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In North Carolina, an old mill town reinvents itself

A rendering of what Kannapolis' new downtown will look after its revitalization. Courtesy city of Kannapolis

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Back when North Carolina was still a textile-manufacturing giant, Kannapolis was the quintessential company town. Right down to its nickname, “city of looms.”

For almost a century, Cannon Mills — and its successors — defined the small city northeast of Charlotte. At one point the mill was the largest maker of sheets and towels in the world and it employed 25,000 people. 

But the mill suffered a string of management changes and bankruptcies, and had trouble competing as the textile business moved offshore. In 2003, the mill collapsed – along with much of the city it had built.

About 4,300 workers lost their jobs in the largest single-day layoff in North Carolina history.

“That was a sad day because I went back almost five generations that worked there,” said 72-year-old Barbara Hunter, as she worked three bingo cards at the smoke-filled Hickabillie Beach Bingo hall.

Hunter and her husband, neither of whom went to college, collected unemployment benefits and worked odd jobs for a few years before retiring.

“It was a family. I miss those people. Kannapolis died after the mill closed,” Hunter said.

Driving around Kannapolis, the divisions between the old and the new are stark. Millhouses built in the early 1900s still dot the city. But many of the storefronts, with their faded signs, sit empty. Then, at the heart of the city, there’s a sprawling development that could easily be mistaken for a large college campus with its immaculate red brick buildings and towering white columns

It’s actually a 350-acre research campus developed by businessman David Murdock on the site of the old mill. It’s a monument to the new Kannapolis.

The research center opened in 2008, at the beginning of what would become the Great Recession. As a result, it got off to a slower than expected start. So far, it has created about 1,000 white-collar jobs in fields like nutrition, disease prevention and agriculture.

“We’re not just that old mill town anymore. We’re coming into the 21st century with the research campus,” said 30-year-old David Steele, who embodies the changes that have come to Kannapolis. Steele grew up in a family of mill workers, but he works at the research park as a data technician for Duke University.

Part of that shift into the 21st century includes a revitalized downtown.  In an unusual move, the city actually purchased its 50-acre downtown for around $5 million from David Murdock, who used to own the mill and downtown. 

“So we can truly control the destiny of our downtown and, as a result, the entire city,” said Ryan Dayvault, the youngest councilman in Kannapolis history.

Over the next decade, the city has plans to bring in new businesses, apartments and even a stadium for its minor league baseball team, the Kannapolis Intimidators. Most recently, the city partnered with a developer that’s going to invest $60 million in the downtown area.

Several residents said they’re glad the town is coming back, but others are more hesitant.  

Barbara Hunter said the changes, like the new research campus, have left people like her behind.

“It was never intended to benefit the people who worked at the mill,” she said.  

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