KANNAPOLIS — A lot of the locals you talk to at the monthly Kannapolis Cruise-Ins remember the days when the tree-lined strip of West Avenue downtown was called “Idiots Circle.”
It was the main drag for cruising, the place high-school students went to hang out and the place people with nice cars went to show off their wheels.
Saturday, the drivers came back with their cars and trucks. Many of them are locals, but a good number come from Charlotte, Lexington and all over.
“Officially, we don’t start until 3:30,” said Gary Walter, the event’s host, “but we were at capacity at 2 o’clock.”
The sidewalks were lined with lawn chairs. Beach music, Motown and doo-wop hits poured from speakers along the streets.
The Cabarrus Events Association puts on the monthly Kannapolis Cruise-In, which feature classic cars lining West Avenue and other downtown streets, plus music, food and vendor booths.
There will be seven more Cruise-Ins this year, Walter said — one on the second Saturday of each month, except for May.
The second weekend in May is set aside for Jiggy Jam, formerly known as VillageFest and renamed this year to reflect its connection to the Jiggy with the Piggy barbecue competition.
In the five years the Cabarrus Events Association has hosted the Kannapolis Cruise-In, the formula hasn’t really changed.
But, as the local economy slowly recovers and a new City Council looks to kick-start economic development, Walter and other organizers said they believe events like this can help bring more businesses, and consumers, to downtown Kannapolis.
Walter said the number of empty downtown storefronts is “one of the more common comments” he hears among Cruise-In participants.
Meanwhile, city leaders are looking into efforts to spark new growth downtown, including partnership with Downtown Kannapolis, Inc.
There’s also discussion of a new downtown baseball stadium — potentially, a new home for the Kannapolis Intimidators, whose current stadium is in need of renovation and expansion.
With all of that in mind, Walter said he thinks events like the downtown Kannapolis Cruise-In can be a catalyst for growth.
“Until you know what’s coming, it’s hard to speculate,” Walter said.
But, he said, “I think (downtown growth) is going to bring a lot of excitement and enthusiasm. I think the car community will buy in and embrace whatever comes to town, be it a ballpark or whatever.”
And, Walter said, he believes the Cruise-In can coexist with downtown businesses.
Although the Cruise-In uses all of the on-street parking along West Avenue, merchants still had racks of clothing and merchandise on display along the sidewalks to take advantage of the foot traffic.
Later in the day, Charles Weddington, of Kannapolis, talked with friends next to his car, a bright yellow 2010 Dodge Challenger R/T.
“I wanted to show off my baby!” Weddington said.
Weddington, too, said he used to cruise Idiots Circle back in the day, and has been coming to Kannapolis Cruise-In events for several years now.
When asked if he thought the events had an impact on downtown business, Weddington said, “Actually, my sister used to work here, when Kitchen Collection was here on the corner.”
The kitchenware store was formerly located on the corner of West Avenue and West A Street.
Weddington said that he’d heard sales were higher, and the store would meet its weekly goal, on weeks when there was a downtown Cruise-In.
He said he believes that businesses could benefit from the crowds the Cruise-In, and other events, draws downtown.
Because the Cruise-In doesn’t begin until the afternoon, Walter said, businesses that do most of their business in the morning probably don’t notice any impact.
John Howard, of the Cabarrus Events Association, said Saturday’s event drew “an excellent turnout.”
Howard and Walker estimated some 600 cars and drivers took part — including, Howard said, those who only stayed for part of the day, and those that drove throughout downtown, cruising up and down West Avenue.
“We can park somewhere in the neighborhood of 300-plus in these lots, and we also have cars parked on the adjoining streets,” Howard said.
Each of those cars brings at least a driver, and oftentimes passengers as well — all potential shoppers at downtown stores and vendor booths.
“Those people are at least exposed to downtown Kannapolis,” Howard said. “It’s up to the retail stores that are here to try to capture the people we bring in.
Howard said he hopes that Kannapolis city leaders will look to downtown as a venue, and at events like the Kannapolis Cruise-In as ways to boost the economy.
“The people like coming here,” Howard said. “… It’s family oriented, and it’s here for the purpose of getting people to socialize. Young, old, whatever, people come here to relive their childhood in a lot of ways, and talk to people with the same kinds of interests.”
Walter said many of those whose vehicles are on display met their husbands or wives downtown, years ago.
“And, honestly, that’s partly why it’s so successful today,” Walter said. “We grew up here, we know what it was before, and (West Avenue) has a certain quaintness.”
Community organizations have embraced the Cruise-Ins as a way to promote themselves and their causes.
“It’s the people. I like the people,” said Betty Hathaway. “That keeps me coming back.”
Hathaway was one of several staffing a bake sale for the Women Encouraging Women Relay for Life team.
“Women Encouraging Women, and a few good men!” said Debbie Trexler, another member of the team.
Hathaway, who said she’s a cancer survivor herself, wore a feather in her hair and helped cheer people over toward the table, which was filled with cookies, banana bread and other treats.
Based at Centerview Baptist Church, Trexler said the team had been there since 1 p.m.
“It’s a great turnout,” said Cindy Chambers, team captain. “This is just the way it looked when we were in high school.”
“We had fun up here!” Hathaway said.
As the sun went down, and people packed up their lawn chairs and headed for home, Tony Corriher stood next to his 1956 Cadillac Rescue Ambulance, letting the big motor idle and the red lights flash for the people passing by.
Corriher, too, said he’s been coming to Kannapolis Cruise-Ins for several years.
“I think the cost of gas has hurt it some,” Corriher said. “Several years ago, you couldn’t even walk down here.”
Even so, Corriher said, he enjoys coming to show off his cars or trucks — a former firefighter, he said he owns several emergency vehicles.
“Friends, people I know, acquaintances. People you don’t see normally,” Corriher said.
Though he lives in Landis, Corriher said he does think that the Cruise-In events help get Kannapolis’ name out there.
“And there’s people who come here from Charlotte, from Taylorsville, from all over,” Corriher said.
Even so, Corriher said the event will need to work hard to appeal to a younger crowd. “I’m 68. A whole lot of these people are about my age,” he said.
As he spoke, a young man on a motorcycle pulled up nearby, revved his engine deafeningly and roared away up West Avenue.
The last car owners didn’t leave Saturday until after dark.
Meanwhile, a crowd of diners filled Sunshine Asian Cuisine on West A Street.
Next door, at the Vino Hops bar, customers were lined up to watch the Duke-UNC basketball game.
And West Avenue was quiet again, waiting for the next big day in the life of Kannapolis.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.
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