When we hear of a “downtown comeback,” we might picture a scene of hip restaurants, craft breweries, the fresh paint of cool murals and energetic foot traffic in what was previously a dim, dry, run-down, empty or underutilized district.
For Kannapolis, it’s a wildly different story.
The city’s government, after purchasing downtown Kannapolis from a single private owner, has bulldozed away a stunning amount of it in one of the most singular and innovative projects in North Carolina right now. It’s a grand reset, an entire remaking of what downtown Kannapolis is, meant for better commerce and healthier living communitywide.
“People will know that our downtown is really open for business,” said Mayor Darrell Hinnant of the future as heavy machines moved dirt and navigated rubble along downtown’s ground-up streets. Nearby, signage depicts “The New Downtown Kannapolis” with a rendering of what’s in store: a totally refreshed and modernized scene of shops, eateries and pedestrian-forward streets and sidewalks.
While downtown revitalizations are playing out across the country, Kannapolis didn’t take this on trend. It’s a hard-fought return of a city nailed by a massive, private-market happening several years ago.
“I’ve never seen a more shocking — a more gut-wrenching — time in our community than in 2003 when the mill shut down,” Hinnant said. “In one day, we are infamous that we laid-off over 4,000 people — in one day.”
The summer 2003 closure of the local Pillowtex Corp. mill, in what was the biggest single-day layoff in North Carolina’s history, devasted Kannapolis and surroundings. The city was on the national news map for all the wrong reasons.
City council met multiple times monthly for long sessions focused on what to do for the community. “Because this one was gone,” Hinnant said. He recalled being approached by tearful residents who saw their futures as total voids.
“…we decided that we had to rebuild this community,” the mayor said. “We had to find other ways, so that people could enjoy a healthy living.”
Comprehensive rethinking rang across the city, with new emphases on community health and opportunities. But it’s hard to find a bigger example of than the downtown transformation.
City government made it possible when it purchased all 50 acres of downtown from the firm of David Murdock, the Dole Food Company owner and man behind the downtown-area North Carolina Research Campus, a public-private initiative for researching nutritional and agricultural improvements.
Murdock was downtown’s sole property owner, and both he and city leadership agreed something needed to happen to improve Kannapolis’ recruitment power.
What followed is still unfolding as of this writing.
“We’ve proven that we can tear up every city street, and now we’re proving that we can put it back together again,” said Hinnant.
Plans also include a new minor league baseball stadium along with tons of new residential and commercial options attractive to all walks of life. At least one new hotel is expected downtown in the next 18 months, the mayor added.
The UNC Chapel Hill Development Finance Initiative has been guiding the city’s efforts, which are meant to ripple across the broader community. The momentum is palpable.
“It’s the old adage of throwing a rock in the pond and the ripples begin to expand outward – this is happening in Kannapolis,” said City Manager Mike Legg.
In August 2017, the city announced that Amazon would build an enormous distribution center there with hundreds of jobs attached.
“Because of all this activity,” Hinnant said, “we have just been bowled over by the idea that we are an inviting place to be, and so we have had other people come to us and suggest, ‘We’d like to be a part of it too with what you’ve got going on in downtown Kannapolis….’ It’s a matter of hard work and taking on a challenge to get it done.”