11 minute read

Kannapolis - The Comeback Kid

Kannapolis -The Comeback Kid

By 1796, the town of Concord, NC in Cabarrus County had been established. However, it wasn’t until 1906 that “Kannapolis,” as it became officially named later, was founded. Until 1877, Concord remained a small Southern town, still recovering from the Civil War. The person who should be given credit for the events that initiated the establishment of Kannapolis is Captain J. M. Odell. Originally from Randolph County, Odell saw potential for the textile business growth in Cabarrus County.

This artist rendering shows what the new downtown area in Kannapolis will look like once completed.
Rendering Courtesy: The City of Kannapolis
The West Avenue phase of the revitalization project has been completed. Visitors can now enjoy art, breathtaking fountains and a great environment to shop and eat.
Photo courtesy: The City of Kannapolis
Photo courtesy: The City of Kannapolis

He purchased a failing cotton mill in in an area called Forest Hill and began producing cotton cloth. Eventually, the Concord facility was renamed Locke Mill. This precipitated the building of Kerr Bleachery, which bleached the cloth, as well as the Kerr Bag Manufacturing Company that shipped it out.

The success of these enterprises led James William Cannon, the father of Charles A. Cannon, to establish the first textile plant in the new area in 1906, after succeeding with his textile business in Concord. It later came to be called Cannon Mills, Plant Number 1, which was located on the site of what is now The N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis. Because of a two-year cotton shortage, the mill finally began production in 1908. Cannon’s vision was to provide the cotton from his own fields, manufacture cloth and sell textiles though his company’s sales organization. In less than one year, the success of this venture was astonishing. The results included a small population of people which clustered around the plant.

It was the birth of what would eventually become Kannapolis. However, at that time, it was simply known as “Cannonville.” Later, workers began calling the small village “Cannapolis.” Soon, James Cannon asked Cabarrus County commissioners to give the town an official name. The “C” was replaced with a “K,” and Kannapolis was born.

James Cannon’s vision far exceeded the textile plant. He began by purchasing 600 acres of land that had at one time been a cotton plantation. Cannon laid out a tract of land on that property that would provide homes for the workers in his plant. Once finished, he could not only raise the cotton for the mill, but also provide the labor. By January, 1909, the Cannon Manufacturing Company, as it was then named, employed over 800 people at Plant No. 1.

James Cannon also wanted to provide the essentials and amenities for site of what is now The N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis. Because of a two-year cotton shortage, the mill finally began production in 1908. the cotton from his own fields, manufacture cloth and sell textiles though his company’s sales organization. In less than one year, the success of this venture was astonishing. The results included people who worked for him, as well as those who established businesses to provide goods and entertainment for his workers. He donated money to build schools for the education of the workers. In addition, he built stores, businesses, churches and much more. By 1909, Cannon was even instrumental in getting the Cabarrus County government to improve the roads from Concord to Kannapolis, as well as construct electric lights, a water-works facility, and a sewerage system. In addition to housing and other daily needs, Cannon built a YMCA auditorium in 1922, which had the largest membership in the world at one time.

When James Cannon passed away, due to an illness in 1921, his son, Charles, who was already president of the company, continued his legacy. At the time of his death, Kannapolis had grown to approximately 6,000 citizens and the mill employed about 15,000 workers.

If James or Charles had been able to look ahead to the future of the town, it’s easy to wonder if they would have realized that, with all the good they did, they created an environment where much, if not all the town, became dependent on the mill to survive and flourish. But flourish it did — through strikes, world wars and even the Great Depression.

For almost 100 years, the people of Kannapolis were secure in their knowledge that Cannon Mills would always be there to support them, generation after generation. When the original workers at the mill retired, their children took their places. One generation after the other, the mill was a secure source of income, no matter what else was happening in the world around them.

One serious problem began to arise from that environment. Many of the children of the mill workers either never finished high school, or they graduated and went straight to work at the mill. Most didn’t pursue higher education because there was no need to. By 1982, Cannon Mills was struggling. The U.S. dollar was high, which allowed Europe and Asia to begin dumping lower cost textile products into the market. This made the cost of producing products in America difficult at best. Eventually, the choice became clear that Cannon Mills could not survive on its own. The company allowed the controlling stock interest to be purchased by billionaire, David H. Murdock. The following year, when the mill’s bed and bath division was purchased by Fieldcrest Mills, the name was changed to Fieldcrest-Cannon.

But the old “never say die” spirit that had exuded in the people of Kannapolis continued, even though for the first-time, people were becoming hesitant about the future of their town. Employees were still working at the mill and the pension fund that had been established to take care of them was still providing retirement benefits, but the mood was slowly changing.

The biggest blow was yet to come. In September 1997, David Murdock sold Fieldcrest-Cannon to Pillowtex Corporation for $700,000,000. However, unknown to all the people whose lives revolved around the mill, part of the sale included the pension fund. Murdock took $39,000,000 from the fund leaving only around $11,000,000 to support the countless people who had given their whole lives to the mill. Just three short years later, Pillowtex filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Overnight, on July 30, 2003, 4,340 people in Kannapolis alone, became unemployed. According to Google, the population of Kannapolis in 2003 was 38,199. It represented over 10% percent of the population that worked for the mill and affected everyone that owned a business and depended on them as customers.

