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10 to Watch in 2019: Kannapolis

Kannapolis has been through a lot in the 34 years since its founding — the rise and fall of the textile industry, the closure of Pillowtex — but a rebound has created rapid growth for the city straddling the Cabarrus-Rowan county line.

Through all the bad, the city has managed to retain a network of people invested in its success. Residents, city officials and investors were not ready to see the town wither and waste away, which explains the ongoing revitalization effort that began in 2005 with businessman David H. Murdock’s vision of the North Carolina Research Campus.

The research center made strides in breathing life into a wounded city, opening in 2008 and continuing to expand. But it wasn’t quite enough, said Mayor Darrell Hinnant.

“We kept trying to recruit additional people for the North Carolina Research Campus, and all of our efforts were not quite as successful as we’d hoped they would be,” Hinnant said.

It took a Dallas health care consultant’s blunt words to open the eyes of city officials.

“He said, ‘We can’t get anybody to move there because your downtown is dead,'” Hinnant recalled.

The words were just the nudge needed for some action. In 2015, the city purchased its own downtown for $8.75 million.

The revitalization efforts haven’t stopped since. Streetscaping, updated infrastructure, construction of a new sports and entertainment venue in the heart of downtown — it’s all happening with haste.

Hinnant said much of the effort — the new baseball stadium and surrounding mixed-use developments — are expected to be completed by 2020. But rapid growth and investment in downtown has led to a welcome new focus.

“One of the things that has surprised us most is interest in greater Kannapolis,” Hinnant said. “Downtown would be enough for most to manage, but we’re seeing commercial growth interested in all areas of Kannapolis.”

The growing interest leaves the city with a welcome conundrum: deciding which projects should take precedence in terms of funding.

“When you have public-private development, public money can only go so far,” Hinnant said. “Our biggest difficulty has been the surprise of how many opportunities have come to Kannapolis looking for a home.”

And the range is only growing wider. Kannapolis has just committed to extending water and sewer services to an Old Beatty Ford Road interchange with Interstate 85, annexing a 318-acre parcel into the city limits in an effort to secure a multimillion-dollar, mixed-use development at the site.

“Just like growth didn’t leapfrog over Concord to get to Kannapolis, it’s not going to leapfrog over Kannapolis to get to Salisbury,” Hinnant said. “Growth progresses naturally outward. … Our hope is that this Rowan investment will be a seed investment for the rest of Rowan as the opportunity begins to move up north.”

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