KANNAPOLIS — Tomatoes that don’t rot for a year; sunscreen made from watermelons; and super-cancer-fighting broccoli: These are but a few of the wonders on display at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis.
In 2003, the Pillowtex textile plant closed in Kannapolis, causing 4,000 people to lose their jobs in a single day. But today, the campus is dazzling, both architecturally and technologically. It consists of several grand, neoclassical buildings, complete with marble imported from India and set on sprawling, pristine acreage.
Billionaire David Murdock has invested a reported $600 million in the research campus, but he isn’t the only one funding it. The University of North Carolina system is paying more than $23 million annually to fund its activities at the campus.
Whether that investment is worth taxpayer money is a tough question.
Will Kannapolis take its place along with other attempts to use taxpayer money to resuscitate economically struggling areas — such as the Global TransPark in Kinston or the Randy Parton Theatre in Roanoke Rapids? Those have failed to deliver returns to taxpayers, with the TransPark scrambling to find revenue-producing tenants and the Parton facility folding amid scandal.
Or will the research campus prove to be a productive asset for the state and for the city of Kannapolis?
The campus has a lot going for it. Opened in 2008, the development of the campus was spearheaded by Murdock, CEO of Dole Foods and Castle & Cooke Inc., a real estate holding company.
Murdock had owned the Cannon Mills plant that eventually became Pillowtex but sold it in 1997. He still owned some property nearby, and in 2005 he and state leaders announced plans to build the North Carolina Research Campus.
Murdock provided initial funding and the UNC system began a 20-year agreement in which it eventually would own the two buildings (built by Murdock) that its scientists use. Cabarrus County and the city of Kannapolis also contributed, issuing $35 million in debt in December 2010. The bonds have paid for infrastructure around campus.
Scientists from eight universities — UNC-Chapel Hill, Appalachian State University, N.C. A&T State University, N.C. State University, N.C. Central University, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Greensboro, and Duke University — work at the campus. Research focuses mostly on “nutraceuticals,” foods that are designed to make people healthier, a subject of great interest to Murdock. With the exception of the researchers from Duke and Appalachian State, researchers are paid by the UNC General Administration. Duke researchers are funded by a gift from Murdock, and Appalachian State faculty are funded by their home university.
The campus has produced some interesting findings. Among them are a way to use X-rays and MRIs to predict the progression of arthritis, the use of ginger as a potential treatment for the anemia caused by chemotherapy or renal disease, and the discovery that 45 minutes of vigorous exercise results in an average of an extra 190 calories burned over the 14 hours following exercise.
These potentially are important discoveries, but couldn’t the scientists make those discoveries at their home universities, and are these discoveries really worthwhile?
Mike Todd, the executive director of the NCRC (an employee of UNC General Administration), says that UNC “gets a tremendous bang for [the] buck.” The proximity of researchers to one another facilitates the sharing of ideas, and there is an abundance of high-tech equipment, such as the Western hemisphere’s largest nuclear magnetic resonance machine.
To date, though, the taxpayers have seen little return on their investment. Starting a biotechnology hub from scratch entails much financial risk with no guarantee of positive returns. A number of community-funded start-ups have not had much success, and “nutraceuticals” is a highly specialized part of biotechnology.
The campus has been in operation for roughly five years, and so far there are no spinoff businesses and no royalties being collected. Or in any case, none that any NCRC representatives would discuss, although a UNC-Chapel Hill scientist mentioned that research from scientists based at the Kannapolis campus have applied for two patents, one of which has been licensed so far.
And although some jobs have been created by the campus, the positions tend to be for highly trained specialists who are not from the area. According to the UNC-Chapel Hill scientist, however, for each Ph.D. hired, the campus has generated between five and eight ancillary jobs. Mike Todd estimates that between 300 and 400 people from Kannapolis have jobs on the site.
Duke Cheston is a writer for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (popecenter.org).