“Courageous” team envisions new life for Longmont’s derelict, dangerous sugar mill as a neighborhood

Sunshine streamed through the mosaic of bullet holes that perforate the roof of a cavernous storage shed squatting on the south end of the sprawling sugar factory site just south of Longmont.

Some of the light hit the shoulders of Elliot Moore as he played a snippet of Bach’s Prelude in G Major on his cello for a small group of business and government leaders who plan a new future for the sugar factory campus. Moore — music director and conductor of the Longmont Symphony Orchestra — helped unveil a campaign to champion an $80 million idea to convert the shed into a 64,000-square-foot performing arts center and a November ballot measure to help make it happen.

The proposal comes with a caveat: If the ballot measure is approved, the city would issue a $45 million bond for the project only if the Longmont Alliance for Arts and Entertainment — which includes Moore as a member — can raise $35 million within five years.

The idea should appeal to traditionally tight-fisted residents, Moore said. “Longmonters tend to not want their taxes raised, and I think one of the things that makes this such a unique opportunity for the people is that their taxes won’t be raised unless they see that we have raised $35 million.”

Moore pointed out that after his performance at the shed, the bullet hole patterns on the roof created a design of flowing natural light that mimicked the choreography of the finest stage shows in the world.

“Actually, you couldn’t ask for better lighting for a performance,” Moore said. “Even though it was caused by bullet holes. But that’s where we are at now.”

Supporters of the campaign to revitalize and develop the Longmont Sugar Mill site, including Elliot Moore, music director and conductor of the Longmont Symphony Orchestra, giving a short performance on his cello inside the building that would be transformed into a city-owned center for arts and entertainment. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Performance space would anchor a neighborhood of 2,200 town homes and apartments

The publicly owned multipurpose events space could host national-level orchestras in all musical genres, plays and comedy acts, the alliance says in its news release. It also would be home to the Longmont Symphony Orchestra, Centennial State Ballet, Longmont Chorale and Longmont Concert Band. High school plays, competitions and musical performances could be staged there, the alliance says.

The conversion of the 64,000-square-foot sugar factory shed into the Longmont Center for Arts and Entertainment is the first step in transforming the century-old 40-acre sugar mill complex east Longmont into homes, condos and tree-lined neighborhoods, officials say.

Led by Denver developer Charlie Woolley, the concept plan for the entire sugar factor calls for preserving its historic structures while producing more than 2,200 residential units  — 1,638 multifamily units and 600 townhomes — for all income groups and 250,000 square feet of mixed use commercial space. 

The corroded and potentially dangerous facility could spawn walkable places similar to The Old Market in Omaha, Nebraska, Rosemary Beach, Florida, and South Main in Buena Vista, according to the site plan.

Woolley said he wants to form a public-private partnership with the city to keep the essence of the sugar factory while making it a unique destination for Coloradans. “We are offering a new vision for Longmont,” said Woolley, the founding principal and president of St. Charles Town Company, a Denver-based developer that specializes in adaptive reuse and in-fill projects.

Woolley estimates it will take less than $30 million for an environmental cleanup of the factory complex. The problems include the dangerous chemicals used in the processing of sugar beets.

Charlie Woolley, founding principal and President of St. Charles Town Company, would serve as the developer on the project to transform the derelict sugar factory complex into a neighborhood including homes and mixed-use commercial development. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But the biggest hurdle is the presence of asbestos in the factory buildings, said Timothy Rehder, senior environmental scientist of the Environmental Protection Agency. 

“There is a lot of it in the roofing, in the granite paneling, the piping and in some of the gaskets,” said Rehder, who has inspected the complex. 

“By far the biggest environmental cost is the removal of asbestos,” he said. “That will cost millions.”

However, he understands the desire to reshape the sugar factory compound. “It sits up on a hill and you have a beautiful view of the city and the mountains. It’s a great spot,” Rehder said.

Rumors and plans were often floated about redeveloping the Longmont factory since it closed in 1977, but none came to fruition. Currently, there are three property owners that encompass the project, Tony Chacon, the city of Longmont’s redevelopment manager, said via email. Dick Thomas, under Clean Energy LLC, owns the northern and western parcels where the historic brick buildings are situated, Chacon said.

Thomas is not the developer of the project but has entered into a sales contract with Woolley’s company, which aims to restore the sugar factory buildings and develop the vacant parts of the property, Chacon said.

