Concord mixes suburban growth with revived downtown

 In June 2018, Town Square

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The Cabarrus County Courthouse was completed in 1876, replacing one that was destroyed by a fire. It now houses a 227-seat theater, art galleries and offices for the Cabarrus Arts Council.

The calendar unwinds here. Beneath a canopy of willow oaks, in yards with pink and white dogwoods, the colonnaded mansions of Union and nearby Spring streets are monuments to the golden age of Tar Heel textiles, when the magnates the industry spawned built them.

More than 100 years after Jim, and later Charles, Cannon turned the cotton fields of Cabarrus County into cotton mills in Concord and their conjoined factory town of Kannapolis, no community in North Carolina may bear a greater legacy of the single family that built it.

At times, 30,000 people worked in Cannon Mills plants, making more towels than anybody in the world. After about a century, the mills changed hands several times, finally to expire as bankrupt Pillowtex in 2003. But the impact of their fortunes remains.

“We’ve been out of the textile business since 1982,” says Bill Cannon, Charles Cannon’s grandson and president of The Cannon Foundation Inc., with more than $215 million in assets. “Now, we’re more into philanthropy. We’re trying to make a difference in health care, education, social services and other areas, not only in Concord and Cabarrus but every other county in the state.”

The foundation’s imprint can be found here in Concord — it poured more than $750,000 into the charitable arm of Atrium Health’s 457-bed NorthEast Medical Center last year — but also into dozens of colleges and universities from Brevard in the west to Charlotte’s Johnson C. Smith and scores of local charities such as the Cabarrus Red Cross and Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh. All told, the foundation gave away more than $10 million in 2017.

The Cannons’ impact here belies the fact that Concord is one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities and is undergoing a colossal transition. With a population near 90,000, it has surpassed Asheville to become the state’s 11th most-populous city. Meanwhile, the local airport, recently renamed Concord-Padgett Regional in honor of former four-term Mayor Scott Padgett, is North Carolina’s fourth-busiest, as a result of Allegiant Air flights. The city’s sprawling Charlotte-side southern suburbs include the Charlotte Motor Speedway and neighborhoods whose young families work and play mostly in the Queen City. Concord’s median age of 36 is lower than the state’s median of 38.7.

“We refer to Charlotte as a bedroom community of Concord,” quips hosiery-mill owner Robin Hayes, another grandson of Charles Cannon. He’s a former five-term congressman who is chairman of the N.C. Republican Party. Hayes once lived in the downtown Concord home of his grandfather and could name all the families on Union, Spring and other downtown streets. So could Bill Cannon.

“I was born in 1955, and we knew all the doctors, police officers and schoolteachers and where they lived,” Cannon says. “Now we’re growing so fast we’re building a new school every year, and we have people with a Concord address who live and work in Mecklenburg County and probably have never been to downtown Concord.”

While suburban sprawl and big-box stores have drained life from many downtowns, Concord’s ranks among the state’s healthiest. Fewer than 10% of its street-level buildings are empty, says Diane Young, executive director of Concord Downtown Development Corp., a tax district that promotes the area’s 100-plus businesses.

“We’ve maintained the architectural fabric of the district,” she says. The centerpiece is the 1926, six-story Beaux Arts revival Hotel Concord, which recently reopened following a $5.3 million remake. “It’ll have about 40 market-rate apartments and five new commercial spaces at street level,” Young says. “In square footage, it’s the largest building in downtown.”

The mill-town flavor, though fading, still lingers with merchants such as Dan Levinson, owner of Ellis Jewelers. “My dad, whose first name was Ellis, started this in July 1953 in the same building. He was about 23 and on a shoestring budget.” The younger Levinson came to work at the shop in the early 1990s. “My father’s business was greatly catering to Cannon Mills,” Levinson says. “We still have a lot of their children and grandchildren [as customers] now.”

That continuity marks downtown Concord, but there’s more to its vitality. “The city has supported and invested in downtown, and it’s getting the benefits now,” Levinson says.
“We have historic districts just to the north and south of downtown,” Young says. “It’s extremely walkable, and we have a demographic that can walk to downtown and support it. We’ve got the suburbs, and that’s good, but downtown, the traffic is slow and it’s pedestrian-oriented. It’s a whole different character.”

That character, merchants say, is growing younger but meshes comfortably with established businesses such as the jewelry store. A few doors down at The Escape Artist gaming center, groups of three or four unravel clues to “escape” from rented rooms. Red Hill Brewing Co. opened in late 2016, and the Basement Arcade, featuring retro ’80s and ’90s video games, caters to families until 9 p.m., when it becomes 21-and-up. Five minutes from downtown, Gibson Mill, built in 1901 as a partner in the Cannon Mills empire, has been restored and is now The Depot, an antique mall with some 600 vendors.

Maintaining its character amid Charlotte’s shadow is a challenge. “In the last 25 years, we’ve gone from an in-commute, where most people were driving here to work, to an out-commute, where the bulk of our citizens now commute mostly to Mecklenburg,” Bill Cannon says.

“There’re 200,000 people in Cabarrus County now. There’re a half-dozen different ‘Concords,’” adds Hayes. Congestion is a growing nuisance, along both the U.S. 29 and Interstate 85 arteries to Charlotte.

Concord lost its biggest employer and taxpayer when the 2,500-employee Philip Morris USA cigarette plant closed in 2009. A rebound seemed likely when Alevo, a European maker of industrial-scale batteries, promised thousands of jobs at the plant before unexpectedly closing last year (“Powering down,” February).

Today, the medical center is the city’s largest employer, with more than 4,500 workers. Home-grown S&D Coffee Inc., founded in 1927, employs more than 1,100 and the speedway, about 1,000. Online retailer Amazon.com Inc.’s new $85 million fulfillment center in neighboring Kannapolis has more than 600 workers.

Putting a best foot forward, Bob Carney, director of Cabarrus Economic Development, Hayes and others say the empty Philip Morris site, with a 3 million-square-foot plant and potential 3,000 acres, joins the state’s roster of megasites available for a major manufacturer such as an automaker.

Hayes sums up the optimism. “We’re a home run,” he says, “waiting to be hit.”

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