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Community Profile

Looms to Lasers
A model growth plan transforms Cabarrus County
from mill towns to mega malls and high-dollar jobs

By Ed Martin

Garden flags covered in butterflies and daisies adorning the small homes along Chestnut Avenue help brighten up a rainy summer day. The wooden houses are identical, mostly white, with porches a friendly whisper of neighborhood gossip across the yard from the sidewalk.

Ray Moss grew up in Kannapolis a block away on Oak Avenue in the 1950s. He played there until, like other neighborhood kids, he was old enough to walk across the street and get a job making sheets and towels at the mill. “The heyday of textiles,” he calls it.

But instead of spending a lifetime employed at the mill, as thousands have done, Moss stayed only eight years before leaving for Pfeiffer University in neighboring Stanly County, then divinity school at Duke University where he graduated in 1963. Six years ago, Ray Moss returned to Kannapolis as a retired Methodist minister. “I was born in a mill house and we still live in one,” he says, “They're all fixed up now, and when we moved back we bought another just a few blocks away.” He chuckles that neighborhoods like his are examples of the new “neotraditional” trend.

Today, Cabarrus County is strikingly different than when Ray Moss grew up here. Its population of 135,000 is a third larger even than in 1990. A model economic development program attracts diverse, global industries, and a new regional airport is popular with business fliers and the burgeoning NASCAR industry. This month, the $240 million Concord Mills will open as one of the two largest malls in North Carolina.

But reminders of its past linger, from mill villages to NorthEast Regional Medical Center, where the leading-edge Cannon Heart Center is a tribute to benefactor Charles Cannon, founder of Cannon Mills Co. Nearby, historic downtown Concord is sandwiched between shady North Union Street and South Union Street and elegant mansions built by King Cotton. The Kannapolis Class A baseball team? The Boll Weevils.

Natives and newcomers say Cabarrus is a county still in touch with its roots as it makes the transition from proud textile past to a promising future in the age of technology.

“We grew up on South Union,” says William Niblock, vice president of Niblock Development Corp., the company he and brothers Frank and Marc formed 20 years ago. It's now the largest local home builder. “We all went off to college and came back. We felt there was nowhere else in the country there'd be more opportunity.”

Often in Cabarrus, transition and roots come full circle. Concord Telephone Co. is a division of dynamic CT Communications Inc., which has 524 employees, 112,000 customer lines, Internet and digital wireless links and long-distance services, all part of growth propelled by annual investments of $25 million in new equipment and technology.

L.D. Coltrane, grandfather, three generations removed, of Mike Coltrane, current CEO, founded Concord Telephone in 1897. “He was general manager until his death in 1948, but he was always a banker, too,” explains Coltrane, who returned to run the company after a stint in banking himself.

Now meet Lawrence Kimbrough, president and chief executive of First Charter Corp. Capped by dramatic acquisitions in recent years, First Charter, known in its industry as a supercommunity bank, counts $2 billion in assets. But it became First Charter in 1984 when L.D. Coltrane's 111-year-old Concord National Bank and Citizens National Bank merged.

“Cabarrus is a great place to do business, and we've also had the chance to grow our retail market here with the influx of all the new homes,” says Kimbrough, including the 250 or more homes Niblock Development builds annually.

To understand where Cabarrus is going, visit its past. Split from Mecklenburg in 1792, it is still linked firmly to its urban neighbor to the south, a half hour from Charlotte's 500-flight international airport, NBA Hornets, NFL Panthers and financial institutions. But it offers lower taxes and land costs, and a smaller, highly regarded public school system that ranks academically in the top 15 percent of systems statewide.

“Charlotte is the economic engine that drives the region,” says Maurice Ewing, president of Cabarrus Economic Development Corp. “But at the end of the day, clients coming to us aren't looking for the sizzle of Charlotte. The steak comes to Cabarrus.”

Cabarrus does, of course, glitter. Walk along winding Little Meadow Creek in the still rural eastern part of the county. The first gold discovery by settlers in America took place here in 1799. Now, notes Mark Shore, executive director of the Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Reed Gold Mine, a state historic site, attracts 50,000 visitors a year, part of the county's $121 million annual tourism industry.

Cotton was worth more than gold, though. Not long after the Civil War, in 1887, James Cannon, cotton merchant, built his first mill in Cabarrus. He and others added more and more, and when he died, his son Charles A. Cannon linked nine of them into Cannon Mills Co. The empire included his model mill town of Kannapolis — Greek for “city of looms.”

“Cannon Mills controlled and operated everything, including mills, houses, downtown and stores,” explains Moss, elected Kannapolis mayor two years ago. Only in 1984, two years after Cannon Mills was sold to California financier David Murdock, was Kannapolis incorporated . “We're really just a teenager,” adds Moss. “At the time, we had 33,000 residents and were the largest unincorporated town in America.”

