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The Pillowtex effect: Five years later

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KANNAPOLIS, N.C. -- It's been five years since the Pillowtex plant in Kannapolis closed, sparking the biggest job layoff in North Carolina's history. All week, News 14 Carolina’s Jennifer Moxley will take a look back at how the plant closing affected the city and how the future looks five years later.

Part 1 - Pillowtex Plant Closes

On July 30, 2003, a decision had been made. After months of struggle, the company could no longer pay debtors. Employees and officials gathered to hear the company's plan.

Everyone knew the mill had seen difficulties many times in the past but it was always strong enough to emerge. But that was no longer the case.

More than 4,300 people in Kannapolis lost their jobs that day, the largest layoff in North Carolina's history. The next day, the work to start over began.

Pillowtex, the former Cannon Mills, was one of the best in the world when it came to making quality sheets and towels. The company had a solid foundation for more than 100 years and now it was gone.

Part 2 - Pillowtex Aftermath

Many employees at the mill didn't have high school diplomas and most had never done anything else but work in the mill. Without the quality jobs Pillowtex provided, the laid off employees were left searching for other opportunities.

If you look around, you'll see some remnants of Pillowtex at Tena Steen's flower shop in Kannapolis. Five years ago, she never thought she'd be in the flower business. Back then, her future was in sales and marketing with the mill.

All of a sudden, she said, there was no need for anything textile in this country. The business was gone and after taking a few years off, she found a new career.

Like Steen, Ed Hosack made a career at the mill. He worked there for 20 years and rose to management. He said it “ripped his guts out” to break the news to his crew, so he was desperate to help his loyal employees who were left with nothing.

Hosack is now the executive director of Cooperative Christian Ministries, and five years later, he says former mill workers are still coming through its doors. He said they've gone through their savings, gone through their 401Ks and are just now at a place where they have nowhere else to turn for help.

Part 3 - Pillowtex Plant Comes Done

Once Pillowtex closed, the buildings became obsolete. Billionaire David Murdock bought the property at auction and decided to tear down the buildings to make way for the North Carolina Research Campus.

On Nov. 12, 2005, Plant 1, the main office of Pillowtex, crumbled to the ground.

“I remember many folks having their children there taking pictures and that kind of thing,” said state Sen. Fred Steen, R-Rowan County, a third-generation mill worker. “It was a historical occasion, but it was a sad occasion.”

The iconic smoke stacks collapsed in August 2006, and a year after demolition started, the water tower, the last recognizable structure of the mill, came down.

Tearing down the 6 million square foot Pillowtex complex was one of the largest demolition projects in the world. Kannapolis was moving forward with a clean slate but no one really knew what to expect.

Part 4 - Life changes for mill community

J.W. Cannon built the city of Kannapolis around the mill he started in the early 1900s. For more than a century it was a partnership that evolved and weathered many economic struggles. But when the mill closed in 2003, the city and its people were left without any direction.

With so many generations of families having worked in Kannapolis and then the mill coming to a close, the city would have to change forever.

“A lot of people came together to really make this as smooth a transition as it possibly could be,” said Mike Legg, Kannapolis city manager.

Since then, the Kannapolis landscape feels familiar, but it is ever changing. “It is a new day,” said John Cox, of the Cabarrus Economic Development Corporation. “Kannapolis is a new city for a new century and it requires new things from all of us.”

One of those new things was an education for mill workers who were not prepared to find another job. The community college system set up programs to help those people get their GED or take other job skills courses. Five years later there are still former workers who aren’t making the transition.

“For whatever reason, people in the last five years who could have gotten a GED or high school equivalency or gone onto community college or college and gotten a degree just haven't availed themselves of that,” said Cox.

Even the Kannapolis City School system is changing with the times. Since the mill closed, schools in the area have added more math and science courses in an effort to prepare their students for the changing future.

Part 5 – Looking in to the future

Now five years removed from the closing of Pillowtex, the city of Kannapolis and its people are looking toward the future and the new research campus.

When billionaire David Murdock bought Pillowtex on the auction block he didn’t have a plan, just a goal. “He said, “I don’t know yet, but I know one thing: I want to provide jobs for those good people in the community,’” said Lynne Scott Safrit of the N.C. Research Campus. She used to work at the mill, as had her parents.

Now Safrit is at the helm of the project that will take Kannapolis in a new direction.

“The [former] jobs are not going to come back, neither are tobacco jobs, neither are many furniture jobs sadly,” she said. “And so we have to find a way for people to exist and really have a good quality of life into the next century.”

The research campus is expected to be a way to do that.

“The research campus has really changed the face of Kannapolis,” said Mike Legg, Kannapolis city manager. “That was a solution we couldn't have even dreamed about in 2003 when the Pillowtex announcement was made.”

While the name Kannapolis will always mean the City of Looms, Murdock hopes the city will soon be the home to science.

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