Kannapolis turns 25
By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLIS ó With the chiming of bells at noon 25 years ago today, Kannapolis became a city.
The largest unincorporated community listed on the 1980 U.S. census, Kannapolis suddenly found itself with 29,000 brand-new citizens and a municipal government on Dec. 11, 1984.
But that dramatic moment was only the beginning of monumental change for this mill town. No one could have guessed it then, but Kannapolis would lose its largest employer and witness the creation of a science complex that aims to change the world, all within five years.
“The city has undergone very dramatic change,” City Manager Mike Legg said. “You cannot find a community our size in the nation that’s gone through that kind of change.”
In 2003, Kannapolis suffered the loss of 4,300 jobs when Pillowtex, formerly Cannon Mills, went bankrupt. It was the largest permanent layoff in state history.
“Who would have ever thought the plants would be torn down?” said Dr. Gary Freeze, chairman of the history and politics department at Catawba College. “We thought they were there forever, but Kannapolis proves that nothing is forever.”
Then in 2004, California financier David Murdock, who once owned the mill, mysteriously bought it back.
Murdock demolished the mill and started a frenzy of round-the-clock construction. In 2008, he opened the first three buildings of the new N.C. Research Campus, a $1.5 billion life sciences complex dedicated to health, nutrition and agriculture that’s predicted to generate 37,000 jobs, change the way people eat and rewrite the textbook of medicine.
Kannapolis had turned from a world leader in textiles into a biotechnology hub, almost overnight.
“You couldn’t have scripted it,” Legg said. “It was almost surreal.”
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After 78 years as a mill town where Cannon Mills provided everything from garbage service to health care, Kannapolis leaders decided to strike out on their own.
The Cannon family had always been benevolent, but no one knew what to expect when Murdock bought the mill in 1982.
“We thought we needed to take our destiny into our own hands,” said Ken Geathers, the only person who has served on the Kannapolis City Council for 25 years.
For years, Kannapolis had been at a disadvantage in the region, surrounded by 100- and 200-year-old towns.
“It was the underdog,” said Richard Flowe, the city’s first planner. “The community itself was hungry for its own leadership, its own elected representation.”
Geathers and 13 others on the charter commission “took the bold steps to break into an era of self-governance,” Flowe said. “That’s pretty amazing.”
Kannapolis had a unique identity long before it had an official charter.
J.W. Cannon created the town in 1906 for a single purpose, to manufacture textiles. And it became the best in the world.
“The mill provided a lot of services to the citizens, but it also had a singular interest,” Legg said. “For so many years those two were merged. The citizens’ interests were also those of the company’s.”
But when Murdock bought the mill, everything changed. He began selling the mill houses to their occupants. He changed the way the mill operated.
He built a YMCA and senior center, and he donated land for Loop Road, but “he wasn’t going to be the sole provider anymore,” Legg said. “Civic-minded residents said, ‘Now’s the time.’ ”
The local Chamber of Commerce had looked into incorporation before, but Cannon Mills frowned upon the prospect.
“The time was not right,” said Geathers, who worked at the mill as a production supervisor until it closed in 2003. “But when Mr. Murdock bought the mill, there was a change in attitude.”
Annexation threatened the town.
“I looked to the north and I saw Landis, and I looked to the south and I saw Concord,” said Bob Misenheimer, who joined the city council in 1989 and now serves as mayor. “I knew that one of the two of them was going to take us.”
To prevent Kannapolis from becoming a suburb of Concord and to protect its unique identity, leaders began advocating incorporation.
“I knew it was our only salvation,” said Kannapolis historian Norris Dearmon, 87.
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From a historian’s point of view, the incorporation of Kannapolis happened at a logical point.
“What happened to Cannon Mills is what happened to industrialized America,” Freeze said.
Voters from the Royal Oaks and Kannapolis Sanitary Districts approved incorporation by nearly 70 percent. Only Enochville declined.
City founders say the early years were a mixture of excitement and challenges.
“It was exciting because we were beginning something new,” said Bachman Brown, an attorney who served as the first mayor of Kannapolis. “But we found out that things moved a lot faster than we thought.”
