Pillowtex 10 years later: N.C. Research Campus behind schedule but picking up steam

A file aerial photograph of construction at the NC Research Campus in Kannapolis in 2008.
A file aerial photograph of construction at the NC Research Campus in Kannapolis in 2008.

KANNAPOLIS — Although some people suspected it, the news still came as a shock.

Ten years ago today, 4,300 stunned area residents learned they had lost their jobs in the largest single-day layoff in North Carolina history and the biggest textile shutdown in the nation’s history.


On July 30, 2003, Pillowtex Corp. announced it would cease operations after a failed post-bankruptcy reorganization.

In a single, swift announcement, the towel-and-sheet textiles maker eliminated 7,650 jobs at its North American factories and warehouses, including nearly 5,000 jobs in North Carolina. Rowan County lost two mills and more than 700 jobs. Concord lost a mill and 600 jobs.

Kannapolis lost more than 1,500 jobs as a way of life ended in what was once the largest unincorporated city in the United States. In one day, the town built around the textile mill founded as Cannon Mills in 1905 by J.W. Cannon lost its biggest employer, taxpayer and water consumer.

Some compared the plant closure to the aftermath of a natural disaster. Local and state government officials scrambled to help thousands of people, many without even a high school diploma, find other jobs or retraining, maintain health insurance, keep their homes and put food on the table.

“It was surreal,” City Manager Mike Legg said. “It was like the community that we were living in just immediately changed.”

Dramatic changes

The change was dramatic and sudden.

“We’d heard rumblings of things happening, but I don’t think anybody dreamed it would be that fast,” Legg said. “It was jaw-dropping. How could that happen?”

Pillowtex officials said cheap foreign goods flooding the United States market ultimately spelled the company’s undoing. Then-Gov. Mike Easley blamed “destructive federal trade policies” for the slow demise of textiles.

The shutdown left Rowan and Cabarrus counties with a network of mammoth, shuttered mills, most notably the sprawling Plant One in the heart of Kannapolis. While the community spent much of the first year after the closure dealing with the devastation and social impact of mass unemployment, city officials began turning their attention to the empty mill.

“All we could think of was grass and weeds growing up, decay and fires,” Legg said. “What do we do with this massive, massive piece of property in our downtown?”

In late 2004, David Murdock, a California billionaire familiar to Kannapolis residents, attended an auction in New York and bought the abandoned Plant One for $6.4 million. Murdock, a real estate mogul and owner of Dole Food Co., had owned Cannon Mills for four years in the 1980s and still owns most of downtown Kannapolis, then called Cannon Village.

In September 2005, Murdock announced an ambitious plan to demolish Plant One and build in its place a $1.5 billion biotechnology hub called the N.C. Research Campus. His vision included dozens of university and private partners working in buildings covering the 350-acre campus to find scientific breakthroughs in health, nutrition and agriculture.

Built by his real estate development firm Castle & Cooke, the biotech hub was supposed to host 5,000 scientists by 2010, with thousands of other jobs created by the demand for services like restaurants and drug stores. Murdock said he wanted to put Kannapolis residents back to work and find a cure for cancer.

Today, 10 years after the demise of Pillowtex and five years after Murdock broke ground on his “biopolis,” the campus has struggled to meet expectations and make a connection with the community. The recession derailed numerous construction and scientific endeavors planned for the campus, and Murdock continues to have to pump money into the project — more than $600 million so far — recently infusing his nonprofit research institute with an additional $50 million.

Recession setbacks

The recession pushed back completion of the campus by an undetermined number of years.

“I wish I knew,” said Lynne Scott Safrit, president of Castle & Cooke North Carolina, who maintains that Murdock’s vision will come to fruition someday.

About 600 people now work on the campus, including the employees at the new Cabarrus Health Alliance across Dale Earnhardt Boulevard. Developers estimate that about half live in Cabarrus and Rowan counties, and the rest live elsewhere. 

Before the recession, 17 companies either had offices in Kannapolis or were planning to set up shop. Some never arrived and others departed, including high-profile pullouts by PepsiCo and PPD, a Wilmington-based contract research organization that left due to the slow pace of development. Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute left the campus in 2010.

Companies like biotech innovator Anatomics and software developer Red Hat that signed on early as campus partners are no longer listed on the campus website.

