Legislators to talk biotechnology in '07

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 11, 2007

By Mark Wineka

Kannapolis Citizen

Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Concord, says the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis has been well received in Raleigh, especially when the state’s political and educational leaders see what’s happening in person.

“You really can’t appreciate what’s going on without seeing the site,” says Hartsell, who has been the campus’ point man in the General Assembly.

“And it helps to know what was there before.”

Hartsell and the rest of the legislative delegation in Cabarrus and Rowan counties have had “many, many communications” and meetings with their colleagues about the campus, Hartsell says.

“And there will be more,” he promises.

The local legislators have found themselves almost in a lobbyists’ role, routinely describing what the project is and what the economic and social impacts could be regionally and statewide.

Hartsell has even had committee hearings on the site.

“I think they (fellow legislators) see the ultimate benefit,” Hartsell says.

The impact will not just be new buildings in Kannapolis, he adds, predicting that research on the campus could lead to better fruit and vegetable crops across the state or breakthroughs in nutrition.

Hartsell says legislators from elsewhere also have taken note of David Murdock’s commitment to a new Dole Foods operation in Gaston County and his personal financial commitment in Kannapolis, where he envisions a $1.4 billion, 350-acre biotech center on the former Pillowtex (Cannon Mills) site.

It also helped, Hartsell says, when Murdock addressed a joint meeting of the state Appropriations Committee.

The research campus will have a close relationship with the University of North Carolina system, including major partnerships with UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State and UNC-Charlotte. Duke University also will have a significant presence.

Construction continues on the 311,000-square-foot Core Lab, which will house labs and specialty equipment. It will be completed by the end of 2007.

This year also will see the start of construction of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute for Excellence in Nutrition and N.C. State University’s Institute for Advanced Fruit and Vegetable Science.

Duke University eventually will add a lab building aimed at taking basic scientific discoveries and translating them into practical medical solutions. UNC-Charlotte will be involved in bioinformatics — the intersection of computer science and biology to solve problems in genetics and other areas.

To date, the General Assembly has allocated roughly $9 million toward the campus project, Hartsell says. Of that, $2 million represents recurring money to the community college system, $6 million in recurring funds to the universities and $1 million in non-recurring funds to the universities.

Hartsell says an additional request of $26 million for the universities and community colleges will be coming this year in connection to the research campus. Most of that will be designated for university staffing of the facilities to come, with some money going toward rent for the new facilities.

According to a recently signed agreement between the UNC system and Murdock’s development company, Castle & Cooke, UNC and N.C. State will lease their buildings for 20 years. After that, the buildings will become state or university system property.

Rep. Fred Steen, R-Rowan, says UNC System President Erskine Bowles has been a strong supporter of the project, and he credits Bowles with being both objective and conscientious of taxpayer dollars when it comes to discussions about the campus.

Steen says he sees his job as educating other legislators about the project and making them aware that it could have a positive impact on the entire state.

“They can’t go by it every day and see how big the project is,” Steen says.

Besides the continuing work on the Core Lab, structural steel has been going up on the campus’ 24,000-square-foot, $25 million central energy plant. It’s across the closed portion of North Main Street from the Core Lab.

Steen says that’s a good sign.

“When you start seeing that go up,” Steen says, “you know they’re getting ready to put the juice to something.”

Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, says he’s a strong supporter of the project because Murdock has invested a lot of his own money toward making it a world-class project. The state should do what it can to help make it work, Brock says.

“I kind of see this as something where the research center will make the state better,” Brock says. North Carolina could become as big in scientific research as it is in banking, Brock predicts.

“It’s going to change the area,” he adds. “It’s going to be a phenomenal project when it’s completed.”

An aspect of the campus’ development that Brock likes is that it will provide jobs for many support positions — jobs that won’t require Ph.D.s.

Rep. Lorene Coates, D-Rowan, also has strongly supported the campus project. She says she believes it already is affecting the price of real estate in southern Rowan County, which is good for sellers and bad for buyers.

Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus, says she’s proud to be a part of the research campus’ development and is particularly thrilled about the solid jobs with benefits it could generate in the future.

“I’m real excited about that,” she says. “I can’t believe they’ve been able to stay on track. Most of the time when you do something, there’s always obstacles and changes … They’re moving along faster than I anticipated.”

Johnson said Hartsell, Rep. Jeff Barnhart, R-Cabarrus, and she have been working continually since Pillowtex closed in 2003 in first trying to help displaced workers, then working in support of Murdock’s vision.

“We did things one step at a time,” she says.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.