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Architecture Group Preserves the Past to Build the Future

Mills Group founder wins West Virginia Small Business Person of the Year

The past tells stories.

Michael Mills sees stories in the shape and construction of heritage buildings and their influence on contemporary designs. Michael is the founder of The Mills Group, an architecture, planning, and preservation firm based in Morgantown.

He is also the recipient of the SBA’s West Virginia Small Business Person of the Year award. He will join honorees from the other U.S. states and territories in Washington, D.C., May 5 – 6 during National Small Business Week.

“I feel very privileged to have been selected,” said Michael. “It’s a statewide award that recognizes the work of my team, my partners, at The Mills Group. It takes a team effort to make great things happen. We’re fortunate to get to see things come out of the ground that lasts for generations.”

Valuable small business tool: WV SBDC

The Mills Group counts the West Virginia Small Business Development Center (WV SBDC) among its resources. Michael met WV SBDC Business Coach Sharon Stratton at a local Commerce After Hours event.

“Sharon talked to us about historic tax credit options and financing options for employee training and equipment,” he said. “The WV SBDC provided guidance on how to go after clients strategically and to explain the historic tax credit program. Also, we acquired some new software with powerful capabilities and wanted to learn how to use it effectively. Our technology evolves every year. Sharon helped us get funding for workforce training.

“The WV SBDC is a great resource to us. It’s one of the tools in our tool kit.”

On the move

The Mills Group operates with 10 staff members in the Morgantown headquarters, an additional six in Wheeling, a remote designer in Vienna and an architect in Harpers Ferry.

“Our staff includes architects, designers, planners and historians,” he said. “There’s also Ellie.” Ellie is the office four-legged greeter and morale officer. The 2-year-old black Labrador “is like a part of the group. She represents the collaborative spirit of our work environment.”

The Mills Group plans to move from its current location on Wharf Street in Morgantown to a building the company recently purchased on High Street.

“I’d admired that building since I moved here,” Michael said. “It’s the old Hope Gas building. The style is a transition to modern. I always thought it had great potential. It just needs a little love – and a few updates, such as the exterior glass and an added tower that will provide both a point of interest and a conference room.”

Hands-on History

Michael grew up in Vermont in a town with a population of 1,800. His family lived in a 20-room house built in 1869. His father enjoyed buying and restoring old homes. Michael learned to build, take things apart and put them back together again.

His playground was a 100-year-old lumber yard next door.

“My mother’s father and my father’s father had both worked there at one point,” Michael said. “I played in those historic buildings. When I was 11, I learned they were going to be torn down. I took my mom’s camera and documented the buildings. I wanted to preserve the memory.”

As the owners prepared to tear down the old lumber yard, they discovered that Michael’s family owned part of the access road. His father traded the land for a 14-foot by 28-foot building. The small structure was moved to the family’s property where it found new life as a woodworking shop.

Tracks to West Virginia

Michael graduated from the private research Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York with a Building Science degree and a Bachelor of Architecture degree. He was the first in his family to achieve a professional degree. For nearly nine years, he pursued architecture in Washington, D.C., and worked on some of the nation’s most prestigious cultural resources.

When Michael began work on the historic B&O railroad in Grafton, West Virginia, he was offered a job as the in-house architect at Vandalia Heritage Foundation. His young family moved to Morgantown.

“We had a 6-month-old child at the time,” he said. “We wanted out of D.C. for a different lifestyle. For me, this job was an opportunity to work with contractors in a non-profit setting and make an impact on historic resources. It was the culmination of my skill sets.”

In 2005, Michael started his own business, working out of his home. His growing firm was hired to work on the interior of Morgantown’s historic Metropolitan Theater —hailed as “West Virginia’s most beautiful playhouse” when it opened in 1924 — in collaboration with his mentor David Kemnitzer. Michael secured nationally known restoration and preservation expert John Canning and his team.

“I loved to watch them do the decorative painting,” Michael said. “He let my two girls – aged 9 and 5 at the time – put gold leaf on a molding. That created a lasting memory for them.”

Preserving character

A work still in progress is the Blue Sulphur Springs pavilion in Greenbrier County. Built in 1836, the spring pavilion is practically all that remains of a resort that once graced the site.

“Now there’s only what looks like a Greek temple in the middle of a cow pasture,” Michael said. “Our company was hired in 2013 to assess the conditions, describe the written and architectural history of Blue Sulphur Springs pavilion and present a plan for its stabilization and reuse.”

The Mills Group also teamed with Morgantown, the city parking authority and Main Street Morgantown to create a contemporary design for the Farmers Market. The roof, supported by fabricated steel struts, features a vented upper ridge designed for passive natural air circulation and a rainwater collection system.

“It doesn’t look like it was just dropped in,” Michael said. “It fits in with the downtown context.”

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