The iconic structure on East Bay and Columbus Streets in Charleston’s Upper Peninsula has for decades been affectionately known as The Cigar Factory, and has been the subject of much speculation in recent years over its redevelopment. Following a few tumultuous years and changing hands a number of times, The Cigar Factory finally has an actionable blueprint and perhaps more importantly, tenants. The Upper Peninsula landmark is now undergoing a rehabilitation to house several retail and office spaces, providing an anchor in a section of Charleston that is poised for huge growth in the coming years.
The 244,000 square foot structure on about four acres was purchased in April 2014 for $24 million by Cigar Factory Development, LLC – the planned $55 million renovation will not include any residential space, unlike the previous development plan. “We are excited to create a unique environment to address the growing demand of office and retail users that want to be downtown,” says local investor William Cogswell of WECCO Development. “It’s always been a major employer for this area… it’s always embodied the next frontier in Charleston’s economy.”
A Storied History
The classic Victorian commercial structure was built in 1882 as a textile mill, beginning operations as the Cotton Mill of Charleston. With a five-story main building accompanied by a two-story office building (originally the picker house) and two two-story engine houses, the Cotton Mill of Charleston became a symbol of post-Reconstruction economic recovery in Charleston.
When the property was purchased by The American Cigar Company in 1912, it would become a landmark of employment on Charleston’s east side for decades. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the cigar factory was the largest private employer in Charleston, with about 1400 workers producing more than 400,000 cigars every day. The American Cigar Company remained in operation until 1973, and seven years later the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
With completion of the Arthur Ravenel Bridge in 2005, speculation arose that it would spur development at its foot in the upper peninsula. Chicago-based Jupiter Realty Company purchased the Cigar Factory in 2005 for $14.7 million as its current tenant, Johnson & Wales University, was set to relocate to Charlotte in 2006.
In 2007, the site was purchased by TSO Cigar Factory, LLC, led by Atlanta-based Simpson Organization, Inc. for $20 million. Even with signs of an overheating real estate market, the developers were confident that their plans to redevelop the building would prove fruitful. They envisioned a $75 million rehabilitation project that would transform the Cigar Factory into 66 high-end residential condominiums with retail shops and offices.
Then came the crash. The construction lender for Simpson failed in 2009 with over half of their credit line already in use. The FDIC terminated the loan and all construction ground to an abrupt halt. Simpson returned all pre-sale deposits and sealed the building, where it lay dormant since 2010, and then sued the FDIC – the case was settled out of court in 2012, and the property was held until its sale to Cigar Factory Development, LLC.
Plans have changed for the Cigar Factory. Unlike the previous developer, Cigar Factory Development, LLC has no current plans for residential space. The $55 million renovation will include 60,000 sqft. of ground floor retail space and 160,000 sqft. of office space on the upper floors. The rehabilitation will include funding from the National Park Service in the form of historic tax credits.
Of its first high profile tenants, The Indigo Road has announced plans for a 7,500 sqft. space on the ground floor in the west wing of the building – plans include a coffee shop, bar, bakery, lunch counter, and culinary mercantile set to open by October 2014. Also on the roster is Garden & Gun Magazine as they set to move all their operations to a 30,000 sqft. space on the north end of the site. Other commercial tenants include a local housewares design group, a barber shop, a full service gym, real estate firms, and technology companies.
The Cigar Factory has been intertwined in the history of Charleston as a functioning symbol of national economic recovery – first as a textile mill during the Reconstruction and later as vital employer during the Great Depression. Mayor Joe Riley noted that its development “ensures a great future for this building and its superb location, and is reflective of the improvement of our national economy.” It seems appropriate that this iconic landmark serves once again as a revitalizing anchor in Charleston’s Upper Peninsula.