Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Ramsey Khalidi, founder of the Southern Pine Company of Georgia, is a custodian of Savannah's past and of its future. In the city's gracious historic neighborhoods, Khalidi, 63, protects the ornate balconies, stately columns, and sinuous staircases of 150-year-old homes. Meanwhile, in a poor section of industrial Midtown, he is developing a commercial and artistic oasis and training students with disabilities for marketable trades.
Khalidi, an industrial engineer, landed in Savannah in the early 1980s, fleeing Detroit's harsh winters and heedless sprawl. "I drove into town just as the sun was coming up. You can't imagine the beauty," says Khalidi. He fell in love with a dilapidated former brothel built in 1871. The house sat just outside a historic landmark district, leaving it unprotected. "It was a proud house, but with barrels and tires burning on each end of the street," says Khalidi. He bought the building and began a meticulous restoration, using century-old wood he retrieved from dumpsters.
At the time, builders renovating old homes in Savannah "were trashing the interiors and leaving the shells," says Khalidi. "If you lose your historic structures, you lose your sense of place." In response Khalidi started RK Construction, dedicated to restoring historic buildings using historic materials. When a structure was slated for demolition, Khalidi would squeeze in just ahead of the wrecking ball with a proposal to deconstruct the building and harvest its trim, mantels, windows, doors, roof, and flooring for reuse in other projects. "Somewhere, somehow, 100 percent of a building can be reused," says Khalidi.
After 10 years, Khalidi had harvested more materials than his restoration work could absorb. Instead of simply transplanting antique floors, windows, and staircases from doomed historic buildings, he started taking them apart and reformatting them into cabinetry and furniture. In 1992, Khalidi launched the Southern Pine Company of Georgia to sell those products, alongside excess material salvaged by RK Construction. (The name "Southern Pine Company" harks back to 1895, when three of Savannah's most prominent families merged competing lumber mills.) Builders started incorporating Southern Pine's recycled products into new construction, adding historic grace notes to restaurants and hotels. "A new floor should be at least 100 years old," proclaimed one of the company's ads.
Over the years, Khalidi--acting as president of both RK and Southern Pine--has performed jaw-dropping feats of architectural rescue. He moved a plantation house--believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad--to a new location to prevent its demolition. In 1993 the owners of seven protected historic homes objected to the construction of a Kroger supermarket in an adjacent, underserved neighborhood. Khalidi--a vocal advocate for economically threatened communities--told Kroger that if it bought the houses he would find a way to lift them up and shift them one block east. "It paved the way for the supermarket, which that area needed badly, and repatriated a city block that had been demolished earlier," says Khalidi. "The whole area was invigorated."
From urban blight to "Magic Mike."
Twenty years ago, someone walking past the old Star Laundry, in a blighted section of Midtown, would have been wise to walk fast. Today the 32,000-square-foot building is home to Southern Pine. Khalidi saved the building from the landfill and restored it as a factory, installing handcrafted woodworking and metal-fabrication equipment built in the early-to-mid-20th century.
Unfortunately, Khalidi's restorative skills have not translated into strong profits. Business dropped precipitously with the housing bust and remains depressed. Yet the old laundry is more vibrant than ever. In 2006, Southern Pine, which employs 25 people, started leasing space at deep discounts to small businesses. Some--like Retrofit, which makes furniture out of old wooden pallets--share Khalidi's passion for preservation and can use his machinery. Others--like PERC, a roaster of organic coffee--are fellow green missionaries.
Also on-site, an outpost of a national day-labor service provides work for locals who can't get out to the suburban strip malls where such services often set up shop. "The craftspeople--retired shipbuilders and contractors and railroad employees--who need these jobs live in places like this," says Khalidi. "We want to bring the mountain to Mohammed."
Gradually and without planning, Southern Pine has morphed into a community gathering spot, host to concerts, art shows, and the occasional wedding. ("Someone wants to get married in the boiler room," says Khalidi.) Film students from local schools make movies here. So do professionals: Steven Soderbergh and Channing Tatum were at the factory recently shooting a sequel to Magic Mike. "Mike's day job is a builder with reclaimed materials," says Khalidi.
All these small streams of revenue, combined with the company's development, construction, and manufacturing work, have kept Southern Pine going. Khalidi says he would enjoy working with strategic partners or even equity investors to stoke growth.
"What Ramsey and Pam [Khalidi's wife] are doing is not only a model for historic preservation but also for urban renewal and poverty reduction," says Albert George, founder of the Georgia Green Economy Summit, which honored Khalidi at a recent event. George grew up in the neighborhood around the laundry, back then a "place of ill repute," he says. "In 20 years to take it from a vacant, blighted area to a hub for sustainability, preservation, up-cycled material and job creation--that to me is an incredible story."
Frederica Taharka lives directly behind Southern Pine, in the house where she was born. Five years ago Taharka, whose grandson has cerebral palsy, suggested to the Khalidi's that the company train special-needs students from area high schools in useful trades. "Of course the students can't operate machinery alone, but they can do woodworking and carving. And they are so talented in some ways," says Taharka. "Ramsey and Pam took off with the idea.
"When they bought the old Star Laundry a lot of older-generation neighbors were kind of worried about what they would bring," says Taharka. "But they have been a blessing."