Change, sometimes painful, was in the wind. Automation and foreign competition cut into textile jobs. Murdock sold to Fieldcrest Mills Inc. in 1986, and two years ago, Fieldcrest Cannon sold to Pillowtex Corp., a Texas company that now is the largest employer in Cabarrus. The numbers, though, are a shadow of their historic high. “I started there in 1966, and by the 1970s, we had about 25,000 employees,” says Jack Foard, 55, a retired Cannon marketing executive and historian. Pillowtex employs 5,600.

Transition had begun. “Jobs in textile manufacturing are being replaced by higher skilled, more technological opportunities,” says Ewing. “This is freeing tremendous resources in terms of human potential.”

The results can be startling. In the afternoon, when the wind shifts from the south, the aroma of tobacco blends with the smell of freshly roasted coffee on a hilltop along U.S. 29 south of Concord. From here, the headquarters of S&D Coffee Inc., with its striking black glass and zigzag-shaped architecture, overlooks the $400 million plant of Philip Morris USA Inc., in the haze of the distance.

Founded in 1927, S&D made a pivotal shift in the 1960s. Until then, “We sold coffee to small mom-and-pop grocery stores within a 200-mile radius of Concord,” explains J. Roy Davis Jr., son of the founder and now president and chief executive. But with companies like General Foods Corp. crowding that market, S&D refocused on restaurants, hospitals, offices and others. Its 40,000 customers include McDonald's and Caribbean Cruise Lines.

Earlier this year, S&D, with 220 Concord employees among 650 in all, underwent a $10 million expansion, with help from a Cabarrus County economic incentives program that rewards investment by existing and new industries equally. Pillowtex, for example, is undergoing a $100 million upgrade, aided by the same provisions.

At S&D, results are as palatable as the scent of the 47 million pounds of coffee it roasts annually. Its product lines have expanded to include juices and other products, and on a recent day two dozen trailer trucks shouldered backwards into its loading docks.

A mile away, set in meadows beyond long driveways lined with trees and board fences, Philip Morris, with the capability of making 165 billion Marlboro and other cigarettes annually, was lured to Concord in 1983 by many of the same factors that attracted 131 new and expanding firms and 2,351 new jobs last year.

“We wanted to be here because North Carolina is the nation's largest producer of tobacco,” says Benny Darden, community relations director. “But Concord also had good access to rail and airports, was close to a major metropolitan area, and was able to provide the 2,000 acres of land we needed.” Today its 2,500 employees, with average base wage of $23.27 an hour, are among the Southeast's highest paid.

In the 1980s and 1990s, drawn by location, access to interstates 77 and 85, and a 60,000-member workforce unique for its background largely in manufacturing, a legacy of textile employment, companies like Philip Morris began filling the breech left by cotton.

Today, employment at Morton Custom Plastics Inc., formerly Plastics Manufacturing Inc., has grown to more than 800 workers. Sysco Food Services Inc., another company that benefitted from the incentives plan, employs 480, and textile and apparel companies like Shogren Hosiery Co., Fun Tees Inc. and Terry Products Inc. all employ 300 or more. Stanley Works, whose $30 million tool plant was attracted by some $700,000 in incentives, employs 215.

With sites in 3,800 acres of business and industrial parks, from high visibility International Business Park and Kings Grants to smaller ones like CMS Industrial Park adjacent to Lowe's Motor Speedway, the transition ball is rolling in earnest.

“We did a lot of searching,” says Jim Pilon, manager of Pass & Seymour/Legrand Corp., whose 650 Cabarrus employees make electrical connectors and wiring devices. “We looked at Raleigh and Durham, but the focus there seemed to be more on education and research. We looked in Charlotte, but when that didn't fit, they handed us off to Cabarrus.” In 1991, the Syracuse, N.Y., company began building its Cabarrus plant. “The quality of life is excellent and we had close proximity to a major city with the cultural amenities that enable us to attract good professional employees.”

Today, 15 miles away in southern Cabarrus, near the Rocky River in a former soybean field at Midland, a development that county officials rank with Philip Morris in terms of economic significance is taking shape. The $300 million Corning Inc. optical fiber plant began production in July, using heat and pressure to draw glass into incredibly pure, 125-micron fibers, smaller than a hair.

The plant, says Joe Monaestro, manager, already employs 275 highly trained workers, although plans call for the number to grow to 600 or more. Including construction, the plant will add $700 million to the Cabarrus economy in its first five years. “The technology rivals that of microchip manufacture,” adds Ewing. “It's the highest level of technical manufacturing in America today.”

On another day, Dr. Richard Brownell reflected on the role his institution has played in such developments. A pioneer in the concept of highly focused, regional community colleges, for 25 years the president of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College has guided assistance for scores of new employers. Earlier this year, Rowan-Cabarrus doubled the size of its South Campus in Cabarrus County with a new classroom and technology center that includes electronics, health, industrial and other labs.

