by: Carole Howel
The Kannapolis City Council is taking the first steps toward a massive revitalization project for downtown.
On May 4, Council members met with the Development Financial Initiative, a group of development professionals affiliated with the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government. The initiative works with governments across North Carolina to attract private investment for economic development projects.
In March, the city reached a deal to buy 49 acres of downtown real estate, which officials hope to use as a springboard to redevelop the downtown.
“The vibrancy of our city must include the heart of downtown,” said Kannapolis City Manager Mike Legg. “This is critically important to the future growth of the North Carolina Research Campus and our future as a location for more top corporations with jobs for our citizens.”
Legg said that Kannapolis is no different from other downtowns in decline and cited factors like the Pillowtex closing, shopping malls, a surge of suburban growth and Internet shopping among the reasons it has been more difficult to operate a downtown business.
“Not being a county seat is also a challenge,” said Legg. “Concord and Salisbury have larger daytime populations – sheriff, courts, county government – which help downtown businesses.”
Michael Lemanski, founding director of DFI, listed community demographics, proximity of the Research Campus and the character of historic structures among the strengths of downtown. He cited significant vacancies and the lack of public attractions as weaknesses.
Part of revitalizing the downtown will include a demonstration project to jump-start the plan, according to a press release. DFI is exploring the city’s options.
Of the 49 acres the city is acquiring, 42 are being purchased from David Murdock – billionaire Dole Food Co. owner and founder of the Research Campus – for $5.55 million. The total acreage, which includes family estate property on South Main Street and a bank, the former K-Town Furniture property, amounts to a purchase price of $6.75 million.
Thirty of the acres include eight blocks of buildings with more than 700,000 square feet of space. The remaining acreage consists of vacant land or land with single family homes that will likely be removed. The purchase is expected to close in late summer or fall.
The bulk of the public investment will be replacing aging water, sewer and stormwater lines, expenses that were already included in the city’s 10-year financial plan, said Legg.
“We will be seeking private investors for virtually all of the land, vacant for new construction or revitalization and preservation of existing buildings,” he said. “This will all be based on the long-range redevelopment plan the city and DFI are working on.”
He said State Historic Tax Credits are essential to lure private investment and have been the difference-maker in many downtown investments across North Carolina.
“Going forward, the credits will perhaps be more important in Kannapolis than anywhere in the state because the city is the initial investor and needs the credits as an economic development tool to attract the private sector to partner with us and reinvest in downtown Kannapolis,” he said.
“In the interim we will be entertaining proposals for the use of existing buildings as those inquiries come up, but it’s unlikely we would sell properties until at least the initial phase of the redevelopment plan is completed.”
“It is our collective goal to encourage private sector investments in response to the city’s public investments,” said Legg. “One goal of the city is to be out of the real estate business as soon as possible – recognizing that it could be a decade before we have returned most of the property to the private sector.”
He said that there have already been three public information sessions regarding the purchase of the properties and presented the proposed acquisition to community groups. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, with no significant reservations expressed.
Steve Morris, president of the Gem Theatre and a tenant of an Atlantic American Properties parcel being purchased by the city, is optimistic about the revitalization project.
“The North Carolina Research Campus has given the community a new sense of pride,” said Morris, who added that the opening of the Rowan Cabarrus Community College Cosmetology School will increase traffic downtown.
The Research Campus is a public-private research center that partners with corporations, universities, and health care organizations, researching ways to apply science to prevent and treat diseases. The 350-acre campus is on the site of the old Pillowtex Corp. manufacturing plant.
“The ideal result would be the development of additional uptown residential opportunities for those who enjoy the convenience of existing drug stores, grocery stores and medical, cultural, entertainment and recreational opportunities within walking distance,” Morris said. “I think the future is bright.”