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David Murdock making believers of doubters

By Emily Ford
Salisbury PostKANNAPOLIS ó When he first learned of David Murdock’s intention to establish a world-class research campus in Kannapolis, Dr. Fred Eshelman admits he was incredulous.
Murdock couldn’t create a science economy in an area with no history in pharmacology or biotechnology, said Eshelman, founder of Pharmaceutical Product Development.
And Murdock certainly couldn’t convince rivals like Duke University, N.C. State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to collaborate, Eshelman said.
“I thought this was just another case of a man with more money than sense,” Eshelman said.
But meeting Murdock and seeing the N.C. Research Campus changed his mind.
Eshelman visited Kannapolis four times before signing a deal last week as the campus’ newest tenant, which was announced Wednesday.
The first time he arrived, “my jaw dropped,” he said.
The $1.5 billion 350-acre biotechnology center includes four mammoth buildings, with more on the way. The centerpiece Core Laboratory Building, a five-story brick structure topped by a copper dome, should open in May.
Announcing his company’s intent to locate here and employ up to 300 people in clinical research, Eshelman on Wednesday called the campus a “unique, complete and scientifically outstanding concept.”
Murdock told him as much when they first met and added that if Eshelman didn’t have the sense to recognize it, then “get out of the way because there’s another guy right behind you,” Eshelman said.
But there have been many skeptics.
“Quite candidly, nobody believed it,” said N.C. Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, remembering Murdock’s announcement in 2005. “Nobody.”
At first, Hartsell and Lynne Scott Safrit, president of campus developer Castle & Cooke North Carolina, dubbed the Research Campus “project phoenix,” a reference to a phoenix rising from a fire.
The campus stands on the ruins of an old textile mill that Murdock once owned in the 1980s.
Hartsell, who helped convince Murdock to buy back the abandoned mill in 2004, was an early supporter of the Research Campus.
Kannapolis, which means “city of looms,” is quickly becoming a city of biotechnology.
But the old name still fits, Hartsell said.
“They are weaving together their future,” he said. “It is still a city of looms in another way.”
Murdock said there eventually will be 50 buildings on the campus and 10 universities.
Seven universities have a presence in Kannapolis, including six schools in the UNC System and Duke.
Campus leaders are in discussions with many others, said Clyde Higgs, vice president of business development for Castle & Cooke, who agreed that the total number will reach 10.
He named Davidson College, Elon University and Appalachian State University as potential partners. Some out-of-state private schools also have shown interest, he said.
Murdock hinted at future business partners and said some were in the large audience at Wednesday’s press conference.
“Get busy and make up your minds,” he said. “I’ve been pushing and pushing.”
Murdock, a California billionaire who made his fortune in real estate development but calls health and nutrition his passion, pledged his commitment to revitalizing the mill town.
“I love Kannapolis and I love North Carolina,” Murdock said. “A lot of jobs are going to be created. This is just the beginning.”
Contact Emily Ford at eford@salisburypost.com.

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