Five years later: Few signs of mill’s past remain as Research Campus takes over
By Mark Wineka
KANNAPOLIS ó This is a corner of survival, this wedge at North Main and First streets.
First Baptist Church, its steeple scarred and bare of the usual coats of gleaming white paint, stands as sentry. A temporary sign in the church’s front lawn reminds parents to register their children for pre-school.
Nearby, Kannapolis’ giant sundial remains imbedded in the corner. Cracks creep across the face of the sundial in a few places and the huge shade trees in Veterans Park make it impossible to obtain an accurate late-morning reading.
But that makes sense. Time has stood still on this corner for the past five years.
It’s about the only thing in Kannapolis that hasn’t changed, except the population’s deep connection to an industrial past and its deeper hopes for a scientific future.
The church, sundial and park remain on a peninsula that used to guard an entrance into the Pillowtex administrative offices, which reflected in the lake along North Main.
The multi-story offices and the 5.8-million-square-foot Plant 1 that once spread behind them are gone ó demolished, imploded and trucked away. Gone, too, are the iconic smokestacks, lake, checkerboard water tower and Cannon sign that used to light up the night, proclaiming the company as the largest manufacturer of household textiles.
In their place, rising like an aberration, are three giant structures connected to California billionaire David Murdock’s dream for a world-class biotechnology center, the North Carolina Research Campus.
The Core Laboratory, University of North Carolina Center for Excellence in Nutrition and the N.C. State University/Dole Nutrition Institute look like giant pyramids in the desert, given the leveled terrain around them.
Finding shade under umbrellas, security guards man two new entrances. Just-planted trees line streets inside the campus and along its boundaries.
A parking deck and central energy plant already have been erected.
Armies of workers roll out sod and spread straw over the landscape, still distinguished by temporary fences, construction trailers and heavy equipment.
Many more buildings, parking decks, people and press conferences are supposed to come.
It’s a lot to take in for a citizenry stunned on July 30, 2003, by the company’s closing and now in awe ó maybe even apprehensive ó by what is taking its place.
“I never thought in my lifetime I’d see that (Plant 1) come down,” says 50-year-old Randy Morton, sitting in Veterans Park.
Sandra Petrea and Alana Finney reported to their jobs at Plant 1 as usual that Wednesday morning.
Petrea, a secretary in the Fabric Print Department, settled in behind her desk.
Finney, a nurse, went to the company medical department.
Though things at the plant had been slow for months ó to the point where some office workers were reading books most of the day ó the morning started like all the others.
But the Pillowtex computers were shut down by 9 a.m. By mid-morning, Ed Hosack called together Petrea and the rest of the employees in the Fabric Print Department. Finney attended a meeting with others in her office.
The news throughout the plant was the same: Pillowtex was bankrupt and out of business for good.
The announcement, which spread in waves across the city, then state and country, displaced the company’s 7,650 workers at its North American factories and warehouses.
But the biggest impact would be in Cabarrus and Rowan counties, where plants in Kannapolis, Concord, Rockwell and China Grove employed a total of 4,340 workers.
It was the largest single-day layoff in North Carolina history.
It was the biggest textile company shutdown ever in the United States.
Armed guards took up posts outside the doors of top Pillowtex executives.
A tearful Petrea, Finney and the others at Plant 1 were given until noon to collect their belongings and leave the premises.
Harry Holder says his instincts told him something would happen that day.
Holder was off from his job in the maintenance shop at Pillowtex’s Swink Plant (Plant 16) in China Grove, so he called a friend of his ó the gate guard.
When Holder hung up the telephone, he realized his 37 years with the company were over.
“We knew it was going to happen,” he says today. “It was just a matter of when.”
Holder received a telephone call the next day, telling him he could go by the Swink Plant and clean out his belongings. It would take him almost two years to find another job.
Leading up to the final day, Pillowtex workers in Cabarrus and Rowan counties had endured short hours, weeks-long layoffs and, for the first time ever, unpaid July 4 bonuses. All the signs of a brewing man-made disaster were there.
Walter Williams’ last day in the Plant 1 winding room had been June 13, and he already was drawing unemployment.
Still, the 35-year veteran of the mill wanted to investigate the status of the annual bonus he was supposed to receive, so the morning of July 30 he traveled from his Ontario Drive home to Plant 1.
“They said there would be no bonus at that time, and that they were closing,” Williams recalls today.
In the months to come, Williams fought not to lose his home and relied on extended unemployment to reach early retirement. “For a while, it was rough, it was really rough,” he says.
The average age of a Pillowtex employee was 46; the average length of employment, 17 years. Nearly half of the workers didn’t have a high school diploma.
Company executives met in the early afternoon of July 30, 2003, with state and local officials to explain what had happened and what was coming.
The Pillowtex brass then exited a back door of the Cannon Village Visitors Center and left it up to the officials to address questions at a press conference.
