By Hugh Fisher
KANNAPOLIS — It’s 4:30 on Monday afternoon, and the crowd has already gathered inside the former K-Town Furniture showroom on Oak Avenue.
The air inside is hot, heavy, with an unmistakable smell of mold and dust.
The knot of officials standing in a rough semicircle falls silent, some fanning themselves, as Mayor Bob Misenheimer calls a very unusual meeting of the Kannapolis City Council to order.
The council members — seven men with a range of opinions on business and the economy — have joined a handful of department heads, all of whom have come to the K-Town facility to see its condition firsthand, and to brainstorm.
It’s a building full of memories of new cars and new homes.
And it’s significant to Kannapolis’ future planning, as one of the few properties downtown not owned either by the city or by one of the companies run by David Murdock, developer of the N.C. Research Campus.
Murdock’s Castle & Cooke oversees the biotech campus, while his Atlantic American Properties manages the majority of the downtown’s retail space.
K-Town’s carpet and furniture showroom closed its doors in December 2009, a few days before Christmas.
It was the end of an era for the home furnishings chain founded by Melvin Vanderburg Sr. and Fred Morrison in 1967.
With stores in Concord, Kannapolis and Salisbury, K-Town was part of a core group of retailers that made Murdock’s Cannon Village outlet mall a regional destination.
Vanderburg passed away in January at age 93.
According to published reports, in February Cabarrus Bank & Trust Co. foreclosed on the Oak Avenue showroom and a warehouse and adjacent property off Dale Earnhardt Boulevard.
Total amount owed: $5,037,931.75
Rinker Commercial Properties has the Oak Avenue property — 40,266 square feet on 2.2 acres, an entire downtown block — listed for $1,695,000.
Today, the furniture is long gone, along with everything else of any value.
The vast showrooms are empty, save for some little things.
A pile of carpet samples in one corner.
Some desks and office chairs in the center.
A few tattered books, papers and floppy disks scattered here and there.
And, by the window, a stack of dust-covered plaques honoring K-Town furniture, dust-coated reminders of forgotten sales milestones and customer service that was.
“Let’s start walking this way,” Bill Rinker, the broker, says to Misenheimer and city officials, and he leads the way from the showroom into the depths of the building.
These interconnected buildings were part of a thriving downtown in their day.
The main building was originally a Chevrolet showroom, with a cleaners next door.
City Councilman Ryan Dayvault and others shared memories of the Chevy dealership.
As one who worked with the Center City Master Plan and citizens’ groups prior to being elected, and since, Dayvault said he’s been interested in the K-Town property’s future.
“We’ve all seen it as an opportunity in some shape or form,” Dayvault said. “We just don’t know what it represents.”
Right now, it’s hard to imagine much happening without a lot of work.
Inside the showrooms, water damage has taken its toll. The basement has a pronounced, sharp smell of mold and mildew.
Here and there, ceiling tiles have collapsed. In one area, a fluorescent light panel has fallen from the ceiling.
It lay half in the floor, suspended and glowing, as the group walked past, leaving tracks in the dust on the floor.
Irene Sacks, Kannapolis director of business and community affairs, said it’s hard to imagine a business that would need a building of this size and configuration.
City Councilman Tom Kincaid said he didn’t see much of a future, given the disrepair.
“I think it’d cost more than it would be worth,” Kincaid said.
But Planning Director Kris Krider seemed more optimistic. As he walked through, he pointed out places where the floorplan could be changed, skylights added.
“The building has some adaptive reuse potential,” Krider said.
And, it could be eligible for tax credits geared toward refitting properties like this.
“I remember Piedmont Cleaners when it was in here,” he said.
And, as they walked, he and Misenheimer discussed some suggestions.
There were some quips among others in the party about putting in a nightclub, or maybe a pool hall.
Rinker said things like water damage are relatively minor, the result of delayed maintenance, and could easily be addressed by the right buyer.
“The biggest challenge right now is the current market,” Rinker said. “Right now, commercial real estate sales activity is somewhat limited, somewhat slow.”
Leasing over buying
He said more people are beginning to lease business properties, but there aren’t as many people buying.
What’s more, City Manager Mike Legg said, “the bank isn’t in the real estate business. They’d like to sell.”
“If the building has no value as a structure, then it’s a liability, not an asset,” Legg said.
The goal, not only for the property owner but for the city, is to have land and buildings adding to the retail tax base, attracting customers.
And, aside from the history behind it, “I’m not sure that this building has any more value than other empty buildings downtown,” Legg said.
Price ‘too aggressive’
There are no immediate plans for the city to purchase the property, although Legg said that was still possible, if the council wished to do so.
Likewise, Lynne Scott Safrit, president of Castle & Cooke North Carolina, said her company has watched the K-Town location with interest.
“We have had some limited conversations with the bank, but we already have a good deal of property to develop,” Safrit said.
And, she said, the deterioration that’s happened since K-Town closed “probably means the best use would be a complete tear-down and redevelopment.”
Safrit said that, in her opinion, the current price was “much too aggressive,” especially considering the cost of either renovating or demolishing the buildings.
Even with new development, Safrit said that architectural and design covenants placed on the property will remain in force.
And because of that, she said, “we feel we will be able to maintain some element of control on the type of development that would occur there.”
“I am not sure what the best use would be … but it would need to be something that is architecturally consistent and complementary to the campus,” Safrit said.
Right now, there are no buyers, no conversations taking place on any side.
And though Castle & Cooke and the city are willing, and able, to work with potential buyers and developers, there’s no clear vision for what should happen there.
For now, as it sits padlocked and empty, the K-Town Furniture building faces the N.C. Research Campus — new, vibrant, but also slowed down by the economy.
An economy which has to start moving, seemingly, before properties downtown can start to move, and the local economy begin to move with it.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.
By Hugh Fisher