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November 2005
Paying it Forward
By Susanne Deitzel

 

Kannapolis Developer Precipitates a Multitude of Impacts

 

Twenty-four miles north of Charlotte, just off of Interstate 85, is a little town that was content being simply that: a family-oriented, sleepy little section of land steeped in the rich history of North Carolina textile manufacturing.

That is, up until two years ago when the town of Kannapolis was up-ended by equally historical layoff figures. An estimated 4,300 mill jobs were lost when community godfather, Pillowtex, closed its doors and filed bankruptcy.

            Despite years of foreboding, the plant closings came as shock to many. Perhaps most surprised were busy Charlotteans unaware of this quiet little landmark, or what the loud slam of its mill doors could mean to the local economy.

Fortunately, a specter from the past has arrived on the scene of this town of roughly 38,000 folks, and most are greeting him with open arms. Business magnate and billionaire David Murdock has returned to Kannapolis to give its economy a much needed, much heralded, shot in the arm: plans and funding for the $1 billion, 350-acre, North Carolina Research Campus, a biotechnology research hub to replace the graveyards of empty mill sites.

 

Mill Works to Good Works

The people of Kannapolis are familiar with Murdock. He purchased Cannon Mills in 1982 and sold it to Fieldcrest Mills in 1986. Some remember him as a raider, but others remember his considerable investments into the mills and Cannon Village as a saving grace, for a time.

Regardless of the past, Murdock is back to stay after having purchased Plant 1 of the mill at auction for $6.4 million. He is now forging full-steam ahead to stoke the fires of the suffering town.

Lynne Scott Safrit, project development manager for what will become the North Carolina Research Campus, remembers the day Murdock repurchased the plant. “He went to the auction personally and made the winning bid. He called me and said, ‘Well, I don’t know what we’re going to do with it, but it has to create a lot jobs for Kannapolis. And, we’ve got to get working on this – fast.’”

Safrit is a diminutive blonde with the smarts and stamina that qualify her as a charming version of ‘Carolyn’ to Murdock’s ‘Trump.’ Safrit has worked with Murdock for the past 23 years and is a product of Cannon Mills, herself. Now president of Murdock’s Castle & Cooke, Inc., she proudly shares that both her mother and father worked for the mills, as did she on weekends, holidays and summers home from college.

Comments Safrit, “This area where our families lived and worked was at one time a happy, unified community. So of course, this is much more than a job to me.”

She adds, “And it is very important that people understand that it is also much more to Mr. Murdock. He sold Cannon because the handwriting was on the wall, and it made him very sad to have to do so. To be able to help the people he once worked with is a huge motivating factor for him.”

Which is not to say that Murdock doesn’t acknowledge that there is a tremendous financial motivation as well. In addition to the 250-acre Cannon Mills Plant 1 site, Murdock owns 100 acres in downtown Kannapolis and 1,000 acres throughout Cabarrus and Gaston Counties.

Comments Safrit, “There is a practical side to this. What better way to protect your assets than to boost the economy with an infusion of jobs?”

 

A Good Match

What does one do with a huge, empty textile plant and a whole lot of people knocking down your door for employment?

David Murdock, who also owns food giant Dole Foods and real estate subsidiary Atlantic American Properties, initially sat down with Safrit to discuss a short list of twenty-odd applications to use the space. Recalls Safrit, “When Pillowtex was for sale, we considered trying to make the plant a viable operation again. But we, like everyone else, found that we simply couldn’t compete with foreign manufacturing. So after the auction, we began considering residential developments, medical facilities, and traditional office spaces. While there were a lot of ideas that could fill the space, none of these was self-sustaining.”

She continues, “The biotechnology concept was exactly the opposite. With Mr. Murdock’s passion for health and nutrition, compatibility with North Carolina agri-business, and natural partnerships with top- notch universities, the idea yielded, and continues to yield, more and more potential.”

That potential appears somewhat daunting. Says Safrit, “Mr. Murdock’s goal is to take North Carolina a step further on the biotechnology playing field.” North Carolina’s Research Triangle is currently ranked third in the nation behind San Diego and Boston.

With the addition of the North Carolina Research Campus, Murdock hopes to raise the state to number two, and state and local leaders are rushing to lend their aid to make that objective a reality. The attendance roster for the campus announcement read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of North Carolina politicos: Governor Mike Easley, Senator Elizabeth Dole, Senator Richard Burr, Congressman Robin Hayes, President ProTem of the N.C. Senate Marc Basnight, N.C. Speaker of the House James Black, and N.C. Senator Fletcher Hartsell.

