Murdock shifts focus; Cannon Village shops struggle
By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLIS ó Once a destination for furniture buyers and outlet shoppers, the former Cannon Village in downtown Kannapolis now faces an identity crisis as it struggles in the shadow of the N.C. Research Campus.
A handful of merchants who remain in the heart of the shopping district say they are battling to survive as their landlord, David Murdock, turns his attention from retail toward the new $1.5 billion life sciences hub just up the street.
“We’re pretty much on our own,” said Darrell Jackson, who opened the Lee Clothing Warehouse in Cannon Village 22 years ago.
Jackson said he remembers 68 shops filling Cannon Village. At one time heavily promoted by Murdock’s Atlantic American Properties, also called AAP, Cannon Village included a burgeoning arts community and hosted a gallery crawl once a month.
Now, many tenants are gone. Sales in Cannon Village plummeted after Pillowtex closed in 2004, the largest layoff in state history. Some merchants persevered only to become victims of big box stores or the recession.
Four furniture stores are going out of business. That will leave nearly a quarter-million square feet of vacant retail space, including a block and a half along West and Oak avenues. The owners blamed the bad economy and slow development of the Research Campus.
The most recently departed retailers are the Brass Exchange, Paper Factory and Kitchen Collection.
“I have something from every store that’s closed,” Jackson said. “Fixtures, racks, hangers, signs.”
Murdock rebuilt downtown Kannapolis in 1984, dubbing it Cannon Village and declaring it a factory outlet center based on the success of the Cannon outlet store.
At the time, Murdock also owned Cannon Mills, the world’s largest manufacturer of household textiles.
Murdock sold the mill in 1986, which eventually became Pillowtex and closed, but he kept much of the real estate. Today, he owns more property in Kannapolis than anyone else, and his real estate firm, Castle & Cooke, is developing the 350-acre Research Campus on the ruins of the shuttered mill.
– – –
“There is a perception that AAP and Castle & Cooke have abandoned the village,” Kannapolis City Manager Mike Legg said. “That is not their intent at all…They just have more irons in the fire.”
Developers are trying to attract new businesses, Legg said, “but I don’t know how aggressively.”
Lynne Scott Safrit, president for both Atlantic American Properties and Castle & Cooke, spearheaded the creation of Cannon Village in the 1980s. She declined requests for an interview.
“Our plans for the village have not been solidified and it would be premature for me to discuss this,” Safrit said in an e-mail. “I am sure that it will evolve in a very positive way, however.”
Marketing director Phyllis Beaver also declined to talk.
Beaver provided a list of about 50 tenants ó more offices than retailers ó that occupy what’s now simply called the Village, plus 10 tenants in nearby Oak Avenue Mall, anchored by Food Lion.
The city rents space in the Village. So do Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, although both eventually will join six other universities on the Research Campus.
– – –
The Village occupancy rate is 82 percent, said Dianne Moon, vice president for Atlantic American Properties.
That might surprise shoppers on West Avenue, which is plagued by empty storefronts.
But the Village is larger than just the brick shops along West and Oak avenues.
Historically, it extends from First Street on the north to Vance Street on the south, and from Dale Earnhardt Boulevard on the west to Main Street on the east, Legg said.
Three departing furniture stores occupy 129,000 square feet in center of the Village. Moon said she wasn’t sure how their vacancies will affect the occupancy rate, “but it would be significant.”
Melvin Vanderburg owns the fourth furniture store, Ktown, which stands alone on three acres and is listed for sale for $6.6 million.
West Avenue soon will have more than a dozen empty storefronts.
“It could hurt recruitment at NCRC to have empty storefronts nearby,” Legg said. “But you need to have the campus thriving to make business activity. It’s sort of the chicken or the egg.”
The city’s dilemma, Legg said, is that it has limited influence over either.
“In the end, what happens downtown and on the campus is a private venture,” he said.
Clyde Higgs, vice president for business development at the Research Campus, declined to be interviewed.
– – –
Retailers holding out in the Village have little interaction with their landlord, said Ronald Reynolds, who has owned Southern Charm for 10 years.
“Communication has been lacking,” Reynolds said.
Unlike many cities, Kannapolis does not have a downtown business association to support retailers.
Most downtowns have multiple property owners. But not Kannapolis.
However, frustrated by the lack of promotion and continued loss of retailers, merchants in the Village recently started organizing.
“Until now, AAP has always handled it,” said Mary Ann Daley, manager for Transit Damaged Furniture. “Now that AAP has stepped away to work on the Research Campus, we were kind of left out in the cold.”
Their first objective: Convince the city to move the Dec. 5 Christmas parade later than 2 p.m.
“We were going to completely lose that Saturday,” Reynolds said. “We only have three in December to try to recover.”
The city bumped the parade to 4 p.m., followed by a tree lighting at 7. Only downtown restaurants ó the Village Grill, Pizza Hut, 46 and DePompa’s ó will sell food during the events.
Merchants were pleased. They’ve recognized that they need to “band together,” Legg said. “Their biggest advocates are themselves.”
No one knows if Castle & Cooke will host traditional Christmas activities in the Village, including the breakfast with Santa and carriage rides.
Murdock’s Visitors Center, where the festivities have taken place, is closed.
– – –
Dawn Sellers misses the quaint shopping area complete with brick sidewalks and a landscaped median.
“I miss the downtown feel, the homey feel,” said Sellers, who managed Kitchen Collection in the Village for 25 years.
Her store moved to Concord Mills in July.
“It was a corporate decision, not my decision,” Sellers said. “Our store had lost money there for years. We were not profitable.”
Sellers, like all the Village merchants interviewed for this story, said the Research Campus will be good for downtown Kannapolis.
“I believe that once that development is done, it will bring in retail again,” Sellers said.
They don’t fault Murdock or Safrit for turning their attention to the campus.
“Their focus is on trying to bring jobs, which is important,” Reynolds said.
With retail in decline, moving into biotechnology was a good business decision, said Jackson of the Lee Clothing Warehouse.
“They had to do it,” he said. “It was in their best interest.”
Still, merchants said they don’t want to be forgotten. They want promotion, advertising and business recruitment. They want empty storefronts filled and more events that attract shoppers.
“I would like to see them doing more,” Jackson said. “It’s a beautiful town, a great setting.”
Downtown Kannapolis has unique assets, including the N.C. Music Hall of Fame, a train station with an Amtrak stop, Curb Motorsports Museum and the Dale Earnhardt tribute, a $200,000 statue paid for by Murdock.
But without a county seat to provide a courthouse, law offices, jail and sheriff’s department, Kannapolis needs something exceptional to bring retailers and shoppers downtown.
“That’s why the campus and development are so critical,” Legg said. “To create a destination out of downtown ó that will be the biggest challenge.”
By Emily Ford email@example.com CONCORD ó The Cabarrus County region will play an important role in North Carolina’s economic recovery,... read more