Six corporations are currently affiliated with the campus: General Mills, Dole, Monsanto, Sensory Spectrum, Lab Corp and Data Chambers, a North State Communications company based in Winston-Salem that specializes in information technology services and recently announced plans to move into a 50,000 square-foot data center Castle & Cooke will build on campus.

The campus also includes researchers from eight universities, a branch of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, Cabarrus Health Alliance, Carolinas Healthcare System and the David H. Murdock Research Institute, which owns and operates the dome-topped Core Laboratory Building housing some of the most advanced life sciences equipment in the world.

Despite the setbacks, Murdock remains committed to the campus and visits about once every other month, Safrit said. He still owns a home near Kannapolis dubbed Pity Sake Lodge and at age 90, shows no signs of slowing down his recruitment efforts for the campus, she said.

New momentum

Safrit herself maintains a sunny optimism about the project and said she senses a new momentum, pointing to several recent developments including the soft opening Monday of the Medical Plaza, the fifth building on campus. Carolinas Healthcare System is leasing 60 percent of the facility, and Safrit said she has strong prospects for the remaining space.

Castle & Cooke plans to break ground soon on the Data Chambers building, and Murdock has donated land to the city of Kannapolis, which plans to build a $28 million, 100,000-square-foot government center to house city hall and the Kannapolis Police Department on campus.

“There is definitely a lot of momentum right now,” Safrit said. “A lot of things are happening that weren’t happening when the recession was forced upon us. I will definitely say that we’re in a building mode.”

Safrit said she’s talking to Charlotte developers about building a hotel on the campus, lured by the city’s plan to include meeting space for up to 300 people in the government center. Castle & Cooke in the past six months has changed to a strategy of building speculative lab space on the third floor of the Core Lab and has signed several leases with undisclosed tenants, Safrit said.

Only seven luxury homes have sold in Irish Creek, Castle & Cooke’s golf course community established five years ago. But more moderately priced townhomes at the new Irish Glen attracted a crowd at a recent open house. One unit sold, and developers have solid leads on the remaining four units with plans to construct more, Safrit said.

Castle & Cooke has revived a plan to build multi-family housing on the former Plant Four site, and Safrit said she’s negotiating with a North Carolina developer known for similar projects across the state.

Safrit, who with N.C. Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (R-Cabarrus County) helped Murdock come up with the vision for the research campus, said the endeavor is still considered a “start-up.”

“We will definitely look back on this time as the infancy of a great project, a great idea, a great collaboration,” she said. “… With the universities and companies that we have in place, it can’t help but succeed.”

Breaking down silos

Collaboration — a key word used by supporters when describing the campus — hasn’t happened as easily as many had hoped. Universities are accustomed to defending their turf, and scientific developments by private companies are often proprietary.

“There are so many silos,” said Michael Todd, executive director of the N.C. Research Campus. “But we are working to break those down.”

Advocates point to the largest collaboration on campus to date, the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project, or P2EP, as a model for the future.

It’s a groundbreaking $1.5 million program that engages college students from across North Carolina in a first-of-its-kind education and research endeavor.

The program teams university scientists, industry leaders and college students, who together will explore plant pathways to answer why and how plants like fruits and vegetables benefit human health. Project sponsors include Catawba College, Dole, General Mills, the Cabarrus Economic Development Corporation, Duke Energy Foundation, the Murdock Research Institute and several universities.

“This shows the power of the research campus,” Todd said. “It’s what we were built to do.”

Todd, who is the first to fill the new executive director role created by UNC General Administration last year, said the biggest challenge for the N.C. Research Campus is “telling our story.”

“It’s not necessarily funding, it’s not research. Those things will continue to fall into place over time,” he said. “It’s conveying the campus mission.”

The N.C. General Assembly has maintained annual funding of $23.5 million, and campus researchers regularly make headlines with stories about discoveries like the cancer-fighting potential of ginger and the memory-boosting qualities of blueberries.

“I know people are looking at bricks and mortar as signs of progress,” spokeswoman Jennifer Woodford said. “The reality is the science here is advancing at a breakneck pace.”

