Downtown Kannapolis has character in spades.
Charming red-brick sidewalks. Tree-lined streets. A classic small town feel.
But the heart of this city also demonstrates the pain felt by former textile towns across the region.
The city of Kannapolis, about a half-hour northeast of Charlotte along I-85, was a classic mill town, dominated by Cannon Mills — one of the largest sheet and towel manufacturers of the early 1900s.
Over the decades, the company changed hands, laid off workers and ultimately filed for bankruptcy. In July 2003, it was the site of the largest single-day layoff in North Carolina history.
The downtown still bears some of those scars.
The main strip is riddled with empty storefronts, vacant lots and the bones of closed businesses.
Two years ago, Kannapolis put a big bet on itself — and we’re about to see whether it will pay off.
Investing in its own future, the city government spent nearly $9 million to purchase the majority of its downtown. The entire city has a stake in the investment: The city council raised property taxes significantly to cover the bond payments.
That was just the start of a vision of spending more than $110 million to build a series of anchor projects over the coming decade. The idea is to make the downtown vibrant again, with apartments, a hotel, a performing arts center and a sports venue.
If all goes according to plan, that major public expenditure will spur more than $374 million in private investment.
The first cranes are due to arrive this fall. Three major projects will be underway at the same time that will leave the downtown area profoundly and permanently changed.
Creating the “city’s living room”
The first piece of the project will rework the downtown streets to both make them more open to the public and prepare the way for all of the construction to come.
The visible changes will include much more green space, outdoor dining areas and public art. Power lines will be buried and old, unhealthy trees will be removed.
Below the surface will be a new infrastructure network of water, sewer, stormwater and WiFi lines.
City Manager Mike Legg says the final product will be a “significant urban park” and the “city’s living room.”
This project is expected to cost $20 million, all-in.
That project will the front door to a massive new apartment and retail building.
The city calls it a “demonstration project,” and it’s a linchpin in the effort to draw new development to downtown.
The development will span two city blocks and include a 280-unit apartment community and a 425-space parking deck, with a hotel potentially coming down the line.
It’s going to be a dramatic change for what’s now a series of low-slung buildings interspersed with vacant lots. What right now looks like this:
Will look like this:
A downtown minor league baseball stadium is the third piece of the puzzle.
Kannapolis already has the team — the Intimidators, a Class A affliate of the White Sox who play about 4 miles east of downtown on the other side of Lake Fisher.
A new $37 million stadium will bring them into the heart of downtown, possibly as early as the start of the 2020 season.
Plans call for a brewery to be a part of the stadium complex, as well, and there are plenty of local references in the preliminary designs.
Right now, the property designated for the ballpark is vacant.
Could Kannapolis serve as a model for the region?
It will likely take years until we can see whether the project worked. Will downtown Kannapolis become a vibrant area, full of new residents and bustling sidewalks? Or will it leave the town with a pile of debt with little to show?
This experiment will be watched with interest across the Piedmont. Former textile towns across the region are renewing interest in their downtowns.
Gastonia, Concord, Mooresville, Belmont, Marion and Valdese have all poured resources into downtown revitalization in recent years.
Kannapolis has perhaps made the boldest bet.