Despite having done business in 96 countries and every state in the union, Murdock appears completely bowled over by North Carolina leadership’s reception to the campus. “This is undoubtedly the best experience of the public and private realms working together that I have ever had.” He adds, “The help that has come from the powers-that-be has far exceeded my expectations, and has also exemplified politicians executing the true purpose of their position – working for the good of the people.”

 

The Emerald City

Murdock’s vision includes a campus containing more than one million square feet of office and laboratory space housing state-of-the-art equipment, as well as 350,000 square feet of retail and commercial space including a movie theatre, hotel, convention area, sundry restaurants and specialty shopping.

At this point, many people’s eyes gloss over. What can Murdock’s millions translated into biotech white coats, institutionally-gilded buildings and shopping do for the plight of those thousands having lost manufacturing jobs?

To this, University of North Carolina System President Molly Broad answers confidently, “I believe what we are doing with the North Carolina Research Campus will be looked to as a model for bringing early 20th century manufacturing economies into highly productive 21st century economies.”

Here is that model: recruiting intellectual capital; attracting biotech R&D; and expansion, applications and production.

The first component involves recruiting some of the state’s prestigious faculty and intellectual capital from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, North Carolina State University and potentially, Duke University, with a giant carrot: a brand new, state-of-the-art Core Laboratory and support facilities. The Core Lab will offer 60,000 square feet with a DNA sequencing facility, microarray facilities, mass micro-spectrometry facilities and tools to sustain them. In addition to the buildings and instrumentation, hopes are that the campus will encourage a closely-knit scientific community that will foster data sharing and cross-pollinization.

The schools are also creating their own specialized initiatives within the campus.

The North Carolina State University Institute for Advanced Fruit and Vegetable Science will be seeking ways to increase the Southeast’s agricultural options by applying basic and applied research. Explains Safrit, “The applications are countless. We can seek to extend growing seasons, learn to grow without pesticides, increase the shelf life of produce, bolster food’s nutritional components, and find healthy and lucrative alternative crops for farmers like those who have been hard-hit by tobacco buy-outs. That is just to name a few.”

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is establishing The University of North Carolina Institute for Excellence in Nutrition, which seeks to examine the relationship between nutrition and the brain, obesity and cancers. Broad says the task of creating a laboratory wish list is well underway: “We are determining our implementation at this point. Senior faculty leaders are in discussions to identify needs for staff, instrumentation and equipment, networking and computing, and also attempting to solidify the focus of our research.”

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte will leverage its College of Health and Human Services to assist its sister school in Chapel Hill with the food science initiative, and will be instrumental in devising a private school dedicated to 11th and 12th grade girls who excel in math and sciences. The University of North Carolina Chancellor, Phil Dubois, says the university is also excited to be heading efforts to optimize its bioinformatics research on the North Carolina Research Campus.

According to Dr. Joan Lorden, vice chancellor and academic provost at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, “Bioinformatics cuts across all of what Mr. Murdock seeks to accomplish on the campus. It involves using computational methods to extract information from a biological database.” She adds, “To have data is one thing. To have information is something else. That is where bioinformatics and where UNC Charlotte comes in.”

In addition to these initiatives, there is also a Contract Manufacturing Biogenic Fermentation facility technology companies can use for a fee. Murdock has also added a little honey to the pot here: a $100 million venture capital fund for prospective tenants who qualify.

This considerable wellspring of talent, intellectual capital, shiny new facilities and seed money is very attractive to rising biotech firms, hence satisfying the second component of the business model: luring new biotech research and development companies into the area.

“Our expectation,” says Safrit, “is that if you have 100 to 200 biotech companies in their early stages, many of them will reach commercial stages and begin to produce their products here as well. This way they can hire more employees for commercial applications.”

Third component: More employees. Commercial applications. Production.

Sound familiar?

Well, maybe yes, maybe no.

 

Flexibility = Future

“We can’t to go back and replace the old jobs. But what we can do is create new jobs that are attainable through training, and ones that are attainable through higher education,” says Safrit. “We are giving our children the opportunity to do better, to work toward a solid future, and still grow up working in the community they were raised in.”

She adds, “One thing I feel confident in saying is that anybody willing to open themselves to new things and willing to help themselves, can succeed. Mr. Murdock is a prime example of this. He has a ninth grade education but has continually educated himself throughout his life experience.”

