Hey America: Be Like Kannapolis

In July 2003, North Carolina was rocked by a seismic economic shift — and Kannapolis was its epicenter. The city’s story is a microcosm of the whole country’s. And it gives us hope.

Once upon a time...

Kannapolis was a mill town. Plain and simple. Now a community 45,000 strong just north of Charlotte, it used to be the home of 30,000 mill workers. Cannon Mills, a towel and sheet manufacturing giant started in 1906, was the world’s largest producer of sheets and towels throughout the Depression, throughout WWII, throughout the whole century.

The mill town finally incorporated as Kannapolis in 1984, but even then a huge chunk of the population was employed at the mill...right up until 2003. When it all came crashing down.

The Downfall

Through a series of transactions in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Cannon Mills became Pillowtex Corporation, and Pillowtex shut its doors with no warning in July 2003. They laid off 6,450 workers in one day — the single largest layoff in North Carolina history. The closure gutted Kannapolis, and it precipitated an industry freefall that left the region’s economy in tatters. By 2006, the number of textile plants in North Carolina had dropped by 40%, and we went from 233,715 textile workers to just 80,232.

Add that to the 2007 market crash, and it was a disastrous few years for Kannapolis.

A Brighter Future

So what changed?

The same thing that’s changing in the rest of the country: we’re filling the manufacturing jobs void with service sector and tech jobs. According to the Brookings Institution this month, if we’re smart, we’ll focus on the tech. And that’s exactly what Kannapolis did. It turned its mill into a research campus. (Seriously: they spectacularly blew up the building in the third largest implosion in U.S. history, and built the NC Research Campus in its place. Talk about seismic shifts. Boom.

Kannapolis used to weave fabric. Now it weaves our futures in health technology research. The NC Research Campus is a partnership between corporations, universities and healthcare organizations dedicated to researching plants, nutrition and the environment in order find preventions and treatments for what ails us. Cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity: they’re tackling it all. Cheers, thank you, and godspeed.

Kannapolis turned the ruins of its manufacturing industry into the seedbed of the future. And if they can do it, we can too.

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