Perspectives Online

As N.C. Research Campus grows, so does College's role

Construction is well under way on the Core Building.
Photo by Dave Caldwell

As construction of the buildings that will form the North Carolina Research Campus at Kannapolis moves forward, it is becoming clear that College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty members will play a key role in the success of the venture.

That is the view of Dr. Steve Leath, who is coordinating the role the College and N.C. State University will play in the project.

The North Carolina Research Campus is 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, food safety and nutrition. The city was first home 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 N.C. State University, N.C. A&T State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Greensboro and N.C. Central University, as well as institutions outside the system such as Duke University, playing major roles in the development of the Research Campus.

It is a measure of the importance and scope of the project that coordinating it has necessitated shifting responsibilities within the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service office. Leath, associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Agricultural Research Service director, is spending 75 percent of his time coordinating the Dole/Kannapolis project, while Dr. Roger Crickenberger, Agricultural Research Service associate director, has assumed many of Leath's duties and is responsible for day-to-day operation of the Research Service.

Leath said Murdock is putting from $1 billion to $1.5 billion into the project. The state 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 comprise five principal buildings. A 311,000-square-foot Core Building, which should be completed late this year, 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 CALS faculty and Dole employees. Leath said this structure is under construction, and completion is expected in the spring of 2008, although the College will hire faculty to staff the project in 2007 and house them in temporary space until the building is ready.

Leath added that within a mile or so of what he calls the N.C. State building, state-of-the-art greenhouses are to be built, including a 25,000-square-feet headhouse and 5,000-square-foot pilot food processing plant. Nearby will be a 100-acre field lab.

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

UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Greensboro, N.C. Central and N.C. A&T State faculty will be housed in a third building and Duke faculty in a fourth. A fifth structure will be speculative in the sense that Murdock sees it housing new businesses that will be spun off from Research Campus efforts.

As the Research Campus moves forward, Leath sees CALS faculty 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. CALS faculty will work with this nutritional information to develop plants that meet the nutritional requirements and to determine how best to produce those plants commercially.

A drawing of how the finished structure will look.
Leath said plant breeding is likely to be a pivotal part of the College effort. He pointed out that the College 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 Center 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 this year. These positions will work on salad crops such as lettuce and berries, particularly brambles; 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 Center 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, which Murdock plans to locate at Kannapolis.

Like many people, 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. 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.

-Dave Caldwell