After months of renovation to Madison’s historic Eagle Cotton Mill involving millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours, developers gathered with local officials and other interested individuals on Thursday for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting unveiling the building’s new life as a Fairfield and Suites by Marriott.
“This is an historic day that we’re opening our doors for guests today,” said Vincent Dora, president of Dora Hospitality, management company for the hotel.
And with that, the ribbon was cut, the doors opened and visitors invited in to see the spectacular transformation of a once decaying historic manufacturing building into a boutique hotel and convention center overlooking the Ohio River.
Among those behind the ribbon were Ron Bateman, the owner’s representative who assembled an investment group involving friends John McGrew and Glenn Gellert to partner with Dora, and then spearheaded the project, as well as city officials, Madison Area Chamber of Commerce, Visit Madison and a large crowd to participate in or witness the event.
Not forgotten was the impact former Madison Mayor Damon Welch had in making the project happen. Bateman many times has said Welch, who died unexpectedly on Sept. 25, 2019, just three days before the project’s groundbreaking, just “would not take no for an answer.”
His successor, current Madison Mayor Bob Courtney, noted Welch would pleased with the development. “Mayor Welch isn’t here to celebrate with us today, but he is here today because he’s looking down and he was instrumental in bringing this together and his team.”
The four-story 104,000-square-foot brick building, located at 108 St. Michaels Avenue, was built in 1884 for textile milling operations and was used from the 1930s to 1980s by Meese Manufacturing Company. After that the building sat mostly vacant and deteriorating.
Andrew Forrester, now Director of Intergovernmental Affairs for Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb, was Community Relations Director for the City of Madison for most of Welch’s two terms as mayor.
While standing in the beautiful, busy lobby of the new hotel Thursday, Forrester recalled the many times Welch and his wife, Ginny, walked past the Cotton Mill, seeing windows out and animals in there and being saddened by the condition of the building.
“The building wasn’t in good shape,” Forrester said, but Welch believed in what it could be and wanted to make that happen.
“One of the first conversations we had after he took office in 2012 was, why don’t we do something with the Cotton Mill?,” Forrester recalled.
“We talked about it for a long time,” but it finally really started to come together when Madison received America’s Best Communities and Stellar designations, which was an endorsement of the city that also included enough funding to attract a project of that magnitude.
“With that it was finding, and getting some legs” to move forward, said Forrester, and then “when Ron came to town, it took off.”
Forrester said Welch would be ecstatic over how the project has turned out and what the Cotton Mill has become. He said the building has become exactly what Mayor Welch believed it could be.
“What you see it is today, this is what we envisioned it could be,” said Forrester. “Mayor Welch looked at what this could be, and this is it. He would be proud ... He would be thrilled and amazed.”
The renovation not only saved and resurrected a building that only a few years ago was on Indiana Landmarks’ list of 10 Most Endangered Historic Structures, but provided a tremendous asset for revitalizing the local economy by expanding the tourism industry in Madison and Jefferson County. It also is a shining example of continuing Madison’s efforts to form positive partnerships by using public funds to spur private investment.
“For a really long time all of us who live here in Madison drove by here and this building was in decline, and it was really emblematic of what was really happening with rural America,” Courtney said. “It takes bold vision and people who are willing to invest to make things happen. It also takes these public-private partnerships to make things happen. And they have literally led the renaissance that’s happening all across our community. If you drive anywhere in town you’ll see lots of fantastic things happening, and it’s those public-private partnerships where we’re all collaborating, dozens of organizations, dozens of businesses, who are willing to invest their own money, but also the city, the state and the county, willing also to invest its money to make things happen in a real infectious way.”
It’s a relationship that not only creates jobs but supports the jobs you already have when a developer like Bateman comes along. The renovation was done in large part by local contractors, a source of pride for Bateman and the workers, allowing much of the $22 million dollar cost to trickle down throughout the region.
“This project was mostly done by Madison boys,” Bateman said of the dozens of contractors and hundreds of tradesmen who did the transformation. “Madison boys loved on this building and did more than they were supposed to — maybe in some cases more than they were paid to — because they loved the building and loved the project.”
Courtney said the Cotton Mill project helped sustain Madison’s economy during challenging economic times over the past year when many workers were shut down due to the COVID pandemic.
“If you remember what was going on a year ago, we were in one of the darkest times our community and country has ever faced. They worked with local contractors and that injected millions of dollars of economic benefit to our community. That is a remarkable feat in itself,” Courtney said.
McGrew, who along with Gellert have previously teamed with Bateman on many projects in Alaska, had high praise for the collaboration with the City of Madison on the Cotton Mill project as one of the best experiences they have ever had.
“They were willing to work us more than any we’ve ever worked with,” McGrew said.
He noted Bateman had come to Madison to retire, “but I knew he wouldn’t do that” so Bateman recruited McGrew and Gellert to join in the project.
“We love working with him,” McGrew said, noting it’s a “great building ... with four-foot-thick bricks walls” constructed in 1884 for $50,000.
The developers paid close attention to preserving as much historic character as possible in the building and its past as a manufacturing site remains throughout the building along with a strong presence of Madison in the huge historic map across from the elevators as well as historic and modern day photos of the community and even a poster from the 1958 movie “Some Came Running” filmed in Madison and starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine that was filmed in Madison. The three large screens in the huge banquet hall on Thursday were playing the movie “Madison” based on Miss Madison Racing’s 1971 Gold Cup win that took place on the Ohio River right outside the front door of the hotel.
“What I love is that the heart and soul of Madison is in the heart and soul of the Cotton Mill” Courtney noted, adding that Bateman and his wife, Marlene, along with McGrew and Gellert “took every detail and embedded it here.”
The hotel was already filling up with guests Thursday and Tom Bruner, of Madison, was the first guest to check in, which made him a part of history and recipient of 10,000 Marriott Bonvy Points that go toward free nights, room upgrades, dining, spa services, gift cards and more.
Forrester said as beautiful as the building has become “it almost didn’t happen a couple of times.”
McGrew added that the COVID-19 pandemic arrived just as they were closing on financing, but they were able to get it done, and now the Cotton Mill is a vibrant, active hotel and convention center.
“We’re super excited to have it open,” McGrew said.
Although Welch did not live to see the project through, his work to make it possible was carried on by others to the finish. For that Welch will always have a place and be remembered at the new hotel. A conference room at the home has been named in the former mayor’s memory. A plaque at the entrance reads:
“Damon Welch, Mayor of Madison from 2012 to 2019, was integral in repurposing the historical 1884 Eagle Cotton Mill into the Fairfield Inn and Suites Madison. He brought to life his vision: a vibrant hotel and revitalization for the entire east end of Madison. Damon called the restoration of this property a “game changer” for Madison’s riverfront and the entire community. This property was vacant for decades, undergoing numerous failed attempts at restoration. Damon’s relentless focus on this project as part of Madison’s Stellar Communities designation created the public-private partnership that brought this building back. Damon Welch passed away unexpectedly in September 2019, just one week before the groundbreaking for this project. He would be delighted to see the finished project that his encouragement and hard work made a reality. We thank him and dedicate the Welch Conference Center to his memory.”