Across the Carolinas, small cities and towns have watched their downtowns hollow out as mills closed and mom-and-pop stores gave way to big-box chains.
It was no different in Kannapolis, where the 2003 closure of Pillowtex, successor to Cannon Mills, wiped out 4,340 textile jobs and left millions of square feet of factory and warehouse space empty, awaiting demolition. Despite billionaire David Murdock’s creation of a new food and nutrition research campus, downtown Kannapolis remained largely vacant.
So the city decided to try a different strategy: Kannapolis bought its whole downtown.
“I don’t think there are a lot of healthy communities that don’t have a healthy core,” said City Manager Mike Legg. “We can be pretty bold.”
Kannapolis, which closed on the purchase in September, spent $8.75 million to buy 46 acres, most of it from Murdock’s firm. Included in the purchase were properties ranging from vacant land to the historic Gem Theater to an empty furniture store. The property includes blocks of handsome red-brick buildings lining Main Street and West Avenue, most dating from the 1920s to the 1960s.
With the buildings slightly more than half leased, empty storefronts gape in many windows. But with the tight rows of one- and two-story buildings spared from demolition, the underlying fabric for a walkable, vibrant downtown remains in place.
Now, leaders in the city of 44,000 are planning to partner with local developers to restore old structures and build a new, denser city center. The vision is big: Over the next 10 to 20 years, a development study projected there could be up to 2.5 million square feet of new development in downtown Kannapolis, including a new baseball stadium for the Kannapolis Intimidators minor league team, 1,500 new apartments and condominiums, 300,000 square feet of retail space, two hotels, a performing arts center and an office tower. They’re hoping to lure a brewery and eying a children’s museum, while preserving historic buildings.
The first phase is planned to be a demonstration project between Main Street and West Avenue that will likely include three multistory buildings with apartments, a parking deck, an educational or office facility and street-level retail. Officials will review more detailed plans for the demonstration project and start searching for a private sector partner in the spring.
To draw up a long-term vision, Kannapolis has partnered with the Development Finance Initiative, a program based at UNC Chapel Hill’s government school that helps towns plan revitalization efforts.
“You can look at it and say it’s a daunting challenge,” said Michael Lemanski, the center’s director. “But from a development perspective, it’s a great opportunity...Kannapolis is in a rare and fortunate position.”
Kannapolis leaders say they don’t expect downtown to become a reprise of what it was decades ago. The area was once the center for all local business activity, with a captive customer base of thousands of mill workers who labored round-the-clock. Seven movie theaters played films and shops stayed open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Much of it was built by the mill for employees.
“At shift change, those people had someplace to go, and do and spend,” said Kannapolis Mayor Darrell Hinnant. “You could go downtown anytime you wanted to and there would be a raft of people.”
Now, development has shifted away from downtown, with big-box stores and subdivisions drawing people to the Interstate 85 corridor. Hinnant hopes to capitalize on new momentum for downtown living to lure people back.
“We think millennials and boomers are wanting to move downtown where they can walk to work,” said Hinnant. “We’ve had many people tell us you have a beautiful downtown, you just don’t have any people in it.”
Legg said density will be key to making the downtown revitalization work. Without people living there who can support local businesses, the shops, restaurants and cafes leaders are hoping to lure will struggle.
“We’ve got to have the people,” he said.
Mill’s history made purchase possible
Kannapolis’ unusual move was made possible because most of downtown had just one owner. The land was originally owned by Cannon Mills, which was bought by Murdock and partners in the 1980s. They sold the mill to Fieldcrest, but kept the land. After Pillowtex closed for good, Murdock bought the facilities at auction and imploded the millions of square feet of mill space.
The city’s past as a mill town left Kannapolis in a unique position when it wanted to buy downtown: There was only a single property owner to negotiate with, not dozens with claims to different parcels.
“We had one owner, and all of a sudden that became us,” said Hinnant.
The city financed its land purchase with bonds, which Kannapolis plans to fund with a 3 percent property tax increase and proceeds from the eventual sale of the land to developers. The city hopes that land with a tax value of $25 million will increase in value ten-fold, reaching $250 million once it’s fully developed.
Lemanski, of the Development Finance Initiative, said one challenge for such redevelopment programs is keeping a community’s expectations realistic. People tend to expect a dramatic turnaround to happen quickly.
“Creating a new downtown from scratch that’s vibrant and diverse can’t be done overnight,” said Lemanski. “A lot of it comes back to being able to manage the community’s expectations.”
Hinnant said that despite the town’s changes since the mill closed, he is optimistic that brighter days are ahead.
“We’re not ‘Oh my gosh, pity on Kannapolis,’” said Hinnant. “We’re so excited about this.”