That morning, a group of pastors, employees and local residents gathered and prayed in Veterans Park, as they had every day over the previous couple of weeks.
News cameras and reporters captured all of their emotions this time.
Donald Auten, a Plant 1 employee who had worked for the company for 34 years, prayed with others. He said he would start looking for a job right away.
“The Lord’s looked after me this long,” he told a reporter, “and he’s gonna still look after me.”
The next day’s Salisbury Post carried a front page photograph of Auten, hand to his face, distressed about the news.
Pillowtex Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Michael Gannaway said by letter on July 30, 2003, “in the end, we are faced with our worst-case scenario.”
The company had run out of cash, could not compete against foreign imports and could not pay off a $150 million loan.
In months to come, the company was dismantled piece by piece in bankruptcy court and at public auction.
Former Pillowtex properties ó Plant 6 in Concord, Plant 11 in Rockwell and Plant 16 in China Grove ó were sold to other companies. In September 2004, Murdock swooped in to buy Plant 4, then made a $6.4 million purchase of the remaining Kannapolis property and set the wheels in motion for his $1 billion biotechnology center.
The demolition of Plant 1 and the former headquarters followed quickly, piece by piece.
The research campus began taking its place, building by building.
From day one, state and federal agencies, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, nonprofit community groups, businesses and churches stepped in to help the displaced workers in a similar fashion ó that is, piece by piece, life by life, family by family.
Holder, the man whose instincts told him closing day had come, says all he ever knew had been the textile business. His father also made a career at the mill company.
“That’s what fed our family for a long time.”
Holder drew unemployment and took advantage of federal grant programs to earn his GED and take a machine maintenance course at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. Grant money paid for his books, even his gas to go to and from school.
“I can’t complain,” Holder says.
In April 2005, he landed a 30-hour-a-week maintenance job at North Rowan Middle School. It allowed him to pick up the health insurance coverage he lost when Pillowtex closed. He also began drawing Social Security.
Holder has yet to drive to Kannapolis from his home in western Rowan County to see the transformation. He has followed the research center’s progress only in the newspaper.
“It’s going to take a new breed of people altogether,” he says.
Walter Williams is a realist. The North Carolina Research Campus could be a good thing for Kannapolis, he says.
But he winces every time he drives by all the new construction.
“I still think about the hurt of my brothers and sisters who lost their livelihoods,” Williams says. “As far as jobs now, it’s pitiful. That (the mill’s closing) was the beginning of our rough times around here.”
Williams has picked up a part-time job, 22 hours a week, at the night shelter in Concord to supplement his Social Security.
At times, he sees former Pillowtex workers and their families in the shelter. Williams tells them, “All hope is not dead. Don’t give up.”
From his bench in Veterans Park, Randy Morton remembers waiting as a youngster for his grandmother to pass through the mill gate after her shift was over.
Morton worked briefly in the mill as a young adult. Today, he’s a welder by trade.
As with almost everyone who grew up in Kannapolis, Morton and his family have a connection to the mill that exists now in memories, photographs, family artifacts, a downtown visitors center, the library’s history room and, who knows, maybe a future museum.
Both of Morton’s parents were weavers.
“Some people worked in there 40, 50 years,” he says. “That’s a long time to work in one place.”
Pillowtex is almost an irrelevant name to old-timers in Kannapolis, the “City of Looms.” They prefer deleting from memory the Dallas, Texas-based company that went bankrupt and out of business over its six-year ownership.
Rather, they harken back to the glory days, before 1982 and the decline of U.S. textiles, when the Cannon family owned the company, when 18,000 people worked here, when the mill owned everything, when Kannapolis was the largest unincorporated population in the country, when the company made 224 million towels a year and when the Cannon name held world-class prestige in the textile industry.
Kannapolis and the company that made it sat on top of the textile world at one time.
That’s what made the fall so hard.
Lois Sechler spent about 14 years at the mill, working in the shearing room, where she made towels “velvety-looking.”
Sechler loved that job, but she was long gone from the company by the time it shut down in 2003. She clerks today at Ron Reynolds’ Southern Charm gift shop in Cannon Village and eagerly awaits the development and business that could come with Murdock’s research campus.
Sechler says Pillowtex’s closing was as if the town was forced into a closet and someone turned off the light. With the coming of the research campus, the light has been switched on again, she says.
Sechler knows older residents are skeptical about the future. They spent their whole careers at the textile company and built their lives and families around the work it provided.
But when things start really bustling with the research campus and the town comes alive again, they’ll come around, she predicts.
“We were known for textiles,” she says. “Now we’re going to be known for biotechnology.”
Sandra Petrea took a chance and went without health insurance until she could find a new job.
“I think a lot of people went that way,” she says.
She enrolled at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, enjoying the office business technology courses, which she considered a great “refresher” for her career.
