A New UNC Campus - In Kannapolis!

Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday October 08, 2005

Last month's announcement of a new research campus in Kannapolis places UNC's Carolina North project in a new light. It also vindicates ideas promoted by Chapel Hillians over the past decade.

As described in Carolina Newswire on September 12, billionaire David H. Murdock, owner of Dole Food Company, and UNC System President Molly Broad unveiled plans for the North Carolina Research Campus, a massive scientific and economic revitalization project that encompasses the former Cannon Mills plant and entire downtown area of Kannapolis. They were joined by Mike Easley, Elizabeth Dole, Richard Burr, Robin Hayes, Marc Basnight, James Black, and a host of other officials.

Broad observed, "We cannot overstate the significance of the University's embarking - in partnership with Dole and David Murdock - on a project of this magnitude, scale, and potential. This initiative advances our three-part mission of teaching, research, and public service - and in the process gives new meaning to the terms 'collaborative' and 'multi-disciplinary.'

“It underscores our commitment to foster statewide economic development and technology transfer - and demonstrates a new level of our commitment to serve the needs of the entire state. This project will serve as a national model for what can happen when private enterprise, higher education, and state government partner to affect positive change for the future."

As well as facilities connected to NCSU, UNC-Charlotte, and other campuses, the project will host UNC-CH's Institute for Excellence in Nutrition, which will explore the relationship between nutrition and the brain, obesity, and cancer. The Center will research the causes of cancer and the related genetic, biological, and behavioral mechanisms.

Researchers will collaborate with NCSU and other institutions to translate research into practice, with the goal of promoting better nutrition throughout the state and nation. Community-based interventions, population cohort studies, and clinical research on treatment and prevention also would be undertaken. The facility will encompass some 120,000 square feet.

This development confirms the perspective articulated by some Chapel Hillians over the past decade. At the 1995 town council planning retreat, Joyce Brown questioned the presumption that major UNC expansion should take place in Chapel Hill. She suggested that the state should take a hard look at the appropriate location for major facilities.

I echoed these sentiments in my November 15, 2003 column: “A statewide vision of education that addressed our changing economic climate would place both educational and economic development resources in the more depressed areas of the state. Rather than encourage public-private spin-offs in one of the richest areas of the state, let's spread the wealth around. And let's beef up educational and training opportunities for those North Carolinians who need it most.”

Not everyone was convinced. Only four days later, the Herald editorialized that “even the advocates of such a strategy have to acknowledge that it's a high-risk play. The advantages that already exist here are unique in North Carolina.”

It is unlikely that Chancellor Moeser was thinking of this local debate last month when he said of the Kannapolis project "we have an opportunity to reach out to a region of the state particularly hard-hit by global competition for manufacturing and agriculture. We want to leverage our considerable research strengths… creating jobs and improving the lives of all North Carolinians… to make this another example of how our interdisciplinary approach to problems can pay dividends for the state's citizens."

The irony in this development is that, while the perspective of locals is all too easily dismissed as NIMBYism, those NIMBYs in their zeal to get the best results in their back yard often find important kernels of truth. Thus, for example, the residents of Lake Hogan Farms challenged the Winmore proposal and, although Winmore was approved, so were improvements to Carrboro's stream buffer ordinance.

Similarly, there are few places in the state where citizens think as much about the future of UNC as in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. From time to time we do indeed come up with a good idea.

On the other hand, while it may take a village to develop certain insights, let's hope it doesn't always require a billionaire to get a project like the North Carolina Research Campus going. Kannapolis City Manager Mike Legg said "to have a billionaire interested in your city is a wonderful thing." It certainly is for a town like Kannapolis where the decades-long dominant employer recently closed its doors.

Kudos to Murdock, Broad and the other leaders who have nurtured this project. Let's just hope that, before Carolina North is pushed through at its proposed scale, other economically troubled areas of the state are given due consideration, with or without the help of billionaires.



