Fuhs buys Old Cotton Mill

Madison industrial landmark may house
apartments, condos, restaurant, shops

By Don Ward

MADISON, Ind. • Jerry Fuhs' newly remodeled Hillside Inn re-opened for business Nov. 21, but it doesn't mean Fuhs is finished with Madison.
The French Lick, Ind., resident, self-made businessman and former musician has negotiated a deal for an undisclosed amount to purchase the Old Cotton Mill, also known as the former Meese building, from owner Buddy Waller and plans to close on the six-acre property in April. The massive structure that sits on Madison's riverfront on Vaughn Drive houses about 80,000 square feet of space on four floors, while together with numerous other out buildings totals 200,000 square feet, according to Waller.

Jerry Fuhs

Fuhs plans to renovate the building, which dates to 1884, and plans to convert it into apartments, condominiums, a restaurant or two, retail shops and possibly a microbrewery, said Kenny Murphy, Fuhs' construction chief who has directed the Hillside Inn renovation. The Cotton Mill project is estimated to cost $11 million.
"It's going to be a big project and one that I am looking forward to," Murphy said. "But I haven't even been inside it yet, so I don't know exactly what we're getting into."
Murphy is preparing to begin work on the restaurant at the Hillside Inn and must also finish a new office building for Fuhs in his native Jasper, Ind.
Fuhs was traveling with his wife in Italy in late November and could not be reached for comment. But in an earlier interview this fall, he discussed his interest in the property and his negotiations to purchase the Cotton Mill, though still undecided at the time about his plans for what to do with it.
"Whatever he does with it, I'm sure it will be first-class and something the city can be proud of," said Waller, 68, a native of La Grange, Ky., who has owned the Cotton Mill for 13 years and has operated his Waller's Meter Inc. out of it for the past 17 years.
"We negotiated for three or four months before Jerry finally said one day, ŽOK, it's a deal," Waller said. "I wasn't sure if he was serious, so I wrote up a proposal and he approved it."


Today, the property is strewn with stacks of water pipes and equipment used by area municipal water departments. Waller himself is a former employee of the La Grange, Lexington and Florence, Ky., water departments before venturing off on his own nearly two decades ago. He plans to move his company to the Madison hilltop. It employees nine workers, including his son, Terry Waller, and daughter, Teresa Feltner.
The Cotton Mill has been destined for many projects in the past, all of which failed to materialize because of a lack of money. Waller first rented the property from  Saul Padek, who at one time planned to turn the massive structure into an antiques mall. Padek then sold the building to a group of investors, called the Old Cotton Mill Inc., that included lawyer Eugene C. Brown. 
In 1985, Brown's group, which included Indianapolis architects, developers and lawyers, announced a $5 million plan to turn the building into 63 condominiums. The group in 1989 decided instead on building a $7 million, 85-room country inn and restaurant on the site. But the tax laws changed about that time, removing the protection they sought from the project, according to Waller, who continued to rent the property.
When Brown's group failed to obtain financing, Padek foreclosed and reclaimed ownership. Ten years ago he sold it to Waller, who recently installed a new $40,000 roof and spent $5,000 last summer to cover more than 100 windows with plastic. Brown's group had gutted and stripped the building of utilities, but Waller recently added lights for his first-floor pipe storage area. Others in town rent storage space on the second and third floor, which can be accessed from street level in back. The fourth floor is empty.
"I've had several people come along wanting to buy it over the years," Waller said. "I would have liked to develop it myself, but I'm not in that line of work."
Indianapolis developer George Nichols paid Waller for an option to buy the property for the past two years, but he finally let it expire. Nichols' $12 million plan to was to convert the existing structure into condos and build a separate hotel on the site. Nichols spent $150,000 in options and plans over the two-year period, Waller said, but couldn't raise the $3 million in capital he needed to proceed.
Waller said he put Nichols in touch with Fuhs in hopes the two could work a deal. "But Jerry likes to be in charge of his projects and do them at his own speed and in his own way," Waller said. "George called me the very next day saying he had found an investor for his project, but I told him it was too late."
The property includes two houses that Waller has renovated, one in which he lives. The land extends across Vaughn Drive and all the way to the river, where Waller owns a boat dock. He has offered to let Fuhs begin work any time prior to April; Fuhs has offered to let Waller continue to use the boat dock after the sale.
The Cotton Mill is perhaps the largest single structure along the riverfront and sits only a few blocks from the Ohio River bridge. According to documents on file at the Madison-Jefferson County Public Library, it was originally built to house the Eagle Cotton Mills Co., organized in November 1883 after consolidating with Banner Mills of Pittsburgh. Madison-based Rankin & White were the contractors.
The $215,000 building housed 15,000 spindles, 275 looms, 150 cards and other cotton appliances to manufacture "sheetings, seamless bags, twines, carpet and other warps, hosiery yarn and batting, etc." A three-story picker house was constructed in the adjacent building. An engine room with two Corliss engines and a boiler room with six boilers were each housed in separate adjacent buildings. The company employed 500 workers.
The factory was illuminated by 312 incandescent points and heated by steam. The fire safety system included sufficient hoses and automatic sprinkler system. Railroad tracks at one time ran through the property for shipping out finished products.
In later years, the building housed the Meese Manufacturing Co., the name that is still painted on the outer walls.

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