A beleaguered mill town struggles toward reinvention

During a lifetime among the looms, Venita Allman did it all, working her way from the weave room to the spinning room to the bleachery in these cavernous textile mills.

Now she's selling baby clothes and toys from her daughter's beat-up Mercury, and living in the shadow of a shuttered mill - part of a generation left behind by the faded promise of a worker's utopia.

"It just makes it tough, the way it is," Ms. Allman says, managing a smile. "All I've got left to sell is this broken jewelry on my fingers, and it ain't worth much."

Workers who grew up here in Kannapolis, where the mill owner provided everything from light bulbs to Bibles, have crashed headfirst into the realities of 21st-century commerce. When the Pillowtex Mill gave some 7,000 workers - 4,800 of them in North Carolina - two hours to get out in the summer of 2003, it became the biggest mass layoff in state history. And as workers disassembled antique looms and shipped them to Pakistan, it also became a rallying cry for critics of global outsourcing. Suddenly, this mill town was in the maelstrom of economic and social flux.

In the months since, Kannapolis has found itself adrift, torn between its crumbling identity as a mill town and the slow hints of recovery that are tugging it in new directions.

And across the state, where tens of thousands in the textile industry have lost their jobs in the past 10 years, the trials of Kannapolis may be a harbinger of things to come. With global quotas that regulate the international textile and apparel trade set to be eliminated on Jan. 1, foreign competition - and the mill towns' struggle - will only intensify.

"It's the same problem that a lot of Russians had with the end of communism - not only is there a change in economic circumstance, but there's a change in the culture," says John Silvia, the chief economist at Wachovia Bank in Charlotte. "As far as the general public goes, the United States wins and its trading partners win; but within each society, companies lose and workers lose. And we have to be frank with these people."

A town in limbo

This was the mill that made the sheets that America slept on and the towels that hung in her bathrooms, a village founded by a benevolent corporate oligarch, Charles Cannon, who provided housing, schooling, and even free electricity - all in return for relatively easy jobs that were a step up for thousands of dispirited farming families who'd run out of patience with the South's red dirt.

But the town that, with its cheaper labor and proximity to cotton fields, helped bring down the big mills of New England, has now itself been outsourced. The downtown Gem Theater is, perhaps with a hint of irony, showing "Surviving Christmas." The Kmart has closed and tour buses have dwindled at the downtown's Cannon Village mall, while only a handful stop each day to honor Dale Earnhardt's muscled bronze forearms at the memorial to "Our Hometown Hero."

Today, a generation of older workers like Allman still linger. Benefits are running out, foreclosure notices fill the back pages of local newspapers, and even retired workers who were promised that they could live out their lives in the mill-owned homes are worried about their future.

"This is Dodge City right now," says retiree James Mellons as he fiddles with a carburetor on an old lawnmower.

Wally Bennett worked in the mills for most his life, starting when he was 14. Now the septuagenarian sits in his living room beside a vase of fake white roses and seascape paintings, the shutters of his house closed tight. "Mr. Cannon was a good man," he says. "But nobody would have come had he not done all this for us."

Cannon's legacy came to an abrupt end last year. To developer Ken Lingafelt, who has spent months perusing the property and millions of dollars studying its reuse, "it looked like the rapture had just taken place," he says, so many papers and mementos were so quickly left behind. Even a year later, former workers still gaze in disbelief at the shuttered mills.

"You'd be stunned by the number of cars that drive up daily, workers coming to look at where they used to work, just to see nothing has changed," Mr. Lingafelt says. "You see a guy in a Crown Victoria, in bib overalls, looking out the window, still hoping something would happen."

How the workers fared

Workers weren't completely thrown out in the cold. They were offered "trade adjustment" benefits through a federal program and free classes at local community colleges: Some 1,600 went back to school, and many found other work. Edwin Gilstrap, who came here from South Carolina to work in the mills, is still here, a year later, working for a temp agency. Instead of going back to school, he's hoping to pull some strings to get a janitor's job. "I'm not much of a scholar, and I'm too old to go back to school," he says.

"In the longer run, maybe 25 percent of workers find another manufacturing job in Kannapolis, another 25 percent find a non-manufacturing job in the area, and half the workers go someplace else," says Mr. Silvia.

He blames not just the system that frayed under free-trade deals, but says politicians, too, owe workers a better explanation. "These people need more money for retraining, education, and they need money to move."

What lies ahead

It wasn't supposed to end this way. When the Dallas-based Pillowtex bought the much larger Fieldcrest-Cannon Mills in 1997, many saw a new textile powerhouse taking shape.

But there were problems from the get-go: A new computer system installed in the late 1990s was a total failure, billing some clients 30 times and contributing to millions lost in sales. There were shouting matches with Kmart executives and unexpected pressure from retailers and overseas suppliers. The deal quickly went sour.

Though the closing could have been forestalled, economists say, the realities of free trade have sealed the mill's fate. Just look at the back of Plant No. 4, where workers are slowly breaking down the old beams and knocking mortar off bricks so that they can be resold along with the well-worn pine planks.

But as the mills are broken down or retrofitted, even Mellons concedes, "It's not a dead town." While 1,200 of the jobs lost in North Carolina belonged to Kannapolis residents, newcomers are snapping up million- dollar homes as fast as they're built, eager to live in what is fast becoming a quaint, private exurb.

And while Mr. Mellons complains that the town should spend more time wooing industry instead of building a new train depot and a new amphitheater, others say those ideas make sense and are happy to see a new identity emerging for Kannapolis: a bedroom community for booming Charlotte, an hour's drive to the south.

As for the mill itself, a Dec. 10 auction will decide its future, though some complain that the current "stalking horse" bidder, a New York investment firm, has yet to reveal any plans for the mill. Meanwhile, an offer to redevelop the largest building, Plant No. 1, into a no-alcohol sports arena with some 1,700 jobs has fallen through.

Lingafelt, for one, believes the spirit Mr. Cannon cultivated lingers here on "Mill Hill": Even venture capitalists have heart, he says. But the adjustment isn't easy, and older workers, especially, will continue to struggle.

"An older gentleman that used to work there in the bleachery, he asked me, 'What does it look like where I used to work?' " says Lingafelt. "I'd say, 'Your chair is still sitting in the same place.' We laughed about it and he said, 'Don't tell my wife I sat in a chair at work, I always told her I worked hard.' At this point, you can't cry - you've got to toughen up and think outside the box."

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