To keep receiving unemployment, she demonstrated that she was looking for so many jobs a week. The search was difficult in an environment where her fellow Pillowtex workers were applying, too.
Petrea earned a certificate from the college and secured a job as office administrator with the Carolina Mall in Concord in April 2005.
Petrea had worked 27 years at Plant 1, where her parents also had spent their careers. She carried a sadness for a long time, whenever she saw the empty Plant 1.
“I just never dreamed all that Mr. Murdock has built,” she says. “I wish everything the best. We really need it in our area. So many were down for so long.”
Having a quiet lunch at DePompa’s Comfortable Foods, Ann Doyle says a bitterness about Pillowtex’s closing lingers with many residents.
“I still know people who haven’t found jobs,” she says.
Doyle worked for 22 years at Cannon (later Fieldcrest Cannon) before her whole security department was eliminated once Pillowtex took over in 1997. She was one of those people, Doyle says, who probably thought her job with the company was the best she could do.
But it wasn’t. She landed a better position with Wachovia Bank and only recently retired.
“I feel very lucky,” she says.
Doyle’s father went to work at Cannon Mills when he was 10 or 12 and made it a 60-year career before retiring as a vice president. “He thought that mill wouldn’t go without him,” she says.
It doesn’t seem possible, Doyle says, that it’s been five years since Pillowtex closed.
“Everything I grew up with is gone,” she says. “People got up and went to work that day, and then it was over. That hurt as much as anything.”
As a nurse, Alana Finney had no trouble finding a job after her 14 years with the mill.
To see the research campus growing from the ground up now, one has to have high hopes for its success, she says. That’s not to say the past is completely forgotten.
“Yes, it is sad to drive by and think about it,” Finney says.
Sam Falls, owner of Falls Jewelers, stuck it out over the past five years.
At first he didn’t think the Pillowtex closing would affect him too harshly, but it spread like a cancer through the retail sector. One person’s loss of business affected another’s and another’s ó a chain reaction that challenged the mettle of many businesses.
Some didn’t make it.
Falls says he personally started buying smarter and relied on loyal customers who had been shopping with him for years.
Now he thinks his business patience will be rewarded with the research campus.
“Just knowing that it’s coming and we’re in the right location for it,” Falls says of his anticipation. “It’s going to have a real ripple effect around North Carolina. It’s good stuff.”
Falls says he never could have dreamed that Murdock or anyone else would make a billion-dollar investment in Kannapolis after Pillowtex’s demise. At the best, one might have anticipated a new manufacturing operation’s going into the former Plant No. 1. But that would have had only a tenth of the impact Murdock’s research campus could have, Falls says.
He also looks forward to scientists and researchers from across the country and around the world possibly making Kannapolis their home. “I think we already feel that, expect it and embrace it,” Falls says.
Falls’ grandfather worked at Cannon Mills for 54 years, mostly as a weaver and, toward the end of his career, as a gate guard.
“I was a weaver and hated it,” Falls says, remembering a long-ago summer job. “That was one of the hardest jobs I ever had.”
Donald Auten, the man who prayed in Veterans Park the day Pillowtex closed, drew unemployment and attended accounting classes at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
Jobs followed at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, the Freightliner truck plant in Cleveland and as a delivery man for Keystone Automotive in Charlotte.
Looking back, his wife, Tennia, says Donald had been the happiest when he was still working at the mill.
Donald Auten died in his sleep Jan. 31, 2006, at the age of 57.
Tennia Auten can’t say for sure, but she has always wondered whether the stress and worry of trying to find jobs after Pillowtex contributed to the heart attack that killed her husband.
His check for the July 4 bonus he was never paid came after his death. It was part of a $13.5 million settlement announced among the lawyers for the company, creditors and workers.
From Veterans Park, Randy Morton is happy to see that the old Gem Theatre remains in business across from First Baptist Church.
It’s showing the latest Batman Movie, “The Dark Knight.”
But the First Street bookends to the Gem also reflect the transition Kannapolis is going through.
Offices for Turner Construction, the general contractor for the research campus, take up one corner. Forty Six, a stylish restaurant and favorite of Murdock’s when he’s in town, is on the other end.
Menu items at Forty Six include North Carolina little neck clams, lobster mashed potatoes and Chang Mai grouper, not quite the lunch pail stuff of Kannapolis’ working-class days.
A fresh coat of paint will come eventually for the First Baptist Church steeple, when it makes sense amid all the construction going on to the north.
On this day, several pieces of heavy equipment are eating up the asphalt street between First Baptist Church and the sundial ó the same road that led back to the Pillowtex administrative offices.
With all the other changes that have happened, the work is hardly noticed.
This wedge of survival ó the church, sundial and park ó is like the portal to a time machine.
Set one dial and it’s easy to remember the past.
Turn the dial again, it’s possible to see the future.