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At the heart of the N.C. Research Campus

By Hugh Fisher

Kannapolis Citizen

At the center of the North Carolina Research Campus project is Lynne Scott Safrit, president of Castle & Cooke North Carolina and of Atlantic American Properties — and the woman who is billionaire investor David Murdock’s representative here.

She’s had a long history with the man whom many refer to as a visionary and with the various companies that have had an interest in Kannapolis. But even she is surprised by the speed with which the events she has helped to plan over the past year have come to pass.

“I’ve worked for Mr. Murdock for a lot of years,” Safrit said. “Every project he’s involved in, he does faster than ever was done before.

“I’m very excited to see how quickly it has changed,” Safrit said of the progress at the former textile mill, which barely a year ago was a complex of seemingly useless buildings — and which now is a construction site about to burst into a flurry of activity.

A large part of that excitement is due to her role as manager of the project. A lot of the planning that is being done to bring together businesses and educational institutions in downtown Kannapolis has been done by a person who was raised not far from here.

Safrit is a native of nearby Enochville.

“My parents, my two sisters and I have lived here all our lives,” she said.

And Safrit is also a product of two local schools which will ultimately have ties to the North Carolina Research Campus. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English, with minors in music and psychology, from Catawba College, then went on to earn a master’s degree in industrial counseling from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Safrit has managed to stay close to her roots, though she has traveled regularly across the U.S. in her work for Murdock’s companies.

“One of the most exciting things for me has been being able to do something really positive in the community where I grew up,” she said.

And, like thousands of others across the area, she was affected by the downturn of the textile industry in North Carolina during the last three decades.

She was working in the Cannon Mills personnel department when David Murdock bought the company in 1982.

Murdock put her to work on a number of projects, including dealings with labor unions and marketing for the downtown revitalization project that transformed the center of town into Cannon Village.

“I loved the renovation project,” said Safrit, who went back to school and became certified as a commercial Realtor and an investment manager.

“When Mr. Murdock sold the mill, I stayed with him and managed the properties he owned which had previously belonged to Cannon Mills,” Safrit said.

Murdock gained ownership of land and facilities not just in Kannapolis, but also in other parts of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

Today, Safrit is president of Murdock’s Atlantic American Properties, in addition to being president of Castle & Cooke North Carolina.

Twenty-four years after she first went to work for Murdock, Safrit is the billionaire’s chief representative in Kannapolis and the day-to-day manager of the North Carolina Research Campus project.

Even so, she speaks modestly of her role in the project.

“I’m just trying to realize Mr. Murdock’s dream,” she said. “I’m the person here on the ground who takes Mr. Murdock’s ideas and tries to carry them out.”

Matching that task with her other responsibilities has at times been difficult, Safrit said.

“It’s challenging, when you have a family and children, to be working all the time,” she said. “This is a big project. It takes a lot of time, a lot of sacrifice. But my family is very understanding.”

She said that even with frequent cross-country travel, meetings and a hectic schedule, she is able to make time for her family.

Her husband, Wally Safrit, is a partner in the law firm of Rutledge, Friday, Safrit and Smith in Kannapolis and is a lifelong resident of the city. They have a son, Wil, 13, and a daughter, Elizabeth, 14.

Safrit says her family is right at home in Kannapolis.

“They really appreciate the attributes of a small town,” she said. “And we’re excited about the changes that the Research Campus will bring as far as quality of life and new opportunities.”

As a close associate of Murdock, Safrit was one of the people who found out about the North Carolina Research Campus project in the earliest stages, while most people were still wondering what the fate of downtown Kannapolis might be.

“Mr. Murdock conceived the idea in January of last year,” Safrit said. “He’s one of those people who starts with a dream and then puts it together quickly. … It was just a matter of setting out to see that it got done.”

The concept of the Research Campus evolved and changed as 2005 went on, Safrit said. Murdock and his team coordinated details of the idea with representatives of state and federal governments and the state’s universities.

Keeping the secret in a town full of people worried about the future wasn’t an easy task, either.

“It was so exciting that you just couldn’t stand it,” Safrit said. “You could see people all around you who had lost jobs. You had this big plant standing there empty, with no jobs. And I could hardly wait for the day when we made that announcement and Mr. Murdock could share his vision with the public.”

But even after the news was out, there were hurdles to overcome. Safrit said the speed with which Murdock wants to see the changes in downtown Kannapolis has been staggering.

“It’s simply a matter of timing, of scheduling things to fall into place,” Safrit said. “It’s been a challenge to get the buildings torn down, to get the old infrastructure out and to design entirely new buildings. All of this keeps happening so quickly …

“There’s just been a great spirit of cooperation among the people who have worked on this project,” she said. “It’s just amazing to see the synergy among all the players and know how well this has worked.”

Looking to the months ahead, that spirit of cooperation will be needed to pull Kannapolis into the future.

The recent independent analysis of Kannapolis’ strengths and weaknesses by Market Street Research held very few surprises for Safrit. She said most of the areas identified as places where changes were needed had already been anticipated by planners with Castle & Cooke.

“I think we all knew early on that there were a lot of pieces to this puzzle,” Safrit said. “I was not exactly caught off-guard by these issues because we have to work together to provide the larger picture to those coming to Kannapolis.”

But all in all, Safrit is positive and hopeful that the plans she has helped put into motion under David Murdock’s direction will result in the bright future that the N.C. Research Campus’ planners have predicted.

“I’ve lived here all my life, and I think it’s a great community,” Safrit said. “And this is a wonderful time to take a good look at ourselves and say, ‘What do we want to be, and what do we need to do to get there?’ ”

Contact Hugh Fisher at 704-932-3336 or hfisher@kannapoliscitizen.com.

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