Initially, city leaders planned to provide four services ó police protection, street lights, garbage service and land-use planning and zoning.
“We figured that would cover the first 10 years of the city,” said Brown, 83 and still practicing law.
But before long, citizens wanted recreation. So the city partnered with the YMCA to develop a recreation program.
Then, the city had to take over water and sewer services from the sanitary districts. Leaders entered into long and difficult negotiations with Fieldcrest Cannon and Murdock, who owned the water.
Eventually, the city acquired the water in Kannapolis Lake and the water treatment plant. The city also took over fire protection from the sanitary districts.
“We’d almost completed all the essential services of a city, and we really did it all in the first 10 years,” Brown said.
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Kannapolis had to grow up quickly.
“It’s probably evolved faster and in a more complex way than most communities grow,” Legg said.
Usually, a new city starts as little more than a crossroads. With a handful of homes and a few businesses, the city incrementally adds services and staff.
Kannapolis already had 78 years of proud history, as well as unchecked development and shoddy road construction, when those bells chimed in 1984.
Leaders had to deal with many issues that the new city inherited. State officials used a photo of Cannon Boulevard during a training session to demonstrate the result of no sign ordinances, Flowe said.
“Kannapolis was a sitting duck for that kind of finger-pointing simply because there was no local government for so long,” he said.
The city had an astounding 156 mobile home parks, Flowe said.
One of the most impoverished and high-profile was located on Cannon Boulevard. It was one of the first things people saw when they entered the city limits.
Another was accessed by using the Wendy’s drive through.
The city used tough planning and zoning ordinances to help clean up the town.
“We changed the direction of the city,” Flowe said. “It was like changing the direction of a ship.”
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Time and time again, Kannapolis has reinvented itself.
“It’s a community that morphed itself,” Freeze said. “But the remnants of old Kannapolis are still there. For a historian, that’s the fascinating part.”
Some believe the story of Kannapolis goes beyond what is written in history books.
“Too little is noted about the psychology of a company town and the transformation of that community into a self-guided, self-governed place of such size,” Flowe said.
Now, host to the groundbreaking Research Campus, Kannapolis could be coming full circle.
Murdock’s endeavor is a post-modern version of what the Cannon family did, Freeze said. Both gave the town a singular focus on the growth of a new industry, he said.
“What Kannapolis is doing is repeating history, even as it’s making history,” Freeze said.
Finding ways to hold onto the past and embrace the city’s heritage took up more than an hour of discussion at a recent city council retreat.
Clearly, elected leaders want to honor and preserve the past. Decisions about how exactly to accomplish those goals have yet to come.
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Entering its second quarter-century, Kannapolis faces many challenges, including securing enough water for future growth. The city has obtained access to water from the Yadkin and Catawba rivers and has partnered with Concord and Albemarle to build a $19.4 million waterline.
The city still rents nearly all of its space from Murdock’s real estate firms, Atlantic American Properties and Castle & Cooke, although city council is close to making a decision about building a new police station.
Kannapolis has many narrow, dilapidated streets that were built before land-use ordinances went into effect.
The city’s greatest challenge could be helping the Research Campus recover from the recession. City leaders have discussed launching a biotech business incubator, and they continue to pursue a tax-increment financing bond package to pay for improvements around the campus.
New fire stations, a police headquarters and city hall will come, Geathers said.
“You have to understand, it takes time to do those things,” he said. “And if you go back the last 25 years, we are making great strides.”
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Kannapolis, now with more than 40,000 residents, is past adolescence and entering young adulthood, Legg said.
“We are still are finding our way,” he said. “We don’t have our future completely nailed down. And we had to go off script because of the recession.”
The city must maintain its low crime rate, which is 50 percent lower than cities its size, and preserve the small-town environment while embracing growth, he said.
“I do think in the next couple years, some pretty critical decisions will be made by both government and the private sector,” Legg said. “They will be the foundation for our future. We are at a significant crossroads.
“The next few years will be as big as the decision in 1984.”