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If this were a melodrama, the city of Kannapolis would be the perfect story. In a melodrama, for those not acquainted, there are only three main characters — the Hero, the Heroine, and the Villain. Of course, it’s easy to spot the “heroine,” who were the people who literally gave their all to support the town to help it to grow. The villain, however, might not be quite as evident. Was it the Cannons, who in their zeal to create a town to support their businesses, never foresaw the damage that they were causing for the future by creating a workforce totally dependent on one main industry to provide for their businesses? Could the villain be the US government which began allowing the dumping of both textile products and equipment into the country in the early 1980’s, ultimately resulting in the demise of the textile industry? Or,

Rendering Courtesy: The City of Kannapolis

was it David Murdock and his act of taking the pensions from a group of people that were not in a position to support themselves in any other way at that time? Maybe, the villain was all of these.

So, who is the “hero,” or to be politically correct, the “protagonist”? Imagine hearing the theme song from “Rocky” (Gonna Fly Now) while visualizing Sylvester Stallone as he ran up the steps at the Philadelphia Art Museum preparing for the fight of his life.

Unlike most melodramas, where the villain gets what is coming to him, this story took a whole new twist. The villain became the hero. At one time, David H. Murdock appeared as if his actions would be the eventual downfall of the city. However, in 2005, he emerged with a vision for the establishment of The North Carolina Research Center on the site of the original Cannon Mills Plant No. 1. He related his vision to the University of NC and the State of North Carolina, eventually partnering with them to accomplish the project.

In 2006, Murdock bought back the mill site from Pillowtex and reacquired the surrounding land. Once he demolished the mill buildings, construction on the research campus began. In 2008,  a 311,000 square-foot structure, named the David H. Murdock Research Core Laboratory, was the first building to open, along with the North Carolina Plants for Human Health Institute building, and the UNC Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute building.

Today, the Research Center has expanded into a complex of buildings. It includes the headquarters of the Cabarrus Health Alliance, the regional

Rendering Courtesy: The City of Kannapolis

public health authority; a 60,000 square foot Class A medical office building housing Atrium as its main tenant; Bio-Armor, a company that employs nanotechnology to produce hand sanitizers that do not use alcohol; Discovery MS, a non-profit research initiative working on several ongoing multiple sclerosis research projects; Ei, A Pharmaceutical Solutionworks™ which employs a 24-person research and development team, known as Endev Laboratories, and the list continues to expand. Out of these advances in the community, the Kannapolis Downtown Revitalization Project was initiated. According to Annette Privette, communications director for the City of Kannapolis, a master plan was developed that would preserve the city’s most historic buildings, while bringing in private developers. These companies were to make major improvements to the area through new construction, or complete renovation to existing buildings. Once completed, the developers were to sell them to investors for mixed commercial use such as offices, restaurants and office space. In addition, a city-owned public parking lot and deck would provide ample space. Other blocks would be set aside for developers who want to build townhome units and apartments, which would be available by 2021. “Street Scape,” or West Avenue, was the first project and officially opened in October 2019. The opening festival attracted an estimated 3,000 people who came to celebrate. After the official opening, popularity of the project promoted activities once or twice a week, from October through Thanksgiving, 2019. Even so, West Street has attracted walkers and joggers regularly.

To enhance the new area, four pieces of public art were unveiled. They include murals, a “selfie” wall and a sculpture. Three were donated by private citizens and one was purchased by the City of Kannapolis.

“The street was planned as a park, so it provides fountains, outdoor dining, adult swings, various seating options, and even a putting green. In addition, there are areas for yoga and other classes, and two different stages for performances,” stated Privette.

The second undertaking was Vida Street, with the construction of a new apartment complex. It will house 200 units, with retail space on the ground floor. This project is expected to be completed by early 2021.

According to Privette, Kannapolis is striving to construct infrastructure

Part of the revitalization project includes wall art and breathtaking fountains for residents and visitors to enjoy while they shop and eat.
Photo Courtesy: The City of Kannapolis

The West Avenue portion of the revitalization project was completed and opened in October 2019.

and public amenities that generate value for the future. The third phase of the master plan is the construction of a sports and entertainment complex that will include a performing arts center. To date, the old train station and its surrounding buildings have been demolished to provide for a parking lot. A new train platform and pedestrian bridge are also planned for that space. Block 1, where the Gem Theater is located, is being purchased by the city. The theater, an icon of the community, will remain with improvements, beginning in 2020.

In addition, an apartment complex is purposed for Block 15, between West Avenue and Vance Street. Housing at the complex will be restricted to the over 55 age group. Finally, a hotel is in early negotiations.

From its earliest beginnings, the people of Kannapolis have had the ability to give their all to whatever comes their way. They’ve made “lemonade from lemons.” Today, the town has come full circle.

There is an irony in that, when it began, most Kannapolis residents never needed higher education to work in the mill. Now, this town is an inspiration to the idea that people adapt to their circumstances. The mill town of the earlier decades has now become a research center that produces products that will influence the entire world and brings in the most educated professionals.

The revitalization plan has spawned the reconstruction of a region once driven by a single industry. It’s forming it into a town that provides the needs and amenities which attract a variety of companies. These will create many new jobs and offer a variety of entertainment venues for its citizens.

Hats off to the people of Kannapolis. They are truly the “Comeback Kids,” and an inspiration to all.

For more information about the Kannapolis Revitalization Project please visit https://www.kannapolisnc.gov