Developer Thomas Bush Addressed Valley Lions Club Regarding Current Activities in City
VALLEY — Guest speaker Thomas Bush talked about a number of activities he has going on in the City of Valley at the Monday evening of the Valley Lions Club. These include the running of a Zaxby's restaurant he owns on Fob James Drive, the start up of a new Steak & Shake restaurant right next door and the task of taking down Riverdale Mill, something that was first suggested to him in a joking manner by Mayor Leonard Riley but has become a major undertaking. Bush is the president and CEO of the Henry Hudson Company and the HHC Real Estate Company, which operates in Georgia and Alabama.
The Henry Hudson name dates from a plantation his family has owned in Hancock County, Ga., since the 1700s. Bush's ancestor, Henry Hudson, was the recipient of a land grant in 1792 and the family has had the property since then. Once a prosperous plantation, the land is now a hen house hatchery and sporting facility that's run by Bush's father. It has a gun store and hosts target shooting and quail hunts. On some weekends, there may be as many as 300 people in the over-18 age group on site. This alone has given rise to some commercial development.
Bush took a leap of faith when he opened a Zaxby's in Valley in 2010-11. The surrounding commercial property was in foreclosure and looked like it would not be ready for any kind of development for some time to come. Most single restaurants stuck on an island with no nearby activity don't do very well, but this Zaxby's broke the trend. Business has been good in the first five years in Valley. On average, the Valley's Zaxby's grosses $30,000 more in a year than the Zaxby's Bush owns in very busy Tiger Town in Opelika. Bush was able to acquire the nearby land and has taken on the job of building another restaurant. And this one will not be just another restaurant. It's going to be the largest Steak and Shake in the world, some 5,200 square feet in size and capable of seating up to 180 people at a time. An especially nice feature will be a 1,000-square-foot patio that will allow for outdoor dining all seasons of the year. It will have some large, glass, garage-style roll-up doors. The patio area will be heated in the cool months and cooled in the warm ones.
"We can't wait to open it," Bush said. "We're excited to be here in Valley. We're moving our offices from Opelika to Valley." Bush has purchased a former WestPoint Home Cotton Department building off River Road from the Norman Paschall Company. "It's 6.2 acres under one roof," Bush said. "I've finally found a place big enough for all my stuff. It's big enough to store brick from Riverdale Mill inside. I'm hoping this is the beginning of a long journey here in Valley." The Steak and Shake project hasn't been easy but hopefully will be rewarding in the end. To level the site with Zaxby's meant bringing in more than 600 truckloads of dirt, mostly from the back side of the Cotton Department property. Things should now start moving quickly with the buildout. Grading for the new restaurant has been completed and a contractor from Cumming, Ga., has been hired to start construction. They have a pretty good track record, having built nine restaurants last year. They will be on a 120-day schedule.
"It's been an evolution," he said of the long-range goal in developing the entire site. He said that real estate people don't like the way he's approaching it, but he thinks it will work. Going by the book usually means building a big anchor store first and then having some out-parcels near the road. "We're doing it backward," Bush said. "We're developing out parcels to get an anchor." That anchor would be a big grocery store. "I'm borderline pestering people to put one there," he said. "Some have told me no multiple times, but we're still working on it."
Bush has even calculated how much brick would go into a new grocery store. He has three million of them from Riverdale Mill. "Construction has changed since Riverdale Mill was built," he said. "Brick is no longer a structural thing like it was in the old days. It's more a facade thing. It will take only 140,000 of them for a new grocery store." Bush said that when he first came to Valley he had no idea he'd one day be tearing down an old mill. "Mayor (Leonard) Riley asked me to do it," he said. "We wanted to have a shopping center. The mayor told me that if we helped him he would help us.
The city has been quite wonderful to work with. Riverdale Mill is a beautiful building. We've fallen in love with it. It's a neat building built with some of the best heart pine I have ever seen. It's absolutely beautiful." The remarkable thing about the heart pine that's in old mills like Riverdale is that it's an extinct product. "To have this kind of grain, a tree has to grow for hundreds of years," Bush said. "It had to fight 300 years to reach the forest canopy. A lot of the wood in this mill is between 350 to 400 years old. It's from trees that were growing before Christopher Columbus made it to the New World."
Bush said that getting title on the building had been an interesting process. The property is in two states and has gone through seven bankruptcies. "It was a major headache for the title attorneys," he said. "One of them asked me to not call him again." Bush said he's approached the demolition of Riverdale Mill in a different way than some salvage companies have done in taking down mills. "We have taken care to make sure it comes down whole," he said. "It's been a process, and we've taken a lot of time taking out metal and duct work." Some of the material has been moved by a large crane. "One of the more unique places we have seen is an archway that dates to around 1908," he said. "It took us all day, but we got it out with a scissors lift." "I don't know what to do with it," he said. It's tongue and groove heart pine." Bush said that Riverdale had been a special project. There's a frequent visitor they see on the site – a 30-pound ground hog they've nicknamed Phil.
Bush said the demolition project would continue into the fall. The warehouse areas are down. This has provided a nice pad for the crane to work on. The crane offers two primary advantages — safety and speed. "We'll take it down in sections," Bush said. "The main mill will be the final part. There are places here that haven't seen the sunlight or rain in over 100 years. The most valuable material on site is there, and we want to make sure we do it right."
This project has led to a new venture: Old Hudson Flooring. The new business will have a web site in the near future. "We are set up in the mill's former shipping department," Hudson said. "We have a 15,000-pound molding machine that can make the flooring. It's the largest such machine in Alabama." Such a machine was needed to process the kind of decking that's inside Riverdale Mill. It ranges in width from seven inches to 18 inches. "Most molding machines only go up to seven inches," Bush said. "This one can make crown molding that's 12 inches wide."
Bush said the wood inside the mill is absolutely beautiful. "It's of bright content and has lots of resin," he said. "It's very hard to cut. It's like trying to cut concrete." Taking down Riverdale isn't Bush's first such project. When he was 15 he was part of taking down a tallow plant. It was a fun project for a teenage boy. "It had lots of big stuff we could tear up," he said. While this was going on, they got an unexpected call from Los Angeles. "They wanted to know if they could blow it up as part of Terminator III," he said. They were really interested in doing this but backed off when they discovered the building had some asbestos in it. "The demolition business has a lot of characters," Bush said. "There are all kinds of people who want to make deals with you." "Riverdale Mill is a treasure trove of material that can be taken down and used to build something new," Bush added. "Whatever we build, I would like for it to be standing 150 years from now." One possible project is a reception area on the family farm in Hancock County. "We'd like to use heart pine to build it and finish it out," he said.
Eventually, the mill will be taken down to slab and to grade level. "There won't be a big mess to clean up afterward," Bush said. "We don't know what the end game will be. There's been some talk of having some kind of park there, and some other ideas have been discussed. We have thought about leaving the old office area for some kind of future use." Bush said he needed employees to help him with all he has going on. "I need educated, motivated individuals," he said. "I need mechanics, fabricators, welders and people with CDLs. We also need management people for Steak and Shake. If you can help us, I'd like for you to get the word out there."
Article by Wayne Clark, Valley Times News