Kannapolis wants to create heritage districts
By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLIS ó Kannapolis is a young city with an old soul.
Although the city just celebrated the 25th anniversary of its official incorporation, Kannapolis has existed since 1906, when J.W. Cannon founded it as a mill town.
Now, as the city transforms itself from a textile town to a biotechnology hub and the home of the N.C. Research Campus, city leaders want to find a way to preserve the past.
During a recent planning retreat, city council considered a variety of ways to preserve local traditions and culture, including a museum, history trail and heritage districts.
If council decides to pursue the suggestions, members will have a ready partner in the Kannapolis History Associates.
“Kannapolis still has a lot to accomplish,” President Phil Goodman said. “This is a perfect time to say we need to start preserving historical buildings and artifacts.”
The success of a recent pictorial history book about Kannapolis proves that people are interested in the city’s heritage, City Manager Mike Legg.
“We need to spend some time reflecting on our past,” he told council members at the retreat.
City staff recommended creating four heritage districts:
– Center City District, including downtown and the N.C. Research Campus
– Mill Village District
– A.L. Brown District, including the high school and surrounding area
– Carver Neighborhood District, including the first African American neighborhood in the city.
Heritage districts are different from local historic districts, like those in Salisbury and Concord, Legg said.
Heritage districts would define geographic areas of the city and promote the culture and history in each area.
“We have a unique history,” Legg said. “There weren’t many environments like Kannapolis created anywhere in the world.”
Council will consider specific recommendations within each district, including a culture and heritage walking trail, improvements to Veterans Park, a tribute to the Cannon family and preservation of the mill village.
Heritage trails featuring markers and plaques along a predetermined route have become popular across the country as a way to showcase a city’s history while building pride and a sense of place, Legg said.
“It’s a relatively inexpensive way to tell our story,” he said.
Kannapolis has numerous historic buildings and even natural resources like oak trees that it should preserve, Legg said. Already, the city has two museums downtown, the Curb Motorsports museum and the N.C. Music Hall of Fame.
Kannapolis lost much of its physical heritage when Dole Food Co. owner David Murdock demolished the abandoned textile mill to make way for the Research Campus.
But the Kannapolis History Associates has hundreds or even thousands of artifacts in storage, enough for a “first-rate museum,” Legg said.
He recommended the city establish a task force including representatives from council, the history associates and the new Downtown Business Alliance, as well as Atlantic American Properties, Murdock’s property manager. Murdock owns most of downtown Kannapolis, in addition to the Research Campus.
The task force would develop a plan to preserve the city’s past, including cost estimates.
Legg suggested that proceeds from the sale of the history book go toward historic preservation efforts. The book made about $57,000.
A bond package to help pay for improvements around the Research Campus has a $400,000 earmark for improvements to Veterans Park, including the gazebo and sundial. The city delayed the bond sale because of the recession but plans to pursue it again.
When Murdock’s real estate development company, Castle & Cooke, closed the Visitors Center this year, the city and history associates began talking about a place to display artifacts.
The Visitors Center housed a collection of memorabilia from Cannon Mills, which was on public display. The center closed for renovations, although work has not started.
The Kannapolis Train Station could provide a place to display artifacts, Legg said.
With ample floor and wall space, the train station could host rotating exhibits.
“Let’s let the community see this stuff that right now is in someone’s basement or locked up in the Visitors Center,” Legg said.
The history group would manage the exhibits.
“The train station gives the history associates a wonderful opportunity to work with city and it could be a permanent situation,” Goodman said.
For two years, the group has worked to secure land for a museum to no avail, he said. They have made progress but can’t talk publicly about possible locations, he said.
Legg suggested the city might approach Atlantic American Properties about donating space downtown for a museum. In the past, Murdock has expressed support for building or providing some kind of museum.
Council also discussed a tribute to the Cannon family.
“Nobody would deny that this is really important thing to do,” Legg said.
A statute could stand on city-owned land along South Main Street or at the train station, or on private land on the Research Campus or downtown, he said.
A Cannon tribute along the heritage trail could memorialize the city’s founders at a lower cost, Legg said. The Dale Earnhardt tribute park cost $500,000, including a $250,000 gift from Murdock for the statue, he said.
Council member Ken Geathers said the Cannon tribute should be part of a textile museum, with a room dedicated to the family. The city should approach the Cannon family, including former N.C. Rep. Robin Hayes, about helping pay for the project, Geathers said.
The city also might be able to secure state funding, Legg said.
“Mr. Cannon bailed the state out of a budget crisis,” he said.
People from all over the world bought the history book and might want to help support historical preservation in Kannapolis, he said.
“This could be a lot bigger and easier than we think it is,” he said.
Preserving the mill village appeared important to all council members.
“As development happens, the mill villages need to be protected,” Legg said. “They have too much value to let things happen that might negatively impact them.”
A mill village overlay would not burden property owners but would limit the size and scope of projects in the neighborhood, he said.
The overlay would prevent someone from buying two or three mill homes, tearing them down and building a large, two-story brick home.
“Right now, you could do that,” Legg said. “There’s nothing preventing you from doing it.”
As the economy improves and developers look again at the mill village as a source of land close to the Research Campus, “there is the real potential for losing the fabric of those neighborhoods,” Legg said.
Mill homes had some of highest property value increases in last Cabarrus County revaluation. That’s due in part to the Research Campus but also because the homes are well-built and the neighborhoods feature sidewalks and mature trees, Legg said.
As the city embarks on its second official quarter-century, more people are interested in the Kannapolis created a century ago by J.W. Cannon.
Membership in the Kannapolis History Associates has grown in the past four years and reached about 100 active members, Goodman said. The group meets at 7 p.m. the second Monday of each month at Kimball Lutheran Church.
People who want to donate artifacts should call Goodman at 704-796-0803.