KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Knoxville Fire Department investigators and City of Knoxville personnel on Monday continued to sift through the wreckage of two fires that heavily damaged the historic Standard Knitting Mill over the weekend. A look back at the landmark’s history and what’s next for the site that has long been a target for real estate investors.

“It’s older than most Knoxvillians are, most people in Knoxville, and certainly since I’ve moved here it’s been a landmark and has meant so much to the community even when it was empty,” said the McClung Historical Collection’s Eric Dawson.

Standard Knitting Mill was the city’s largest employer at one time and claimed to be the second-largest knitting mill in America, historic preservation nonprofit Knox Heritage said. After almost nine decades in operation, the factory shut down in 1989. The building was also the home of Delta Apparel until 2007.

“It was not the first textile mill in Knoxville or the second, but it became the biggest over the years. And I think it may have been the biggest single employer in Knoxville at one time,” Jack Neely, the Executive Director of the Knoxville History Project, said.

The remaining buildings were acquired for redevelopment in 2019 by WRS, Inc., a South Carolina-based real estate investment firm, with plans to redevelop the 435,667-square-foot property into a mixed-use development including loft-style apartments, a marketplace for local retailers and restaurants, creative office space and rooftop farming.

WRS, Inc. told WATE they still have plans to redevelop the property with the hope of preserving as much of the historic character of the building as possible. The group aims to make an announcement regarding the future of the project in the coming months.

“Determining the extent of damage may take some time and depending on that extent, it may or may not alter the manner in which we hope to redevelop the property,” WRS, Inc. Executive Vice President Kevin Rogers said. “We’re heartened to hear that no lives were lost in the fire and immensely grateful for the professionalism and prompt action of the Knoxville Fire Department and the Knoxville Police Department.”

As part of redevelopment efforts, the Knoxville government informally committed in 2019 to building a tree-lined, boulevard-type street to connect the property with surrounding neighbors and to provide PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Tax) assistance. A city spokesperson said Monday that those plans have not changed.

To incentivize investment into taxable infrastructure and facilities that create public benefit, a PILOT could be negotiated to limit or defer property taxes on developers.

Knoxville Fire Dept. Assistant Chief Brent Seymour said Monday all fire suppression operations have been completed and KPD’s Fire Investigation Unit continues to assess the cause of the fire.

“There was no power or other utilities on the building. That would lead us to believe that the fire was set. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean there was malicious intent in setting that fire, it could have been a warming fire, it could have been a cooking fire, or it could have been malicious, and that’s where the investigation will have to determine that,” said the Knoxville Fire Department’s Brent Seymour.

Monday, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon toured the historic site.

“There is going to have to be reassessment to see what damage is done and where we go from here. The process is happening and we’re very hopeful that a redevelopment plan can move forward,” said Kincannon.

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According to Knox Heritage, the 400,000 square-foot building that was damaged in the fire was the last remaining structure associated with Standard Knitting Mill. The textile company was founded in 1900 with 50 employees and ballooned into a 4,000-person operation producing over one million garments a week by the 1930s. The East Tennessee Historical Society also has a collection from the property with artifacts from its prime.

By the mid-1940s, an estimated one-quarter of all Knoxville residents had either a direct family connection or knew of someone connected within the textile industry. The city’s robust textile scene even earned the temporary title of “Underwear Capital of the World.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include additional information.