The city of Kannapolis northeast of Charlotte has seen wrenching change in recent decades. More than 4,000 jobs disappeared when the last textile mill closed in 2003 and its downtown has struggled. But in 2015, the city took matters into its own hands by buying the entire downtown. Now, residents and leaders hope a $300 million redevelopment project will bring the city back to life.
The first major project underway is a new minor league baseball stadium for the Kannapolis Intimidators. Still to come are hundreds of apartments, shops, offices and a hotel, City Manager Mike Legg said as he gives a tour of the site.
“This limit going that way is where the apartment project will go," Legg said, "And it will face right directly into the ballpark."
Construction and demolition downtown began last year. The Food Lion grocery and Family Dollar store are still open, but most roads around them are closed. Legg describes plans for a tree-lined street of shops and apartments.
[Finding Home: The Fight To Save Smithville]
“The rest of this whole block here will likely come down over time with new development,” Legg said, pointing. “They're restoring all these buildings here. The hotel would be on the back side of that building.”
Legg said Kannapolis' downtown has had always had single owners. In the 20th century, it was owned by the giant textile maker Cannon Mills. Later, it was acquired by billionaire David Murdock, the owner of Dole Foods. In 2015, the city paid Murdock's real estate company Castle & Cooke nearly $9 million for eight city blocks and 50 acres downtown.
The public-private partnership has already attracted key private investors. One of them is Andy Sandler, who leads the Washington, D.C., company that bought the Kannapolis Intimidators last year and is building the $52 million ballpark.
“To have that blank canvas, to rebuild an entire downtown around a community vision, where everything kind of fits together because it's all part of a master plan, that just doesn't happen anywhere,” Sandler said on WSOC-TV after the groundbreaking last October.
The new stadium is next to a Food Lion. Eventually, it could have luxury apartments costing $1,600 a month overlooking the right field line.
The city is still seeking other partners for shops, offices and, maybe, a craft beer taproom. Downtown Kannapolis also includes a historic movie house, the Gem Theatre — which could see renovations and new programming. And there's talk about a performing arts center someday.
All that sounds good to Caressa Cureton, a Cabarrus County native who worked in the last towel factory before it closed in 2003.
“I think this is going to give Kannapolis a whole different face ... more of an upscale, more current or modern type city, instead of a little town,” Cureton said.
Until now, upscale is not a word people used to describe Kannapolis. Neighborhoods near downtown are filled with old mill houses, many of them rentals. The median home value in 2017 was about $130,000, according to the Census. That's well below the broader Charlotte region.
But that's changing. New home construction is booming outside downtown, with the arrival of commuters from Charlotte and new businesses like an Amazon distribution center. A new house in a subdivision west of downtown now can cost $300,000 or more.
That could signal housing pressures to come. But for now, Cureton said, she's excited. She manages a soul food restaurant named Vell's that just moved to South Main Street, not far from the downtown project.
“It's closer to what's going on uptown with the new development, the new ball field and a lot of hotels and things that are coming,” Cureton said. “So we wanted to be in the right place at the right time when all the businesses come in.”
The idea of a revitalized downtown Kannapolis is sparking others to make new investments as well. Dawn Evans lives about a mile and a half from downtown. In 2017, she opened Editions Coffee & Books, across the street from a planned block of apartments and shops.
[Finding Home: Small Belmont Is Becoming A Big Draw]
“For the first time in its life, the city of Kannapolis owns its own downtown," Evans said. "So now, they've got skin in the game. They are wanting to put their best foot forward and make this a space that's going to be here for a while."
She said South Main Street is now a great place to own a business.
Over on West G Street, a former mill village south of downtown, builder Brock VanScoter shows me one of the six row houses they're finishing.
“This is 1460 square feet, three bedrooms, with two and a half bath. You have a half bathroom behind here. Main living space down here, kitchen, living room … And then you've got all three bedrooms and two baths upstairs,” he explained.
VanScoter said the houses are selling for $175,000 apiece. The only issue is getting banks to approve larger mortgages in a neighborhood of lower-valued mill houses, he said.
“A lot of the houses in this neighborhood are in the $60,000 to $100,000 range. We're selling for $175,000 a house," he said. "So we're really establishing the market. That's the only thing that's been a little bit of a hiccup."
VanScoter and business partner Joshua Masters bought the half-acre backyard of an existing home and another parcel to build the houses.
Masters said buyers include commuters from Charlotte and Concord looking for small-town life. He's a Kannapolis native and, like others, sees great hope in the downtown redevelopment.
“We're excited to be a part of everything that's going on," he said. "We believe in what the city is doing in downtown. We believe in moving the stadium down there and watching the redevelopment."
This isn't the first time a big development was going to save Kannapolis after the death of the mills. The project is right next door to the 600-acre North Carolina Research Campus. David Murdock helped found it in 2006, along with universities including Duke and N.C. State. The idea was to bring scientists together on the old Cannon Mills site to find a cure for cancer — in particular, by studying what we eat.
Campus officials thought 5,000 scientists and thousands of other workers would be here within a decade. But today, only about 1,000 people work here. They include 300 scientists and employees from several government institutions that have moved to the campus: Kannapolis City Hall, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and the Cabarrus Health Alliance — the county health department.
The problem? Many scientists, especially new PhDs, don't want to live in Kannapolis, said Mark Spitzer of Castle & Cooke, who oversees the campus for David Murdock. He said he expects the downtown project to change that.
“Creating an environment in which there is a vibrant community where folks can go and have a beer after work and enjoy one another, as well as continue the conversation that was going on in the lab. Those are all things that are part of creating our campus and particularly for the young people,” Spitzer said.
That's a major reason why Castle & Cooke agreed to sell downtown to the city in 2015, Spitzer said. He said he thinks it could spur more development on the research campus — as many as four more buildings and thousands of jobs.
Many people in Kannapolis seem to be pinning their hopes on the redevelopment. Editions bookstore owner Dawn Evans said some older residents she knows are wary of rapid change.
“They grew up, their parents worked in the mill, they lived in the mill homes," she said. "It was a way of life. It's what they knew and change is hard. It's scary."
But even without the downtown project, Kannapolis is changing. The population has grown by about 5,000 people since 2010, according to Census estimates. And with thousands more housing units permitted or under construction, that growth shows no signs of slowing.
Oh, and that baseball stadium? Look for the first pitch in spring 2020.
CORRECTION: The city of Kannapolis paid nearly $9 million for the downtown land, not nearly $90 million.
WFAE is taking a year-long look at Charlotte's affordable housing problem through our series, Finding Home. Every Monday in 2019, we’ll have stories that examine the problem, seek solutions, and bring you stories from neighborhoods small and large, both in and outside Charlotte. Don't miss a segment. Sign up for the Best of WFAE weekly newsletter to get the latest Finding Home along with the other most important news of the week.