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Closings will leave quarter of a million square feet of retail space vacant in Kannapolis

By Emily Ford
eford@salisburypost.com
KANNAPOLIS ó Four furniture stores in downtown Kannapolis will close, leaving nearly a quarter-million square feet of vacant retail space at the N.C. Research Campus.
Ktown Furniture Inc. will close the stores “because of the bad economic conditions and the slow progress being made on the North Carolina Research Campus,” corporation President Fred Morrison said in a statement.
Morrison and Melvin Vanderburg, chairman of the board, have sold furniture in Kannapolis for 42 years.
They will close the sprawling Ktown store on Oak Avenue, which they own, as well as Village Furniture House, Carolina Interiors and the Furniture Mall, which take up about one and a half blocks of West Avenue in space leased from Research Campus founder David Murdock.
Morrison declined to say how many employees would lose their jobs or when the stores would close for good. All stores have going-out-of-business signs.
The vacancies will leave another large portion of the shopping district formerly known as Cannon Village empty.
Now called simply the Village, the downtown district is part of the new Research Campus, a $1.5 billion life sciences hub that Murdock built on the ruins of the Cannon Mills textile plant, which he once owned. A California billionaire, Murdock owns Dole Food Co.
The economic downturn has slowed development at the Research Campus, which lost two major tenants this year when Pharmaceutical Product Development Inc. pulled out and PepsiCo put its plans to join the campus on hold.
Luxury townhomes, bonds to pay for infrastructure improvements and several campus construction projects are all delayed.
Morrison, who called the campus “the greatest project that could happen to our area” and “a wish come true,” said development is two years behind schedule.
Castle & Cooke North Carolina has never published a construction schedule, said Lynne Scott Safrit, president of the campus developer, in an e-mail.
“But we are confident construction will accelerate as the economy improves,” she said. “As to Ktown Furniture, I cannot comment on their business except to say that retailers all over the country, not just those in Kannapolis, have been affected by the slow economy.”
Safrit did not comment on plans to fill empty storefronts in the Village.
Vanderburg announced two years ago that his furniture stores would leave Cannon Village and move under one roof in a new building on Dale Earnhardt Boulevard.
That never happened, and Vanderburg’s property on Dale Earnhardt Boulevard is now for sale.
While Murdock owns the vast majority of property at the Research Campus, Vanderburg owns three important acres where Ktown stands.
The property has been for sale in the past for as much as $11 million. A luxury hotel considered buying it, but a deal never materialized.
The land is for sale again. A price was not available Friday afternoon.
Speedier development at the Research Campus would have produced more furniture customers, Kannapolis City Manager Mike Legg said.
“Certainly the campus building at a faster pace would have meant more people moving into Rowan and Cabarrus counties,” Legg said. “An increase in population means more business in general.”
But Legg defended the campus as the future of Kannapolis.
“Imagine if we didn’t have the NCRC at all,” he said. “The alternative to what we have constructed to date is 6 million square feet of empty, decaying, obsolete textile space.”
Murdock tore down the abandoned mill to build the campus.
Retail in Kannapolis suffered when Pillowtex went bankrupt and again when the Philip Morris plant closed, Legg said.
“There are always going to be outside forces,” he said.
The Village has struggled for years with empty storefronts. Kannapolis, which straddles the Rowan and Cabarrus line and is not a county seat for either, has a “distinct disadvantage,” Legg said.
With no courthouse, jail or sheriff’s department, “we don’t have that permanent employment base downtown that creates demand,” he said.
Ultimately, the Research Campus will provide employment and housing, which will create demand for retail and services, Legg said.
But it will take time, more time than once thought, he said.
“There is no easy, artificial solution,” Legg said. “It’s got to be real and well-planned. There’s no short cut to this.”
Legg praised Ktown as a good corporate citizen for many years.
Vanderburg’s son, Rodger Vanderburg, may open a new furniture store in the Village that will carry some lines from Carolina Interiors and Ktown.
Both Vanderburg and Morrison are well past retirement age.
“I will miss a lot of it, because the employees who have worked for me for a long, long time and the customers are my friends,” Morrison said. “It’s sad in a way.”

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