Former NFL player Chris Harrison resurrects five historic buildings

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As a former NFL guard standing 6-foot-3, it would take a lot to knock out Chris Harrison. But he says Plant 64 did — more than once.


"I died and they hit me with the defibrillator like 15 times in this deal," Harrison said, laughing, on a recent open house of the five-building Plant 64 property in downtown Winston-Salem. "I was resuscitated so many times."


Harrison, a Washington, D.C.-based developer, had cut his development teeth renovating small-scale historic properties in Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Va., in his one-man shop, C.A. Harrison Cos. LLC. He had never done a project the size and scale of Plant 64. But in 2011 when he first toured the property at the corner of Linden and Fifth streets, he says he saw "a golden opportunity."


Harrison's resolve to renovate 423,000 square feet of former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. warehouses into loft-style apartments and commercial space was tested by three years' worth of obstacles, including the loss of a development partner, reluctant investors, a lien filed against the project, steel girders where windows were meant to be and a fire that caused $175,000 in damage.


Yet despite those obstacles, the $55 million, 242-unit Plant 64 is just days away from its grand opening. It's among the largest new apartment projects in downtown Winston-Salem since the apartment boom began.


And it's opening at a time when the Winston-Salem central business district submarket is notching the Triad's lowest apartment vacancy rate — 2.8 percent at last count by Charlotte firm Real Data — and when hundreds upon hundreds of workers are coming downtown to the nearby Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.


"It's fulfilling," Harrison said. "I'm ecstatic. I'm nervous, because we're bringing a lot of units online and I don't think a project this large in this area has been done in quite some time. But I have confidence. I've gotten nothing but positive feedback about it."


But it was a long road to get to this grand opening. This is the story of the extended, exasperating, emotional journey to open Plant 64.


'He's a man of his word'


Harrison first laid eyes on the five historic R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. warehouses that would make up Plant 64 in 2011, when he was working with prominent Durham developer Tom Niemann. The project was slated to open in 2013, using a loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund construction.


Things, as it were, turned out a little differently. Niemann backed out of the deal, and Harrison was left scrambling.


He brought in a private equity fund, a large multifamily developer and an office developer — not to mention high net-worth individuals like old friend and college roommate James Farrior (a 15-season NFL alum) — as the initial equity infusion for Plant 64.


That seven-figure cash infusion was necessary to keep the project going.


Niemann had been involved with the project since about 2007, and the owner of the properties — Hensel Wood Products Corp. — was frustrated with the lack of movement. Harrison needed a new partner — fast.


He sat in boardroom after boardroom of large development companies he knew in D.C. and beyond, but the process was exasperating.


"I'm hearing the property manager or the operations manager tell me why this is a bad deal, and they know nothing about Winston-Salem," Harrison recalled. "If I was someone looking for a date, and had gotten shot down that much, I might stick my head in the sand, honestly. But I'm not a quitter. And we had seven-figure money on the line. That's a lot of my personal money."


Also on the line was Richmond, Va.-based Commonwealth Architects, with which Harrison had spent years trying to connect with on various historic redevelopment projects in Richmond and Norfolk, Va., and which Harrison had to call to apologize after hearing yet another no from investors or development groups.


"Every time I'm calling (Commonwealth Architects Principal Lee Shadbolt) and asking him for this favor, it's like — 'oh, by the way, I owe you a nice chunk of money,'" Harrison said. "A lot of architects might have said, 'Chris, we can't do anything until you get us paid.'"


Shadbolt had a contract with Harrison as a safeguard, but he was confident the project was going to happen.


"I'd known Chris for quite a long time," Shadbolt said. "You look at him, you get a handshake on it, and you go, 'he's a man of his word,' and that's what makes it go. I deal with a lot of people in business, and there's not a lot of people that are like that."


"He saw what I saw"


Finally, in late 2012, Harrison caught a break when a friend suggested he reach out to Pennrose Properties, a Philadelphia-based multifamily development team. Richard Barnhart, Pennrose's chairman and CEO, was born in Winston-Salem.


"Rich came down here," Harrison said. "And he was like — 'I get it. I understand.' He saw what I saw."


Pennrose operates more than 10,000 apartments up and down the East Coast. As well-established Philly developers, Pennrose didn't need to do the Plant 64 deal. But the team, including Barnhart, President Mark Dambly and Senior Vice President Timothy Henkel, were impressed with Harrison's due diligence.


With Pennrose as financial and development partners, Plant 64 could move forward.


After years of uncertainty, the development team was finally able to close on the purchase of the five RJR properties in August 2013, as well as finalize construction financing. The purchase total came to just under $7 million, Harrison said.


Dambly and Barnhart brought in Birmingham, Ala.-based general contractor Capstone Building Corp., and construction kicked into gear last summer.


Too overwhelming


When asked whether developing Plant 64 ever got to a point that it was too overwhelming, Harrison exclaims, "oh my God, like 10 times!"


"You mean today?" Shadbolt deadpans. "We're on the downswing now. I thought Chris was going to kill several people."


Harrison and Shadbolt know it's not exactly prudent to become emotionally invested in business deals. But they couldn't help it.


"This was Chris's baby starting in 2011," Shadbolt said.


Despite years of anxiety and aggravation, Harrison and Shadbolt said the Plant 64 project ended up where it was supposed to be.


"If you do this deal in 2007, it's not successful," Harrison said.


There wasn't yet enough development online at the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter to draw the volume of people to Linden and East Fourth streets downtown that Plant 64 needed to become fully leased.


"As great as this project is, if this was the only thing down here, you're dead — nobody wants to be down here," Harrison said. "This is coming on the market and coming to fruition right when it needs to be."