The middle portion of the site is being used for outdoor storage and where the metal storage shed is situated, is another ownership under contract to sell to Remington Homes, one of the developers of the project, Chacon said. The southernmost parcel is owned by Reggie Golden who is working collectively with the two other developers of the property, Chacon said.

He added the city wants to annex the properties as the blighting and environmental conditions are being cleaned up. The city will then secure the site and protect it from vandalism and transient activity, Chacon said. The sugar factory is in unincorporated Boulder County and under the protection of the Boulder County sheriff.

Derelict site has become so dangerous that the fire department will not enter it

Deputies have regularly responded to trespassing and vandalism complaints at the factory, a sheriff’s spokeswoman has said. In August 2019, Longmont Police and the Colorado State Patrol responded to reports of shots fired and several individuals standing over a body. 

At one point, Longmont Police held five individuals at gunpoint, according to a Boulder County sheriff’s report. Officers later learned the suspects were amateur filmmakers who were shooting a movie. They had in their possession three fake handguns and movie scripts, according to the report.

Impromptu meth labs inside the factory — along with structural deterioration — have helped create  conditions so hazardous, Mountain View fire crews will not enter the structure to fight a fire unless someone’s life is in danger.

The sugar factory silos have towered over east Longmont for more than a century, presenting a hulking and unofficial “Welcome to Longmont” sign for people entering the city from the east. Many believe the sagging complex, which includes about 11 ramshackle buildings, belies the city’s reputation as an incubator of high-tech businesses.

“It does present a first impression and that first impression isn’t always a positive one,” Scott Cook, CEO of the Longmont Area of Chamber of Commerce. “We want to give notice we are an economic engine. Something we should be proud of and that is a new chapter in our history.”

Old sugar factory could help Longmont become “amenity-rich city”

The complex is mostly used for the storage of some sugar and equipment. But it could easily shift into an attractive destination for artists and residents, said Cameron Grant, board chair of the Longmont Economic Development Partnership.

 “What we have planned could create an amenity-rich city,” Cameron Grant, board chair of the Longmont Economic Development Partnership. “This could drive commerce and bring people to Longmont to see something different.”

“Let’s do something courageous,” Grant said.

City economic development boosters say it will take courage to rehab the century-old complex that once produced a million pounds of sugar a day. Local farmers and civic leaders raised money to build the factory in 1902 and it was for decades an economic engine for the city. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The massive refit of the complex — built in 1902 — would also be a first-of-its kind effort in Colorado, where 20 of the state’s original sugar factories have either been “abandoned, idled or underutilized” since they were closed in the 1960s and ’70s, according to an analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Longmont factory took in sugar beet plants from across Boulder County and cranked out more than a million pounds of sugar a day, most of which landed on American kitchen tables. It employed hundreds of workers over the ensuing 70 years and was dubbed “The Mother of Longmont.”

Market conditions, labor shortages and other factors led to the demise of nearly all operating sugar factories, except in Fort Morgan. The factory there employs over 100 people and has only shut down three times in its history — twice due to flooding and once because of an economic downturn, according to the Rocky Mountain Sugar Grocers Cooperative. 

“It is still here and is a vital part of our community,” Fort Morgan City Manager Brent Nation said.

The Greeley sugar beet factory was demolished in 2008 and became a site for the Leprino Foods cheese plant.

Loveland, meanwhile, has fallen short in redeveloping its sugar beet factory despite various feasibility and environmental assessments, Scott Schorling, the city’s business development project manager, said in an email. 

“As you can imagine, any redevelopment at that site will require significant expense and coordination,” Schorling said. “So far, there has not been an agreement struck among the primary land holders to annex into the city and work together on a plan.”  

Longmont’s efforts are important to younger artists in Boulder County, 17-year-old Brody Mundt said. The Longmont High School senior performed blues rock on his guitar at the unveiling of the arts center plans last month. Mundt is a member of the “The Blues Shoes,” which travels  to perform anywhere there is a venue. 

Traditionally, that has not been in Longmont. “We really don’t have a place where we can perform in Longmont,” he said. “We have to go to Broomfield or Denver or someplace else.”

“But this (the Sugar Mill idea) could bring us together,” Mundt said.

Supporters of the campaign to redevelop the Longmont sugar factory, including musician Brody Mundt, 17, playing his guitar, envision the revitalization as a way to draw community together. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)