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To make way for the North Carolina Research Campus, the gigantic Cannon Mills complex, which at its height employed 16,000 Kannapolites, was demolished. It was the third-largest implosion in U.S. history.
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In a lot of ways, the people of Kannapolis, North Carolina, are lucky.

Eleven years ago, the community, about 25 miles northwest of Charlotte, was the scene of the largest single layoff in North Carolina history. All in one day, some 4,300 locals—a tenth of the town’s population—lost their jobs when the textile mill at the center of town closed its doors.

State officials likened the event to a natural disaster. Life in Kannapolis until then had revolved around the mill. Traffic patterns were dictated by the 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. shift changes, marked by the sound of a whistle that echoed past the old water tower to the mill workers’ houses scattered across town. And the local economy rested on a bedrock equation of steady wages for hard, physical work.

At the time of the layoff, as many as half of the mill workers—at an average age of 46—hadn’t graduated high school. Many had no computer skills. Some had never worked a mouse or ever driven on an interstate.

So why is Kannapolis lucky? Because of... see more