KANNAPOLIS, N.C. -- Tuesday marks 10 years since everything changed in Kannapolis.
On July 30, 2003, Cannon Mills – Pillowtex Corp. at the end – closed its doors forever. The massive mill that gave birth to the town and nurtured it for more than a century was swept under in the collapse of the American textiles industry.
Kannapolis has since moved from what Mayor Pro Tem Gene McCombs called an “extremely bleak” situation to one of burgeoning hope as a new biotechnology hub continues to emerge in the footprint of the mill.
This “new Kannapolis,” as planning director Kris Krider calls it, is still in its infancy and is yet to be embraced by the community as a whole. Yet city leaders believe the North Carolina Research Campus is Kannapolis’ best hope for the future.
About 4,800 people statewide lost their jobs when Pillowtex Corp. folded in 2003. The 117-year-old Kannapolis textile mill was the largest employer and largest taxpayer in Cabarrus County. In 1960, Kannapolis was the largest unincorporated city in the world.
Through much of the 20th century, life in Kannapolis revolved around the mill. Generations of people counted on it for steady work and job security.
And the city depended on the mill to drive the economy -- almost all the buildings in the core of downtown Kannapolis were built by the Cannon family, and the single-owner dynamic continues to this day.
When the mill closed, the city found itself reeling from shock. As time went on and city leaders began to recover from the blow, a deeper problem set in.
“Here we sat trying to figure out what in the world we’re going to do,” said McCombs, who was Kannapolis’ first city manager.
At the city’s center was a familiar site in the era of deindustrialization -- an empty manufacturing core.
More than 300 acres of “totally outdated” buildings posed an enormous challenge for the city, McCombs said.
“The likelihood that you could convert that magnitude of structures into something that would be useful” was not good, he said.
The city considered buying some of the buildings but didn’t have the financial capacity to absorb the whole site.
Bankruptcy talks began after Pillowtex folded, and billionaire David H. Murdock bought the entire Pillowtex complex in 2004.
He announced the North Carolina Research Campus in September 2005. It would be a public-private research center hosting corporations, universities and health care organizations with an overall focus on human health.
Kannapolis residents were skeptical -- and no one knew exactly how the project would turn out -- but city leaders were pleased when Murdock tore down the mill, a demolition project that was what McCombs called a no-lose situation.
“We couldn’t possibly have afforded to do it ourselves,” he said.
“Kind of the feeling was something huge was going to happen,” city Councilman Ryan Dayvault said. “This is our chance to revitalize Kannapolis and get back to where we were.”
State Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (R-36) helped bring Murdock to Kannapolis. Hartsell, Castle and Cooke LLC. President and COO Lynne Scott Safrit and others developed Project Phoenix, a plan to bring jobs back to Kannapolis with Murdock’s help.
Phase One, he said, was starting the process to redevelop the mill site.
“The question was ‘who can we partner with to bring back this economy?’” Hartsell said.
Phase Two was getting a solid plan from Murdock. Phase Three was construction. Phase Four, he said, is what has happened since.
“Ultimately what you’re doing is not just building a facility, you’re changing a culture,” Hartsell said. “And that culture is not just changing from textiles to either pharma or nutraceutical development, but it’s changing the attitude of the community about what it is and where it is based upon what it does.”
Phase Four will take time, he said. The Research Campus was expected to be complete by 2010, but much of the old mill footprint is still empty space.
Plans are in the works for a $20 million city hall and police headquarters to be built at the Research Campus. An architectural firm is now working on the design.
The recession in 2008 played a major role in slowing the build-out, Dayvault said. “It was in the … worst time in American history going back to the Great Depression for any kind of investment, public or private.”
Universities were trying to move to the campus, but progress was impeded by the uncertainty created by the economic downturn.
“It lost its initial steam,” Dayvault said.
A work in progress
The campus is far from complete, despite several buildings with hundreds of employees who work there.
Dr. Carol Cheatham is a developmental cognitive neuroscientist and a member of the Nutrition and Brain Development Team at UNC Chapel Hill’s Nutrition Research Institute on the Research Campus.
She said the cross-disciplinary nature of the campus contributes greatly to her research in how nutrients like fatty acids, choline and iron affect infant brain development.
“When I need an expert in genetics I just walk upstairs,” she said.
She said she picked out her office before the Nutrition Research Institute building was even complete, and since then, she’s watched it grow to what it is today.
“It’s starting to be the bustling campus that I hoped it would be when I came here,” she said.
Still, she said, many in the community don’t know anything about what different Research Campus organizations are doing.
“I still get the comment, ‘really, I didn’t know there were people over there at all,’” she said. “People really should drive by and pay attention, because we are over there working.”
Visibility will continue to be an issue until the campus fills more space.
