The Downtown Established
The business district in Kannapolis began in 1907 as the first Cannon Mill facilities were being completed, and was an emerging commercial center by 1910. The commercial district became the town’s center of activity where community celebrations and parades were held. The Kannapolis Square, at the intersection of Main Street and First Street, was the hub of commercial activity in town. The buildings at the square housed businesses that sold furniture, drugs, groceries, general merchandise, and of note, one of the Lowe Brothers & Company’s buildings advertising “Furniture, Coffins and Caskets.” Second floors were occupied by legal and medical offices and several start-up churches that met in these make-shift spaces until the YMCA auditorium was completed. The Kannapolis Post Office and Cabarrus Bank were also located in this central area.
As the mills thrived, the city continued to grow, reaching an estimated 13,000 residents by 1930. Kannapolis’ downtown was filling out during the 1920s and 1930s with mostly two story brick commercial buildings that included typical storefronts, signs, and awnings from that era. The downtown was always busy with commercial activity during the work week and with entertainment and social events on the weekends. The downtown included many well-known stores such as Belk’s, Woolworths, and Montgomery Ward, which, standing four stories high, was the tallest building along Main Street. In addition, a significant historical landmark in town, the Gem Theatre, was opened in 1936 and is today the longest standing Art Deco building in Cabarrus County and the oldest single screen theatre in operation in the U.S. It was destroyed by fire in 1942 and rebuilt after World War II, reopening in 1948.
Extreme Downtown Makeover
Charles A. Cannon, who inherited the mill after his father J.W. Cannon’s death in 1921, established a new vision in 1937 that would mark the first dramatic change in downtown, transforming the appearance of the entire district. The plan was inspired by his wife, Virginia Cannon, who was impressed by the work completed at Colonial Williamsburg in Virigina. By 1944, many of the sweeping changes were completed. During this same period of time, Cannon Boulevard (US-29) was completed, and for the first time commercial businesses began to open outside of downtown.
Continued Decades of Growth (1950s-1970s)
Int the post World War II era, the mill continued to do well and Kannapolis grew along with it, making it one of the largest unincorporated communities in the country. As the 1950s began, nearly all of the renovations for the business district were completed and flourishing. However, many of the landmarks in downtown were lost during this time, making way for what many considered progress. In the early 1960s, the group of Belk stores on the square and four buildings on the east side of South Main Street were razed to create large paved parking lots. The growth of “new” shopping areas, such as the Midway Shopping District, defined suburban development patterns and drew customers and commercial activity away from downtown Kannapolis.
Ownership of the mill changed three times during the 1980s and 1990s, with the first major sale occurring in 1982, when David Murdock bought Cannon Mills and control of much of the downtown Kannapolis real estate. Mr. Murdock began implementing another sweeping plan for downtown Kannapolis to redevelop as “Cannon Village,” small shops and large retail outlets selling textile products and home furnishings. The downtown underwent additional renovations to the storefronts and the streetscape that built upon the theme started by C.A. Cannon in the late 1930s. Oak Avenue Mall, a suburban style shopping plaza immediately adjacent to downtown, was built in 1984. Soon thereafter, a new YMCA, park, and senior center were built adjacent to the downtown core.
The first phase of the planned Cannon Village renovations were completed and opened to the public in November 1984. The approximately $25 million in improvements included 20 foot wide brick sidewalks, with benches, pedestrian scale lighting, street trees, and planters. Unsightly utility lines were placed underground and new light poles were erected. The central corridor along West Avenue was enhanced with a wide median planted with willow oaks that have now formed a mature tree canopy. Street intersections included several pedestrian safety improvements and aesthetic treatments as well, including crosswalks surfaced with brick pavers. Storefronts were further renovated to reflect the Williamsburg-style and outlet stores were recruited to Cannon Village.
In 1986, another defining physical feature was added to the downtown with the construction of Loop Road. It circled the mill and downtown, forming a “hard” boundary along the northern and western edges of downtown. The new road helped to further isolate the core of downtown from the surrounding residential neighborhoods as the railroad did along the eastern edge of downtown.
The City of Kannapolis incorporated in 1984 and took on more responsibilities, including the streets and highways, water and sewer, and fire and police services. The 1990s marked additional changes for downtown as the landmark Montgomery Ward and Professional buildings on Main Street were demolished.
End of an Era; a New Future
The end of the mill whistles came in June 2003 when Pillowtex closed the doors on the mills with layoffs affecting 4,300 workers. It was the largest single layoff in state history. David Murdock purchased the mill property at auction and announced in 2005 plans for a $1.5 billion scientific and economic redevelopment project called the North Carolina Research Campus.
The mill buildings have been demolished and several new Research Campus buildings stand in its place. The Campus includes eight universities, the Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, private sector companies, and other partner institutions. The vision is to be a center for scientific collaboration focused on health, nutrition, and agriculture.
In the wake of these changes, a strong foundation still exists upon which the future of the downtown will be built. The North Carolina Research Campus is emerging as the new economic engine for downtown. The City of Kannapolis is working with Downtown Kannapolis, Inc. and other community partners to reposition downtown Kannapolis as the heart of our community.