A hallmark of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College has been custom job training for companies like Corning, Philip Morris, Pass & Seymour and others. “We developed the first motorsports management program in the nation for managers of racing teams,” says Brownell. This fall, the college will start training in hotel and restaurant management, to meet demands of the hospitality industry near the speedway and nearby Concord Mills.

The mall, say Cabarrus residents, shows that in its transition from a textile past, the fabric of Cabarrus is changing, too. That can be seen in where people shop, play, study and attend to their medical needs.

The new 1.4 million-square-foot mall, says Ramsey Mizer, vice president, is based on a Mills Corp. concept called “shoppertainment.” Instead of large anchor stores like Belk, it will feature 200 outlet stores such as Off Saks 5th Avenue, rubbing elbows with interactive shopping spots like Bass Pro Outdoor World, where indoor anglers can try their casting.

“This much retail under one roof typically brings people in from a trade market of 100 miles,” adds Mizer. “That should equal 15 million to 18 million visitors a year,” including out-of-staters from adjacent Interstate 85, making the mall one of North Carolina's largest visitor attractions. That will represent $18 million a year in sales taxes, and wages from 3,500 full-time, part-time and seasonal jobs.

Another major retail fixture in Cabarrus is responding, too. That's Carolina Mall in Concord, with more than 16 acres of stores under roof. “Retailing is strong and growing,” says Ed Fahey, manager, explaining why his center, built in 1969, worked with anchors such as Belk to recently complete an $11 million renovation and expansion.

If the past is never far, however, the future is usually close at hand, too.

Its architecture is still reminiscent of the colonial brick and white columns Charlie Cannon preferred, despite dramatic expansions. But NorthEast Medical Center, with more than 450 beds, open-heart surgery and other procedures, has become one of the state's most advanced medical centers. Affiliated with Duke Medical Center, in recent years it has expanded aggressively, and it focuses not just on illness, but wellness, too.

Visit, for instance, its women's center with marketing coordinator Heather McNatt. In a pleasant room of pastel-striped wallpaper and plants, women lie motionless as a densitomer scans their bones for early signs of osteoporosis. Mike Brennan, director of the center's research institute, notes a current $100,000 study of what motivates people to practice healthy lifestyles. “Sometimes,” he says, “our greatest gains don't come from new research into disease.”

Is the transition the county's experiencing painless? Hardly. On a recent morning, traffic on Interstate 85, its main link to Charlotte, slowed to a crawl. In northwest Cabarrus, the 1,700-acre High Creek golf community, shared by Mecklenburg, is one of a number of housing developments that triggers demand for more than one new school a year, and concerns about school overcrowding.

Currently, notes Jeff Barnhart, county commission chairman, the county operates under an adequate facilities ordinance that allows it to control housing growth until schools and other facilities catch up, and developers are contributing $500 per new home to help build schools.

But optimism is abundant. The merger of once rival Concord and Kannapolis chambers of commerce into a powerful new Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce, with 1,600 members, has created a chamber second in the region only to Charlotte's, says Tom Ramseur, chief executive officer, and it underscores a renewed regional spirit of community cooperation.

The merger has been accompanied by a move to new, high-visibility location on Interstate 85 at Dale Earnhardt Boulevard. Ramseur notes that the office, which also contains a visitor center operated by the Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau, is “politically correct.” It is in Concord, but has a Kannapolis address.

Kannapolis, adds Moss, the mayor, is well into Vision 2000, a comprehensive look at its future, and a few weeks ago, the town completed an annexation boosting it from 20 square miles to 30, becoming the state's 14th largest municipality. That will help bring order to growth, along with a western highway bypass and possible new industrial park.

Other reasons for optimism are more complex. Barnhart, a native of New York who came to North Carolina as an employee of IBM Corp., is among a wave of talented transplants joining natives in guiding the future. He notes that shocked Wall Street bond analysts in 1996 declined to award Cabarrus a coveted AA rating when they learned that 24 percent of its tax base was in one industry — Philip Morris. “They cited lack of diversification,” he says. This year, with that figure at less than 12 percent, the county has its double-A rating.

But a truer picture of the future for Cabarrus can be found in its links to the past. The three Niblock brothers, sons of Dr. Frank Niblock, pediatrician, grew up on South Union Street in Concord, in a home their grandfather, a homebuilder and lumber dealer in the 1920s and 1930s, built there.

“We've got the same concerns as other parents about traffic and schools and growth,” says William Niblock. “But there's nowhere we'd rather live. We've got 11 little Niblocks growing up here, too.”

Copyrighted material. This story first appeared in the September 1999 issue of North Carolina magazine.

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