NCtrend: Down on Main Street
In one of the nation’s most iconic company towns, Kannapolis’ center city is looking for a fresh start. Leaders expect to close this summer on a $6.75 million purchase of 49 acres of downtown property now owned by California billionaire David Murdock. Nearly half of its historic buildings are vacant, and many need repairs. Others face demolition. The city expects to spend $14 million for infrastructure improvements, which will be financed by the sale of bonds. The goal is to repair or demolish and redevelop the properties and move 80-90% of them out of government control within 10 years.
It is a big transition for a town dominated for a century by two groups: the family-controlled Cannon Mills Co. from the 1890s until 1982, and Murdock, who acquired the towel-maker and 660 acres that year. Best known as the owner of fresh-fruit giant Dole Food Company Inc., Murdock tired of the textile industry, selling Cannon to Eden-based Fieldcrest Mills Inc. in 1986. The combined Fieldcrest Cannon Inc. was acquired by Dallas-based Pillowtex Corp. in 1997 and folded in 2003. More than 4,300 people lost their jobs in the biggest permanent layoff in North Carolina history. But Murdock saw potential in Cabarrus County real estate and pledged to revitalize the area. In 2005, he announced the North Carolina Research Campus, a biotechnology research institute that would partner with the state’s major universities and private companies to make Kannapolis a magnet for scientists. While the project has attracted several hundred million dollars of investment, mostly by Murdock and his affiliated companies, it has done little for the quaint downtown. “The combination of losing the mill and the economic downturn, combined with [Murdock’s] efforts focused on other things, has had a negative impact on the viability of downtown,” Kannapolis City Manager Mike Legg says.
The property is valued at $24.5 million and makes up less than 1% of the city’s total tax base. Annual leasing revenue is about $900,000, and the city is the largest tenant, spending $230,000 a year.
It will take city leaders at least a year to determine downtown’s future character and best uses, says Michael Lemanski, director of the UNC School of Government’s Development Finance Initiative. The city has paid $226,000 for engineering and other due-diligence studies and $85,000 to the UNC group for land planning. Some residents are pushing for a grocery and other retail stores, but the city isn’t sure of the best direction for the property. “This is a unique opportunity, and Kannapolis is in a unique position to take advantage of it,” Lemanski says. “It would become harder and harder to save the downtown over time. It’s so important that the city is taking this leadership to gain control over their own fate.” City residents need to be patient with the downtown development, says Jim Brooks, director of city solutions at the Washington, D.C.-based National League of Cities. “As long as people see progress and the municipal government is being transparent and sharing information, you can get a win-win all around.”
Downtown business owner Melanie Davis Keziah has remained faithful to the area. She runs a clothing store, Virginia’s, which her grandmother founded in 1941. “It’s such a beautiful downtown,” she says. “I have more confidence now. Revitalization will happen.”