowledged structural challenges (notably poor lighting, weak spots in floors, and rickety handrails) and the floodplain issue saying, “mills are typically built in the most dangerous spots.” Their goal is “to take what’s there and make it better,” to “discover the mill’s strengths and develop them to their full potential. The challenge is to figure out what the assets are.”
Their stated plan was to keep the utilitarian feel of the building and not “doll it up.”
In March 2021, an enormous hurdle was overcome when “No-rise certification” was attained after the completion of a study by Draper Aden Associates who verified that the proposed redevelopment project would not cause a rise in the base flood elevation.
In April 2021, rezoning of the property to Mixed-Use Development was recommended by the Vinton Planning Commission and granted by Town Council. The properties to the west (mainly the Billy Byrd Apartments) were rezoned to Mixed Use Development in 2016 to allow for the vacant school buildings to be adaptively reused as residential and recreational/small business flex space.
Town staff concluded in recommending rezoning of the Gish Mill property that “the redevelopment of the property will promote and encourage the economic vitality of the community and preserve a historic building while providing increased economic investment.”
It will also vastly improve the appearance of a major gateway into Vinton.
The Roland E. Cook Lofts and the Billy Byrd Apartments projects were also rezoned for mixed-use development and “have proven to be a benchmark of success in the revitalization of historic buildings through the utilization of historic tax credit programs and local governmental (County of Roanoke and Town of Vinton) coordination.”
Peters, now the town manager, said the Gish Mill project will be funded in thirds—one-third private investment, one-third from grants and historic tax credits, and one-third from public funding through the Town of Vinton and Roanoke County.
In Fall 2020 the town was awarded grant funds from two state government agencies. The first grant from the Department of Historic Resources (DHR) Emergency Supplemental Historic Preservation Fund (ESHPF) grant program includes $250,000 for repair and stabilization work to take place on the property.
The second grant to the town is to be administered in the form of a loan of $468,750 through the Economic Development Authority (EDA) from the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) Industrial Revitalization Fund (IRF).
At a recent council meeting, Peters briefed council on three agreements involving the Gish Mill Redevelopment Project: a Performance Agreement, the Industrial Revitalization Fund Loan from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), and a Memorandum of Understanding with Roanoke County. He described the project as “challenging and expensive,” requiring public and private investments.
Gish Mill is expected to be completed in December 2022 and to generate in excess of $165,000 annually in combined tax revenues for the town and county on anticipated gross revenues of $1.85 million. The tenant to operate the restaurant and lodge has already been secured for the project.
Developer David Hill’s work is well-known and well-respected in Vinton as he and his firm, Hill Studio, worked on the downtown revitalization project and the Roland E. Cook Lofts. Among other projects, former Roanoke City Councilman David Trinkle developed the Fork in the Alley and other Forks restaurants in Roanoke.
This will be a development unique to Vinton, or to most anywhere–a true destination. It is intriguing to think what innovative minds like theirs will come up with when you know what they have already created and to imagine yourself in the not-to-distant future seated outside on the Gish Mill patio overlooking Glade Creek, eating ice cream in the market area, watching the cooks prepare your meal in the open kitchen, or lounging in the basement in a speakeasy surrounded by gigantic milling equipment and millstones. You might choose a stay in an apartment renovated from a grain silo.
Other gristmills remain, but few have benefited from the vision and imagination of Gish Mill Davii and the Town of Vinton. The story of the mill could have gone another way. Town Council and staff could have shrugged their shoulders and opted for demolishing the building, but instead stepped out in a leap of faith that the historic mill could be rescued.