NCRC: Research Campus ready for the reveal
By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLISóFor almost the first time this year, Tom Sanctis had the weekend off.
Other than one three-day break, Sanctis has worked seven days a week overseeing commercial construction at the N.C. Research Campus.
“I’m not complaining,” Sanctis said last week as he prepared for vacation. “That’s the price of the ticket.”
Hundreds of people have worked just as hard since billionaire Dole Food Co. owner David Murdock announced three years ago his intention to develop a life sciences complex in downtown Kannapolis.
Murdock’s vision of a scientific community fighting disease by improving nutrition, modernizing medicine and creating super foods has been an inspiration, Sanctis said.
“I think it’s the goal that has motivated people,” he said. “It’s working for the common good.”
Three buildings on the $1.5 billion, 350-acre campus officially open at 10 a.m. Monday with a dedication and open house, including the final public tours of the Core Lab.
Phyllis Beaver has planned much of the day-long event.
In her office Wednesday, with her phone ringing incessantly, Beaver held up a piece of paper with dozens of tiny squares arranged in uniform rows.
“Doesn’t this look like a biomarker or a segment of genetic material?” said Beaver, the marketing director for campus developer Castle & Cooke North Carolina. “It’s actually the seating chart.”
Dozens of elected officials, corporate executives and local and state dignitaries will crowd the stage at the event. More than a few have vied for time at the microphone.
But Monday is dedicated to the universities, Beaver said. All speakers will represent the eight universities that have a presence in Kannapolis.
University researchers will use state-of-the-art equipment at the Research Campus to understand disease, nutrition and food on a genetic level. Their work should result in new drugs, new crops and new business.
Some observers have said discoveries made in Kannapolis could change the way doctors practice medicine.Change the way people eat. Even end world hunger.
Murdock’s audacious plan to turn an abandoned textile mill into a world-class biotechnology hub was met with skepticism.
“This was declared an impossibility by a lot of people,” Beaver said.
While the massive brick structures stand ready for science to begin in earnest, the project has hit some bumps along the way.
Murdock asked local governments to underwrite $168.4 million in controversial bonds to pay for infrastructure improvements around the campus. Critics called it a handout.
It took months to iron out the agreement between Cabarrus County commissioners and the Kannapolis city council members on the self-financing bonds.
Then, last month, the city had to delay the sale of the bonds due to the poor economy.
The Core Lab has gone through a series of potential managers, including RTI and Duke University. Then the David H. Murdock Research Institute, which owns and operates the building, decided to manage the Core Lab itself.
Although it opens Monday, the crown jewel of the campus still has no chief executive officer. Leaders had hoped to have hired someone in time for the ceremony, but Dr. Steve Leath, president of the Murdock Research Institute, said they are “nowhere near that.”
The institute recently hired Dr. Steven Colman as the Core Lab’s chief operating officer.
The 311,000-square-foot Core Lab Building could have been up and running months ago if developers hadn’t made so many changes.
“We could’ve been finished with the project,” said Mike Heilig, president of Gamewell Mechanical in Salisbury, which installed the ventilation and more. “It slowed down the progress of the job, but there was a good reason for the changes.”
For example, developers went from a small, first-floor vivarium that housed 5,000 rodents to one that encompasses nearly the entire basement and will house 48,000 rodents.
“It’s one of the largest vivariums anywhere,” Heilig said. “That’s obviously a good thing.”
General contractor Turner Construction and subcontractors like Gamewell had to remain flexible to accommodate Murdock’s changes, Heilig said.
But he didn’t mind.
“It’s been a great job,” he said. “We know we work for a strong client, a client who pretty much gets what he wants.”
Murdock is expected to spend nearly $1 billion of his personal fortune on the project, which he considers his legacy.
Sanctis acknowledged the many changes in design and construction at the Core Lab.
“The changes that were made were very extensive and laborious,” he said. “The team remained very focused …. We rolled up our sleeves and got it done.”
Parts of the building remain unfinished so that future clients who lease space can determine final specifications.
Murdock is counting on the Core Lab to generate some revenue, including tenants leasing space and universities renting time on instruments.
Nothing like it
The N.C. Research Campus has been called the ultimate public-private partnership, with participation from public entities like government and universities alongside Murdock and many private companies.
But it took another kind of partnership to pull it together, Sanctis said.
Turner Construction, Castle & Cooke, Narmour Wright Creech Architecture and Murdock, aided by Lynne Scott Safrit, have worked closely on the complicated project. The Core Lab in particular required teamwork, Sanctis said.
“It’s an extremely complex building,” he said. “There’s nothing like it in the world.”
After Monday’s ceremony, Sanctis and his team will get back to work constructing three more campus buildingsóthe Medical Office Building, a branch of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and a biorepository to store blood samples for Duke University’s MURDOCK Study.
A greenhouse for N.C. State will go up in 2009, and Duke will have its own building at some point. Murdock has said the campus could include 50 buildings by the time it’s done.
“This project has been extremely challenging but extremely rewarding,” Sanctis said.
Constructing prestigious hotels and office buildings can’t compare with the N.C. Research Campus, Sanctis said.
“None have the potential to positively affect mankind the way this project does,” he said. “It is a privilege to be a participant.”