KANNAPOLIS, NC (AP) California billionaire David Murdock returned triumphantly to this one-time textile mill village, unveiling plans for a 350-acre research campus that will anchor the state’s effort to become a major player in biotechnology.
Two decades ago, Murdock — owner of Dole Food Co. and developer Castle & Cooke — owned Cannon Mills, the giant textile firm at the heart of this city 30 miles north of Charlotte. But after numerous sales and corporate makeovers, Cannon’s successor firm, Pillowtex, went bankrupt and closed for good two years ago. Some 4,800 people lost jobs, the largest mass layoff in state history.
Late last year, Murdock purchased the 250-acre site of Cannon Mills’ former Plant No. 1 at a bankruptcy auction. He was greeted with a standing ovation Sept. 12 as he announced plans to build the North Carolina Research Campus on the site in the center of the city’s downtown.
“For myself ... this is the most exciting day, I’d have to say, of my life,” Murdock said.
Murdock said the research campus is an investment in the future of biotechnology that can improve nutrition.
“I believe that through the facilities we are building here, we will be able to control those atrocious diseases that kill so many,” including diabetes and heart disease, Murdock said.
Among highlights of the project:
• The University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University will operate research facilities on the site and Murdock said he expects Duke University also to have a presence.
• A venture capital fund of $100 million, underwritten by Murdock, will finance startup biotechnology companies, with the infant companies using a state-of-the-art, 330,000-square-foot “core lab facility.”
• A state community college system center will retrain workers for biotechnology jobs.
• A math-and-science academy will be set up to attract top female high school students.
• A plaza will be at the center of the campus, with retail shops, apartments, a multiplex movie theater and a Dole Foods organic cafe.
Some locals still view Murdock’s 1980s ownership of Cannon Mills as part of the long decline and fall of that once-powerful company. Republican U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes — a descendant of the Cannon family — said he is taking a wait-and-see approach to the project.
“I’m still a little dubious,” Hayes said. “Obviously, you’re aware of history and there has been some disappointment.”
Hayes addressed Murdock directly when he spoke during the ceremony.
“Mr. Murdock, thank you for your vision,” Hayes said. “I ask only for your best. ... We’re here as your teammates to make sure those investments pay dividends.”
Murdock blamed any past hard feelings on battles with Cannon Mills’ unions.
“I fought the union, and I beat the union pretty badly and they didn’t like that,” he said.
Murdock is committing nearly $1 billion to the project, said Lynne Scott Safrit, who is overseeing the effort for Castle & Cooke. Safrit said project officials will seek state and federal grants to help demolish and clean up the Pillowtex plant sites.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-NC, said the proposed center is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to remake the economy of a region that has seen huge job losses as traditional manufacturing has declined.
The project “is an example of resourcefully using the very things that have made this state great — our factory towns, our universities and our workers — to remake this state and make it greater.”
And University of North Carolina president Molly Corbett Broad said the research campus will be a national model for partnerships between academia, government and business.
Murdock plans to break ground on the first building by the end of the year; Safrit said construction should be complete by 2010.