Hmmmm ... Dan supporting corporate/university collaboration? Not very consistent with his world view, but I guess this is an indicator of how he ranks his priorities.

On first impression, I think the NC Research Center partly squares with the main point of the Herald editorial Dan cites:

What's striking is that without exception, the universities most everyone would agree are among the best all lie in or adjacent to major urban areas, near other high-caliber universities. You don't find the leaders off by themselves in out-of-the-way places like Cullowhee and Pembroke.

Why is that? Arguably, it's because learning and research are the products of social interaction. In an urban area, it's easier to bring together talent, and easier to meet potential collaborators.

Kannapolis, despite its mill-town past, is hardly an out-of-the-way place. It's just off I-85 and quite recognizably part of the urbanizing area around Charlotte. That's critical. If this project was off in a truly rural area, it would have no chance of success. (For an explanation as to why, see the Jane Jacobs book, "Cities and the Wealth of Nations.") By contrast, I've always understood Joyce Brown's argument, and Dan's, as having embedded in it a call for rural investment. The Charlotte area is already "one of the richest areas of the state," not one of the most downtrodden.

I'd note that this project underscores the relative strength of UNC-CH compared to other campuses in the UNC system. The closest campus to this project, UNC Charlotte, has only a bit part. (For details, see the second of two press releases announcing the effort.)

This is quite clearly a large project -- 350 acres, about 1 million square feet of research space, 700 homes. And yet, I don't see Moeser conceding that there's no longer a need to go ahead with Carolina North. The subtext here is that there's a fairly significant, pent-up demand for research collaborations that's being retarded by infrastructure constraints.

Perhaps Ray missed this from my column:

It underscores our commitment to foster statewide economic development and technology transfer - and demonstrates a new level of our commitment to serve the needs of the entire state.

Note the phrases "statewide economic development" and "needs of the entire state." Those are Molly Broad's words not mine.

While Ray says UNC-Charlotte will have only a bitpart, UNC-Charlotte sees itself with a larger role than is reported here in the Triangle

disclosure: my son is a senior at UNC-Charlotte so I read the Charlotte papers and UNC-C website quite a bit.

Also, the location of UNC-Charlotte is only about 2 miles from Cabarrus County, the UNC-C campus is 8 miles northeast of downtown Charlotte.

Gerry, I'd actually read the UNCC press release. I'm an alum of that school (BA poli sci, '84) in addition to being an alum of UNC (MA journalism, '94). I stand by the "bit part" assessment, for now. UNCC's bioinformatics program has promise but I don't think it yet stands on par with UNC's. The main effort at the NC Research Center I read as being the two institutes supported by UNC and NCSU.

A sobering follow-up on this issue from Chris Fitzsimon of NC Policy Watch:

Murdock says he plans to invest $700 million in the project and establish a venture capital fund of another $100 million that he hopes will help attract 100 companies to the area. He plans to build housing and retail space, and a science and math high school for girls.

He also is planning on quite a bit of financial support from the state and local government. The total is unclear, but part of the announcement included plans for the UNC system to provide $16 million for equipment and $25 million a year for research activities.

Now that the dust from the announcement has cleared and the glowing tributes to Murdock have stopped, or least slowed down, it might be time to ask some questions about the future biopolis and its founder.

The most obvious question is did Black and Basnight promise Murdock the state would give him $41 million next year and $25 million a year after that? If so, for how many years? Do Black and Basnight have any details of how the money will be spent or where it come from?

Officials from UNC and Governor Easley's office have been meeting with Murdock and his staff but Easley's office has refused to provide information about what pledges were made to Murdock about the project. Shouldn't we be entitled to know how much of our money was promised?

Ray Gronberg will appreciate the first question here:

There are plenty of other questions. Why would researchers leave UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, and N.C. State to move to Kannapolis? How many of the former Pillowtex workers will be qualified to work in Murdock's center? Why does a billionaire need $25 million a year from the state if he is so sure the project will make money? How does the project compare to other states' efforts to establish new centers of biotech research?


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