“Had it not been for the recession we probably would be there now,” Hartsell said, but once the project and related businesses reach “critical mass,” investment will balloon in the area.
Critical mass has become a constant theme in discussions about the future of Kannapolis and the Research Campus.
Planning director Krider said the city needs to focus not only on the Research Campus, but on the downtown many residents know as “Cannon Village.”
Interest in the downtown district has risen from “rock bottom,” about five years ago, he said. Last year saw several businesses move into the area, as opposed to a net loss of businesses before that.
“It just seems to be that slowly but surely there’s a little bit more of a buzz,” he said.
Downtown is mostly empty, a far cry from its heyday as a community center full of storefronts.
It thrived off the thousands of workers who shopped there after work hours and during breaks.
With the development of the Research Campus, the area needs a new variety of businesses to serve both campus staff and the surrounding community, Krider said.
The problem, he said, is only about 1,500 people work in the greater downtown area of Kannapolis, as opposed to more than 15,000 when the mill was going strong.
“From an economic sort of strategic point of view, we don’t have enough people here working here to say that the Village or Cannon Village is going to be a thriving downtown,” he said.
“We’ve got to have something happen to this downtown to make it as vital as we can,” McCombs said. “I’m looking forward to any kind of plan of action that we can come up with.”
Krider, other city staff members and private organizations like Downtown Kannapolis Inc. are doing just that. Mixed-use buildings and apartments in the center of the city could drive a younger demographic to the city, he said.
“Maybe Kannapolis has an opportunity there for more urban-style living,” he said.
The city has done a market study to test the viability of apartments downtown, which would add to the liveliness of downtown both during the day and at night.
Krider said the real issue is there are two cities in Kannapolis -- an “Old Kannapolis,” featuring the people who have lived in Kannapolis for generations and have strong ties to the mill, and a “New Kannapolis,” comprising researchers, support staff and other jobseekers who have no ties to the mill.
“So the new Kannapolis and the old Kannapolis -- the Research Campus and the mill worker -- where do they come together?” he asked. “Because our feeling is we cannot rely on the old Kannapolis to revitalize, and we don’t have enough of the new Kannapolis to make a go for it.”
Krider proposed business ideas to bridge that gap and bring both to downtown. Sports bars and concepts like a hotel and conference center could bring more variety to downtown, he said. Cruise-ins and shows at Village Park are popular, but there are few places for people to eat or have a drink before or after events, he said.
Two visions, one town
Additionally, the visions of the city and of Research Campus leaders aren’t exactly the same. Contrasted with Krider’s mixed-use concept reminiscent of downtown Concord or Salisbury, the original Research Campus plan proposed a service-oriented area at the former Cannon Village site narrowly focused on the campus.
Anything the city wants to do with downtown will require the consent of Atlantic American Properties, owned by Murdock, which owns the former Cannon Village, McCombs pointed out.
“We’ve got to be sure that we’re both on the same page as to how we see the future development of that downtown area,” he said.
Krider said bringing in business that attracts the community as a whole, the area will grow faster.
“Much like Davidson is a college town, Kannapolis is a research town, but it’s not the only game in town,” he said. City leaders want to capture the income that is leaving the city. They want people to stay and spend their money at home.
There are hurdles to realizing that vision for downtown. The buildings are structurally sound, but many have asbestos, outdated HVAC systems and wiring and are not up to code.
“We’ve got a lot of missing teeth,” Krider said.
And many are too big and deep to easily be used for a new wave of businesses.
And, of course, there’s the chicken-and-egg situation of a lack of customers and a lack of businesses.
The city continues to work toward revitalization, with $500,000 committed to economic development in the fiscal year 2013-14 budget.
The road ahead
Kannapolis Mayor Robert Misenheimer said despite lingering problems from the collapse of Pillowtex, the city is in a much better situation than it was five years ago.
Businesses are moving to the Research Campus and are slowly trickling into downtown.
“We are pretty happy with things as they are going right now, Misenheimer said. “We are not satisfied by any means, but at the same time, considering where we’ve come and what we’ve gone through I guess that’s a good as we can do anywhere.”
The Research Campus is “certainly a godsend to Kannapolis,” McCombs said. “Once these things get in there they kind of breed themselves to cause other things.”
“We’ve got to figure out what we want to be when we grow up,” Hartsell said, adding the state legislature needs to focus on economic development that will help Kannapolis.
Hartsell said the vision of the Research Campus will be realized when a major discovery is made there and implemented for the benefit of the community and elsewhere. He said in 2008 he doesn’t want to retire until that point.
“That could happen tomorrow,” he said. Kannapolis -- once easily considered the textile capital of the world needs a new reason to feel important, and the Research Campus could fulfill that need.
“I think the picture looks real bright for Kannapolis,” Misenheimer said.