By fall of the year, the City of Kannapolis will be brand new.
Underground, that is. To make this happen, citizens have learned to live with closed streets.
Construction cranes are everywhere. The sound of busy, buzzing bulldozers and other heavy equipment fills the air.
In the fall, city officials plan to re-open all the streets, many of them closed during the long process of the $30 million Phase 1 of a huge revitalization effort.
The city has replaced all the old underground piping – electricity, gas, cable, fiber, water, sewer. It’s all brand new. The Armory Brewery, owned by three veterans with all brews military themed, will open that month.
A downtown hotel is planned for West Avenue and Main Street. The historic look and feel of the original downtown will be preserved, including the Gem Theatre which is trying to earn a place on the National Register of Historic Places. After all, Roy Rogers and Trigger visited. Twice. That part of the “new” downtown is being called the Legacy Block. Phase 1 also includes a linear park with places to sit, or listen to music, outdoor dining, a water feature for kids, and plenty of quiet places for reflection.
Kannapolis is a border town, with one foot in Rowan County and the other in Cabarrus County to our south. Everything about Kannapolis has always been unique.
So, in that spirit, why not reinvent yourself?
In 2004, when the textile town lost its mills forever and its already fading paternalistic Cannon Mills influence on the town, it felt like death. Death to jobs. Death of a way of life that had been passed down from parents to their kids for generations.
“We were in a dilemma,” says the current mayor, Darrell Hinnant. The original Cannon Mills Plant 1 was demolished in 2005. The California industrialist and financier David Murdock, who had bought Cannon Mills in 1982, along with the town property, began constructing a North Carolina Research Campus on the mill site. His dream of a biotech hub that empowers human health through nutrition has become a thriving reality.
Beautiful research facilities are in place for UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Greensboro, Duke University, NC State University, Appalachian State University, NC A&T University, NC Central University, and private research entities. The campus now employs 1,200 people.
This fall, Rowan Cabarrus Community College (RCCC) will open its Advanced Technology Center, what the mayor calls “new manufacturing.”
“People in their 20s and older who want to change careers can train here,” Hinnant says of the RCCC venture. “It had to be built here so that people in both Rowan and Cabarrus can benefit.”
It’s the answer to that economic development question: Can you train a workforce?
Kannapolis likes partnerships with other communities. “We’re not bashful about partners,” Hinnant says. “A silo doesn’t work. The best way is to work together and not care who gets the credit. It may have been seen as competition in the past. I say it depends on how you look at the opportunity.”
Turning Dilemmas Into Opportunity
With the closing of the mills and then the influx of employees at the Research Campus, Kannapolis faced one, then two dilemmas. First, people were leaving the dying town. Then, the Research Campus brought new life, but this bright, new, educated workforce did not want to live in Kannapolis. Their families did not want to come.
Hinnant is Kannapolis’ fifth mayor. The town was only incorporated in 1984, after the sale of the mills. The first four mayors concentrated internally. They had to build the services. Hinnant, now in his sixth year as mayor, and his city councils and staff, have been concentrating externally. “I spend as much time in Raleigh, trying to bring business here, as I do in Kannapolis,” Hinnant says.
Here’s what the city leaders are doing:
- They put together a 6-inch plan and convinced Murdock to sell 50 acres of town property to the town. This includes the historic downtown and is adjacent to the Research Campus. Murdock first said, “Act like it is yours,” but the city said no to that. They had to own it, not lease it.
- With plenty of public hearings and citizens’ input, they convinced the people to raise taxes by 3 cents on the dollar to reinvent Kannapolis. “We are investing our citizens’ money in making southern Rowan County grow,” Hinnant says.
One of the first projects was consolidating all city services into one complex facing the Research Campus. “That’s what the people said that they wanted,” Hinnant says. “It matches the rest of the campus, and is the kind of place that we want to aspire to.” There is an auditorium that seats 700, or 400 for serving food. With its central location in this area, it is used widely. There are smaller conference rooms throughout the building that can be rented for meetings.
There are plenty of tough decisions. “You don’t tell people about a 3-cent tax increase easily,” says Hinnant. “It takes hard work and dedication to a good plan. You’ll fail without a good plan.”
How Did You Do It?
These days, other communities are calling Kannapolis and asking how they did it. Those aren’t the only people calling. The city handles up to 30 calls per month from different organizations interested in Kannapolis. “We are all about growth. We’re bursting at the seams,” says Hinnant.
Yes, this city is unique. You can put that in all capital letters. “We’ve looked and researched,” says Hinnant. “We don’t know of another town that has done what we are doing.”
Roads are being widened. Trees are being saved to enhance the original town.
Revitalization Phase 2 is a $50 million investment in a sports and entertainment center for the Kannapolis Intimidators, a Minor League baseball team of the South Atlantic League and the Class A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. Your Rowan recently had our viewers vote for their favorite memory at a Kannapolis Intimidators Game [check out the results].
The team is named after late NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Sr., who invested in the team. Earnhardt, the pride of Kannapolis, is considered one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history. When the new entertainment center is not used by the team, it will be used for soccer and lacrosse tournaments and concerts. It is expected to open in April of 2020.
Phase 3 is VIDA. The word in Latin means life.
“It’s a new life,” says Hinnant. “A new community coming in 2021.” It will be a mixed-use district of 286 apartments on three upper levels; restaurants and breweries, offices, and retail space on the first level; and a 400-space parking deck beneath. The apartment development is planned for the two blocks between Main Street and West Avenue, adjacent to the train station. It’s one of the first “Opportunity Zone” projects in the U.S. The designation provides tax benefits to private investors who invest in properties and areas that need to be revitalized. The planned 125-room hotel will be in the historic Cabarrus Bank building.
“There will be 600 to 700 new people living downtown, from boomers who want to downsize to millennials just starting new careers,” says Hinnant. “They can walk to work … get out in the afternoon. There will be places to see and things to do. It’s an exciting time.” The city has an offer from a company hoping to build 100 condos and townhouses.
“We’re trying to build community, not bricks and mortar,” Hinnant adds. “Places for people to live, work, worship, and play. And we are shovel ready.”
“Baseball great Yogi Berra once said when you come to a fork in the road – you take it and that is what we, the Kannapolis City Council, has done. We have reached a fork in the City’s road – when it is time for bold choices in order to achieve our vision of a revitalized downtown.”
— Mayor Darrell Hinnant