Unique in focus

Among biotech hubs across the globe, the research campus is unique in its focus on the intersection of health, nutrition and agriculture. Researchers are trying to improve human health by understanding how plants work, creating healthier foods, uncovering the causes of disease and ultimately, finding ways to keep people from developing devastating conditions like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

“We’re hoping those developments become valued by the community over time, along with the tangible progress,” Woodford said.

While the campus has improved communication and marketing with a more user-friendly website, several online newsletters, email blasts and a stronger social media presence, Kannapolis still lacks a connection to the huge, stately buildings and well-manicured grounds.

Mystery and aloofness seem to surround the campus, a reputation advocates are working hard to dismantle.

“The newness has worn off, and it’s just an ingrained as part of the community,” Legg said. “But people are not connected to it yet.”

The campus needs to do a better job helping the community understand what’s going on inside the walls, he said.

“It’s not just a real estate deal anymore,” Legg said. “It’s a phenomenal research center, but I don’t think people have latched onto that yet. It’s no longer David Murdock doing real estate, it’s much more complex.”

The complexity can make it tough to communicate what exactly scientists, research assistants and lab technicians are doing and why it’s important. Many of the scientific methods practiced at the campus, such as genomics, proteomics and metabolomics, are hard to pronounce, much less understand.

While the campus is known by one name, it’s actually not one entity but fragmented groups with different initiatives, leaders, funding sources and goals.

Some of the backlash against the campus came because Murdock’s vision was so grand, Legg said.

After the Pillowtex shutdown, Murdock’s decision to spend $60 million tearing down the abandoned mill was itself a gift to the community, something no other private company would have done and the city could not afford, Legg said. But some people have been disappointed because the campus hasn’t grown as promised.

“The bar was set so high, now it sort of looks like it’s unfinished,” Legg said. “We’ve had to recalibrate our expectations.”

The Medical Plaza and city government building will bring more people to the campus, and they will become increasingly connected and feel a sense of pride, Safrit said.

“I still have people ask me, ‘Are there people working in those buildings?’” she said.

The campus already offers many opportunities to get involved, including dozens of research studies like Duke University’s MURDOCK Study that need residents as subjects. Many of the trials pay a stipend, like a recent endurance athlete study at the Appalachian State University Human Performance Lab.

“There are opportunities for people to connect,” Safrit said. “But people have to take that first step.”

New generation

Ryan Dayvault’s great-great-grandfather, Paul Dayvault, sold 72 acres of farmland to J.W. Cannon for $1,200 in 1905. It became Cannon Mills, then Pillowtex and eventually the N.C. Research Campus.

Dayvault, 27, works at the campus. From the balcony outside his second-story office at the UNC Nutrition Research Institute, Dayvault can look out over his ancestors’ land, which went from cornfield to Town Lake to Core Lab.

A new city councilman, Dayvault says he’s playing a role in what he calls the rebirth of Kannapolis. And he believes the revitalization of downtown Kannapolis is crucial to the success of the research campus.

The city and groups like the newly formed Downtown Kannapolis Inc. are working with Murdock’s property management firm Atlantic American Properties to bring new life to the former village.

The village saw a 30 percent increase in new businesses over the previous year, according to Atlantic American Properties. Cross Fit gym recently signed a lease, as well as several offices. But retailers have mostly pulled out, and there are few places to eat and drink other than Murdock’s Restaurant 46.

Dayvault and others want to bring downtown Kannapolis back to life, which he said will alleviate negative feelings about the campus and restore the sense of community that Kannapolis had when it was a mill town.

Kannapolis, Dayvault said, is on a 100-year cycle. The mill was founded in 1905, and the research campus in 2005. The first towel was produced at Cannon Mills in 1908, and the campus opened in 2008.

Dayvault sees others parallels as well, including the skepticism both Cannon and Murdock met when they launched their respective ventures.

For some, it’s been hard to let go of the past, Dayvault said.

“Whatever people think about what was here then, we have to face the reality that this is here now, and we as a city have to embrace this as our biggest economic driver,” he said.

It will take many years for the campus to reach the employment numbers predicted before the recession, he said. Regardless, Kannapolis has eight universities, a community college and numerous private companies in its downtown.

Drive through any North Carolina town with a shuttered textile mill and ask if they’d like to trade, Dayvault said.

“We are so much farther ahead than we would have been without the research campus,” he said. “Most cities would absolutely fall all over themselves to have this.”

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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