Another thing Safrit feels fairly confident saying is that people should not expect to make a decent living in tomorrow’s economy without a high school education. “What I hope people will take away right now is if they don’t have a high school diploma, they need to take advantage of the affordable G.E.D. programs at Central Piedmont or Rowan County Community College. It will be very hard to be involved in this campus without one.”

Both Safrit and Broad emphasize the opportunity for a wealth of jobs – if the population wants them. Comments Broad, “This is a new kind of manufacturing. We won’t be manufacturing textiles or furniture, but perhaps we will be working with vats of molecules that will eventually be stored in someone’s medicine cabinet.”

Safrit adds, “While there is considerable science behind what is produced, the majority of people don’t need a Ph.D. in microbiology or genetic engineering to work on this campus. But, again, you do need a high school degree.”

To this end, the design of the North Carolina Research Campus also includes facilities for the North Carolina Community College System, heavily tailored to assist in retraining laid off textile workers.

Admittedly, it takes a paradigm shift to absorb all of this.

Explains Broad, “We need to be sure we are straining to get every ounce of potential out of this campus. We tend to look at job creation models through a manufacturing lens because we know that process; it is comfortable and familiar. We are still learning how to tell the story of a biotech research model.”

She concludes, “The most important thing is that people realize that the jobs come downstream. First comes research, then products, then companies, then company jobs, and then support jobs. But the days of scouting for the next giant manufacturing buffalo are gone – that species is sadly, but irretrievably, about extinct.”

 

Weighing In

Reticence on the part of mill workers to head back to school is not the only grumbling to be heard about the North Carolina Research Campus. The project also has its share of cynics and naysayers who question everything from Murdock’s motives (“Is this a ploy to get taxpayers to fund Dole’s research?”) to whether the ‘build it and they will come’ mentality is an expensive crapshoot.

Still others take issue with the appropriation of the state’s coffers. University of North Carolina officials have reportedly stated their intent to request a one-time appropriation of $16 million for equipment and build out, and $25 million in annual operating grants. Kannapolis and Cabarrus County are said likely to issue more than one self-financing bond, the first of which will be $7 million dollars for a parking deck. One report also says Governor Easley has offered assurances that N.C. 3, the state road heading into the campus, will be widened.

Yet advocates contend that Murdock continues to prove his commitment in words and deeds. In 10 or 11 months he will have completed building a new vegetable processing plant in Gaston County that was initially targeted for Tennessee; he is presently in discussions to locate a frozen fruit facility here; and so far he has brought a lot of money and purpose to an area that is pretty desperate.

Former University of North Carolina at Charlotte Chancellor James Woodward shares his thoughts on the debate: “When I had the opportunity to discuss the campus with Mr. Murdock early on, a few things became very clear. First, was that this project is motivated by both Mr. Murdock’s business interests and personal passion. Secondly, he immediately recognized that it was a very positive opportunity for all parties involved. Thirdly, he is devoting a considerable amount of his personal attention to it. So, I am sure, like all of his good ideas, this one will be followed through optimally.”

 

Auld Lang Syne

For the time being, demolition continues in the large spaces between the railroad tracks and Dale Earnhardt Boulevard. Safrit admits a twinge of nostalgia as the bricks tumble down, but adds that that feeling is quickly replaced by an overwhelming feeling of a new beginning.

She recalls, “I think my friend, (Congressman) Robin Hayes, put it very well when he said he thinks his granddad is smiling down at what we are doing today. ‘It’s about the people,’ Robin said, ‘That’s what my granddad worked for and that’s what we are working for now.’”

Says Murdock, betraying a hint of his businessman’s cool and a certain pluckiness, “I don’t have any compunction about tearing those old buildings down. They’re tired and empty and would have amounted to little more than six million square feet of rats’ nest that someone would eventually demand to have removed. Now we can take that space and build a beautiful, landscaped area with parks and playgrounds and everything you can imagine to provide a wonderful quality of life.”

The general consensus appears to be that Murdock’s vision, investment and commitment are providing the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket. But UNCC Vice Chancellor Lorden will go one better, “This is like a lottery that just keeps on paying out. The North Carolina Research Campus can continue seeding itself and deliver rewards for decades and decades to come.”

Concludes the perennially healthy and notoriously fit 82-year-old Murdock, “Well I hope to be around for decades and decades myself, because I couldn’t agree more…” One can’t help but think of the paying it forward similarities between this man’s good deed and the extent to which it is precipitating a multitude of positive impacts.

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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