The Kannapolis Downtown Revitalization Project: Smart HabitationDec 01, 2017 08:30AM ● By Jason Huddle
The past is a place of reference, not a place of residence.
Many of us remember Cannon Village this time of year. In 1980, Christmas lights twinkled in the trees lining West Avenue as we browsed the shops equally bright.
David Murdock’s purchase of Cannon Mills that same decade culminated with the sale of the mill to Fieldcrest, but only the mill (Pillowtex). Murdock still owned the land. He bought back Pillowtex in 2003 after it went bankrupt and remained owner of essentially downtown Kannapolis until City of Kannapolis leaders approached him in 2015.
Murdock had plans for Kannapolis, a hoped-for revitalization stemming from his anticipated $1.5-billion, 1 million-square-foot North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC). The saying ‘timing is everything’ certainly played into the project’s future, however. The recession of 2008 curbed development to three NCRC buildings totaling about 300,000 square feet. Meanwhile, vacant storefronts dotted the downtown core, the NCRC itself not enough to lure businesses in. The writing was on the wall.
Annette Keller is director of communications for the City of Kannapolis. “The campus (NCRC) has been trying to recruit researchers and scientists, and one of the things we heard is that they were having a hard time recruiting because of the lack of a vibrant downtown,” she says. “Duke University conducted a research study that said the same thing, so Kannapolis City Council said, ‘That’s it, we’ve got to do something.’ ”
Harken back to the early days of the textile mill. The Cannons literally built a downtown that catered to their employees who could walk out of work and shop, eat, attend church services, go see a movie or stroll home. Everything they needed was close at hand. That’s what the Kannapolis Downtown Revitalization Project embodies.
“The campus was a top priority for Mr. Murdock, so we began negotiating with him to buy downtown,” Keller says. What culminated was the City’s purchase of 50 acres – eight blocks and some 80 properties – for $8.75 million total, financing the buy with bonds. The land encompasses Oak and West avenues, and South Main and West 1st streets.
Since then, each building and piece of property has been inspected and assessed, and best potential uses studied with the supervision of the Development Finance Initiative (DFI) at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Government.
“DFI is made up of professional planners, people who have been private developers with years of experience in the field,” Keller explains. “It’s a new component to the university. They take into account, basically, where we’re located, what’s happening around us, what’s growing, where it’s growing, population movement and business trends. You also have to look at what the city of Kannapolis has, what the median household income is and what people can spend to shop, play, etc.
“Then you look at the properties and land we’ve bought, the campus and what we are lacking (taking into account housing too),” she adds. “And there were a lot of case studies. We looked at so many cities across the country – like Greenville and Charleston, SC – even internationally. So, basically, if we could dream of the most vibrant downtown for us, what would that be?”
The result is a Downtown Master Plan that affirms the need for density in the form of apartments and
condominiums; hotel, office and retail space; and an anchor that will bring people into downtown on a continuous basis.
“What research shows over and over again is that you must have a catalyst or game-changer in your downtown,” Keller explains. “We looked at three possibilities: a performing arts center, a sports venue and a children’s museum. Sports and entertainment venues give you the most bang for your buck by far. Restaurants and bars want to be next to sports venues.”
Kannapolis City Council voted for a North Option, which puts the $37-million sports and entertainment venue on currently vacant property in proximity to the NCRC. It will house the Kannapolis Intimidators while also hosting musical and cultural events.
The North Option also sees 1.74 million square feet of the aforementioned residential space built in the historic district and on the former Plant 4 site (off S. Main Street); 50,000 square feet of retail space; a 90,000-square-foot multi-story office building; a performing arts center on West Avenue; and a 70,000-square-foot hotel on Main Street.
“Construction (of the sports and entertainment venue) will begin in 2018 and open in Spring 2020 for the baseball season,” according to the City of Kannapolis. “The venue is envisioned as a continuation of the West Avenue urban park.”
With regard to Kannapolis’ linear urban park, Keller explains, “You’ll be able to walk from one end of West Avenue to the other with the streetscape being sectioned off in ‘rooms.’ All these relaxation spaces have been purposefully designed; it’s a destination accessible to the public and tieing in with the City’s ‘Healthy Life’ brand.”
The City and its investors are covering the $113-million cost of the infrastructure improvements and streetscape; the sports and entertainment complex; and the performing arts center as well as a parking deck. They do not want to be property owners, however, and that’s where private investors come in.
“We want to sell the properties,” Keller says. “LMG is buying the property they’re developing. That money will go back in to pay for the next phase. Then we’ll sell the next property. But we have to start first.”
Keller refers to LMG – Lansing Melbourne Group – based in Fort Lauderdale, FL. As urban planners, the firm has purchased nearly four acres – about two blocks – on West Avenue with an appraised value of $1.64 million. This first piece of the revitalization puzzle is called the Demonstration Project. “We had to find someone to invest money and be the catalyst for the start of this project,” Keller says.
LMG has named its project VIDA, a mixed-use development of 275 residential apartments, 19,000 square feet of new retail space and 34,000 square feet of renovated retail space (old Cabarrus Bank building block) in its first phase. Phase II will include a 106-room hotel or more apartments. LMG’s $60-million investment should bring in about $378,000 in city property taxes and $420,000 in county property taxes each year.
So, what happens to the dozen or so businesses still open downtown? “When we bought the property two years ago we knew that, as we began the research and adopted the master plan, we’d have to move some of the existing businesses. At that point, there were not a lot of businesses left. Over the last two years, Irene Sacks, Kannapolis’ director of business & community affairs, has done a lot of talking to businesses and what’s envisioned,” Keller shares. “Some can stay where they are…Wells Fargo, the Gem Theatre, Pizza Hut. We’re asking everyone to bear with us because construction is no fun; there are going to be road closures.”
And what about downtown’s buildings? Structures on Main Street and West Avenue were built between the 1920s and ‘60s. “The Gem Theatre block of buildings will be saved,” Keller says. “Downtown didn’t used to look like this; from the 1960s to ‘80s, it was given that Williamsburg look. The buildings from the outside look good. On the inside, the wiring is terrible, the plumbing, the roofs. You have to look at renovating versus the cost of replacing. We’re trying to preserve what heritage and history we can.”
An official project kicking-off event was held on October 26 that saw Kannapolis Mayor Darrell Hinnant joined by City Council members, City Manager Mike Legg and Deputy City Manager Eddie Smith. Together, they ceremoniously sledgehammered the exterior brick of the former K-Town Furniture store building.
While this was the first structure to be torn down, project preparation was already underway. Power poles were coming down – being replaced with underground lines – and new water, sewer and stormwater lines are being installed. Twenty-first century technology will exist downtown as well.
As this work progresses, the City of Kannapolis will continue seeking out private investors for additional office, residential, hotel and retail segments of the project. It’s expected that private investment will total about $378 million over the next 20 years. Upon completion, that could mean
$2.3 million in city tax revenues and $2.6 million in county tax revenues annually.
“We have a lot of people who are talking to us now that LMG’s plans are finalized,” Keller says.
It’s also not lost on her or City government that 20 years seems like a long journey to completion, but good things will happen all along the way. And for this city of 46,000, it’s been a long time coming. A lot hinges on this plan, which could see their downtown become the next urban oasis. For all those involved, it’s a very exciting time.
Article By: Kim Cassell
Photos Courtesy: Michael A. Anderson Photography