The Kannapolis, N.C. textile factory, which after its 1887 inception bloomed into what was at one time the largest textile-producing factory in the nation, had long been one of the largest employers in rural North Carolina.
The company was the town, so to speak. In constructing its factory town, the Cannon family funded the building of a police department, a post office, schools, churches, and mill houses on surrounding land. The town’s main entertainment hub, complete with the still-operating and always pleasant GEM Theatre ($5 tickets! $2 sodas! $4 large popcorns!) sprouted next door. The company, though combative with union organizers from the start (multiple Cannon Mills ownership groups squashed multiple unionization efforts spanning from the 1920s to late 1990s, to the workers’ ultimate loss) established sentimental good will with its employees early on, becoming the first company in the nation to roll out life insurance for its employees when it did so in 1912. Other industries entered Kannapolis’s private business sector in the textile giant’s 116-year existence, but the town’s economic core was Cannon Mills.
In July 2003, when Cannon Mills’s owner went bankrupt, more than 4,000 workers living in Kannapolis lost their main source of income overnight. To put that in perspective, 11.7 percent of the town’s total 36,910 occupants—77 percent of whom were white and 30 percent of whom were in families with children, according to the 2000 U.S. Census—instantly became unemployed. Next door, in my hometown of China Grove, N.C., 560 people, or 15 percent of the town’s 3,651 dwellers, were out a job. It was the largest permanent mass layoff in the state’s history.
At 10 years old, I didn’t understand their tears. I didn’t understand them any more at 13 when people gathered en masse to gawk, cheer, or weep as they watched the smokestacks topple. I understood only that many people were depressed and confused. And as history will explain better than I, people, on a mass scale, don’t stay confused for long—they adapt and become content with the new norm, or they become pissed off. Kannapolis, like many, many other small towns across America, got pissed off.
In the three years between the shuttering of the factory’s doors and the final implosion, California billionaire David Murdock, the former owner of Cannon Mills and current chairman of Dole Foods, announced his latest project: the North Carolina Research Campus. On the same ground that was once home to the textile factories, a sprawling campus would rise, with buildings occupied by research teams from Duke, UNC, Appalachian State, and other North Carolina universities. The multi-million dollar effort was pitched in the local paper as an excellent move to create jobs, boost the economy, and show a public focus on science and education.
Fewer than 700 people are currently employed at the research campus. Job numbers are not an indicator of how successful efforts in researching and combating diseases are or will be, but the fact remains that 700 degree-requiring jobs do not 4,000 factory jobs make. According to UNC-Chapel Hill’s state population education data, 12.5 percent of Kannapolis’s adult population possessed at least a bachelor’s degree in 2000—the national average at the time was roughly 24 percent, per the census. By the time the N.C. Research Campus opened in 2008, Kannapolis’s number increased, but only slightly, to 14.4 percent.
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Source: Growing Up In A Trump Town