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Four Miles Through Kannapolis on Foot
A quick running tour of town, starting at the Dale Earnhardt statue. What I found was a ballpark that's open for all, a dancing water fountain, and a MYSTERY TUNNEL.
The Start: A statue of Dale Earnhardt.
There are at least two statues of Dale Earnhardt (that we know of). The first sits outside of the Daytona International Speedway, where he died in a crash in 2001 on the last lap of the Daytona 500. The second sits in a little plaza in downtown Kannapolis, surrounded by bricks and trees. It’s a bit hidden, actually. So hidden that I’d had a hard time finding it the last time I was in Kannapolis for any significant amount of time, which was probably during the Mapquest era. The plaza is just dripping with symbolism. Benches and plantings come in threes (get it). The base of the statue is divided into seven sections to represent Dale’s seven Winston Cup Championships (get it). There are seven steps down into the plaza from Main Street (GET IT).
The statue’s been there for 21 years now, so it’s not exactly a new thing. Not long after it went up, there was a dispute between the city and Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa, who didn’t want the town to use the statue’s image in any promotional materials (Dale Earnhardt, Inc. owns the rights to Earnhardt’s name, image, and likeness). She did approve of the statue and the plaza. Those rights came up again in 2019 when the Kannapolis Intimidators baseball team changed their name. The team didn’t own the Intimidator name (again, DEI did), so it changed to the Cannon Ballers, which features a terrific logo of a mustachioed, sunglasses-wearing anthropomorphic baseball being shot out of a cannon. It’s not Dale. But it’s very Dale-esque.
Also, the Dale Trail is gone, but not forgotten.
In any event, the 9-foot-tall Dale Earnhardt statue is the perfect place to start a 4-mile-long run through Kannapolis, a town that feels empty and alive at the same time.
Mile 1: Big Buildings and Wide Open Spaces
Heading north on Main Street, I passed what used to be Cannon Mills. The place was once the largest maker of towels and bed sheets in the world before it closed in 2003 and the whole factory was demolished in 2006. The death throes of that company, then known as Pillowtex, were presided over by David Perdue, a former Georgia senator who most recently was best known for running a campaign ad that stated that he was “totally exonerated” of insider trading charges (he still lost).
In its place came the North Carolina Research Campus, a venture pushed by David Murdock, who made his money from owning Dole and all of the associated pineapples thereof. The buildings are quite large and beautiful and resemble the sorts of things you’d seen on a big old college campus. That’s sort of the point: Inside, a bunch of universities and others are collaborating on all sorts of biotech research. Outside though, the whole development feels like an all-or-nothing proposition, because next to those big buildings is… nothing. It’s … kinda jarring.
I get it. The complex’s first building opened in 2008, right as the bottom was falling out of the U.S. economy. But even without that: You don’t just clear out 350 acres of land and expect all of it to be filled up with stuff overnight. Recently, a developer bought up the bulk of that empty property, and plans to fill it with apartments and houses and apartments and shops. You know, the mixed-use dream of the 2000s! I mean, I can sometimes feel like a pessimist about things like this, especially since the biggest mixed-use development that I’m familiar with—Ballantyne—ended up being more of a suburb than the work-where-you-live utopia that developers had in mind. Ask anyone who commutes from there to uptown by car how they’re feeling.
Even so! Remote work has changed the equation somewhat, as have skyrocketing rents and property prices in Charlotte that have pushed middle-class folks further and further out of the city. I saw more evidence of that later in my my run.
Mile 2(ish): MYSTERY TUNNEL
As soon as I started my second mile, I veered off onto a greenway that basically took me from park to park. Greenways are underrated, man. This one runs between a bunch of places, and ends up at Village Park, which has a kid train. Kid trains! They’re almost as great as goat carts.
Also, this one has a tunnel. WHERE DOES IT LEAD?!?!
A side note here. I have gone running through a section of greenway that runs through High Point University, and it is very clear that the university would prefer it to not be there. Now, I’m sure that they’d say that they’re happy it’s there, but the entire thing is fenced off on both sides, has zero access points to the university, and is gated off at dusk. Actions. Words. You know, things of that nature.
Just saying, I’m generally wary of tunnels with gates on them, but this one provides a worthy service: It keeps you from having to cross Loop Road, which is five lanes wide at this particular spot. The tunnel opened in 2012 and lets people walk to events at Village Park without having to worry about being hit by a car.
Mile 3: Ballin’ Out
I turned off of the main drag (Highway 3, which, yes, was given that number after Dale’s death), and headed toward the ballpark. Once I got there, I saw something I wasn’t expecting to see inside the fence in the off-season: People. I know it’s sort of in fashion now to put all sorts of non-baseball stuff at a ballpark, but Kannapolis has taken that one step further, and made the ball park into an actual public park on days that the Cannon Ballers don’t have a home game. Hence, kids can play on the three-story-tall playground. There’s a splash pad too. You can also turn laps on the concourse. It’s all free when the team’s not around.
This, again, was the victim of bad timing. The ballpark opened in 2020, but the Cannon Ballers didn’t play there that year because of the pandemic. Even so, the whole thing ended up being the centerpiece of a lot of development around downtown. Which brings me to the final mile.
Mile 4: Downtown is Hoppin’!
One of the more striking things happening here is all of the housing going up. Just south of downtown, there’s a fairly large townhome development called Pennant Square, which features its own little putting green. Just ‘cause!
There are also a lot of apartments too; Vida Kannapolis is a large complex that feels like somthing you’d find in a big city. But right across the street from Pennant Square is… nothing. Another empty lot. It’s clear here that Kannapolis is still a work in progress. Downtown itself has a big walking area and is home to Old Armor Beer Company and a bunch of little boutiques. It’s also got the Lee Clothing Warehouse, which is sort of an outlet combined with a thrift store? Maybe? I stuck my head in for a a closer look, and that’s the vibe I got.
The whole front window, prime retail real estate, was full of bras.
Anyhow, go any direction from downtown and you’ll find old mill houses that were there when Cannon Mills was still alive and kicking. There are still plenty of churches too. Kannapolis is a town of 55,000 people, still small, but with a lot more happening than there used to be.
As I took my last turn back toward the Dale Statue, I saw an interesting water fountain and ran underneath. It reminded me of a much lower-key jumping water at EPCOT. It was in the middle of an area that didn’t feel like the Kannapolis that I once knew. Which is kind of great.
This is still Dale Earnhardt’s hometown. But it could be something else now, if you want it to be.
(h/t Tyler Dancy)