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As N.C. Research Campus Grows, So Does N.C. State's Role

Posted May 4, 2007
Updated May 7, 2007

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RALEIGH, N.C. - As construction of the buildings that will form the North Carolina Research Campus at Kannapolis moves forward, it is becoming clear that North Carolina State University will play a key role in the success of the venture.

That is the view of Dr. Steve Leath, who is coordinating the role NC State will play in the project. Leath is associate dean and director of the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The North Carolina Research Campus is, of course, the vision of David Murdock, the California billionaire who owns the Dole Food Co., as well as much of Kannapolis. Murdock envisions reshaping Kannapolis, a down-on-its-luck textile mill town, into a 21st century research center, where the focus will be vegetable and fruit improvement and food safety and nutrition. The city was the home first to Cannon Mills then to Pillowtex, both textile manufacturers that have closed their doors.

Murdock has formed a partnership with the University of North Carolina system, and he sees North Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and North Carolina Central University as well as institutions outside the system, such as Duke University, playing major roles in the development of the research campus.

As construction of the buildings that will form the North Carolina Research Campus at Kannapolis moves forward, it is becoming clear that North Carolina State University will play a key role in the success of the venture.

That is the view of Dr. Steve Leath, who is coordinating the role NC State will play in the project. Leath is associate dean and director of the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The North Carolina Research Campus is, of course, the vision of David Murdock, the California billionaire who owns the Dole Food Co., as well as much of Kannapolis. Murdock envisions reshaping Kannapolis, a down-on-its-luck textile mill town, into a 21st century research center, where the focus will be vegetable and fruit improvement and food safety and nutrition. The city was the home first to Cannon Mills then to Pillowtex, both textile manufacturers that have closed their doors.

Murdock has formed a partnership with the University of North Carolina system, and he sees North Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and North Carolina Central University as well as institutions outside the system, such as Duke University, playing major roles in the development of the research campus.

Leath said Murdock is putting from $1 billion to $1.5 billion into the project. The North Carolina General Assembly has been asked to provide $29 million annually, which will be used primarily to pay the salaries of faculty stationed at Kannapolis and to rent space in buildings there.

The Research Campus will be comprised of five principal buildings. A 311,000-square-foot Core Building, which should be completed late in 2007, will house Dole employees along with UNC-Charlotte faculty. Between 80,000 and 90,000 square feet of the Core Building will be devoted to a core laboratory, which Leath said will be the best of its kind in the world. A second 100,000-square-foot building will house N.C. State faculty members and Dole employees.

The N.C. State building is expected to be completed in the spring of 2008, although NC State will hire faculty to staff the project in 2007, housing them in temporary space until the building is ready.
Leath added that within a mile or so of the N.C. State building, state-of-the-art greenhouses are to be built, including a 25,000-square-foot headhouse and 5,000-square-foot pilot food-processing plant. And nearby will be a 100-acre field laboratory.

“We’ll be able to take our laboratory science to the field and then process crops to see how processing affects nutrition,” Leath said.

As the Research Campus moves forward, Leath sees NC State and faculty from its College of Agriculture and Life Sciences playing a central role.

“Everyone else is doing something that depends on us,” Leath said. “We will do the basic plant biology and breeding, so nothing will go forward if we don’t get it right. Our people will play a critical role.”

Much of the work of faculty from other universities will focus on nutrition, determining the optimal nutritional characteristics for various fruits and vegetables. College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty will work with this nutritional information to develop plants that meet nutritional requirements and to determine how best to produce those plants commercially.
Leath said plant breeding is likely to be a pivotal part of the effort. He pointed out that NC State already has active breeding programs for blueberries, strawberries, brambles and sweet potatoes; however, a breeding program for leafy vegetables such as lettuce will have to be developed.

The Research Campus will encompass research, extension and teaching components, Leath added. The first hires will be North Carolina Cooperative Extension employees. Leath said four new positions, probably Extension Associates, will be created and filled in 2007. These positions will work on salad crops such as lettuce, on berries, particularly brambles, on food safety and farm business management. In February, Extension began advertising to fill associate positions in small business management and development and food safety.

Leath said it is not yet clear how the academic component of the project will develop, but graduate education will be an important component, and the Research Campus will provide undergraduate students with the opportunity to work on state-of-the-art equipment, such as what is expected to be one of the best nuclear magnetic resonance imaging facilities in the world, that Murdock plans to locate at Kannapolis.

Leath sees great promise and potential in what is unfolding in Kannapolis. He said Castle and Cooke, the real estate development company that Murdock owns, has projected the project will generate 35,000 jobs. Leath said that if the initiative creates half that number of jobs, it will be a success. And the North Carolina Research Campus could end up being a model for economic development along the lines of Research Triangle Park.

“There is the potential for the whole state to benefit economically from this initiative,” he said.

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