Book Enterprises was days away from leaving the South Coast for Stoughton, Mass., when owner Jason Zutaut made one last call looking for an inexpensive space that would keep his wholesale book business and its 72 employees closer to home.
What he found was a 101-year-old former textile mill in Fall River, the kind of historic, industrial space so often spurned by contemporary businesses for suburban commerce parks. But for Zutaut, who spent years working in Fall River mill buildings for companies such as the defunct book-distributor Strictly By the Book, the 260,000-square-foot former Pilgrim Mill building on Pleasant Street was just what he was looking for.
“I couldn’t believe the condition it was in – much better than the two other Fall River mills I had worked in,” Zutaut said. “It’s a lot of space and perfect place for us. A lot of my employees are from Fall River and being able to be close to them was nice.”
While mill conversions in Massachusetts and Rhode Island have continued in recent years, commercial-industrial buyers ready to move into large mills in their existing condition have been rare throughout the region.
In Fall River, the Pilgrim Mill sale is the most significant mill sale since the former Quaker Fabric headquarters was purchased at auction for $1.5 million in 2010. The lower-level commercial spaces in that 400,000-square-foot building are now mostly occupied, with residences in the works for the upper floors.
Because of the flurry of mill conversions in Rhode Island in the early part of the last decade, when the state’s historic tax credits made it a magnet for developers, the current activity level for historic properties in the Ocean State can look slow in comparison. Massachusetts still has its historic-credit program.
“In general there is more activity in Fall River and New Bedford than Rhode Island, where there is no activity in raw space,” said Mike Giuttari, president of MG Commercial Real Estate in Providence. “In Rhode Island many of the mills have either been converted, torn down or are in bad shape.”
Len Lavoie, who specializes in mill properties as a real estate agent with Rhode Island Commercial Industrial Realty, said the Rhode Island market for mill space is healthy and pointed to the recent sales of the former American Insulated Wire building in Pawtucket and the conversion of 560 Mineral Spring Ave. in Pawtucket into industrial and artist spaces as examples.