By Michael Knox, Independent Tribune
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. — David Murdock opened the North Carolina Research Campus in 2008 with great fanfare and promise, aiming to foster world-class research and transform this former mill town.
Seven years later, critics and skeptics still question the impact the Research Campus has had on Kannapolis. One market study showed the Research Campus could support 5,000 jobs by 2032 – and that’s the number its neighbors remember.
The recession blunted growth, but the Research Campus has been quietly expanding. The number of people employed there has doubled to more than 1,000 in the past four years.
Now, primed by Murdock’s $15 million annual announced last year, the Research Campus seems poised to realize more of that potential.
Campus officials invested $1.2 million to add two 1,500-square-foot “spec” laboratories called Ready-to-Go labs.
The laboratories come with administrative areas, bench tops, fume hoods, sinks and storage. Separated into distinct work areas, the units can house one to three companies.
Currently, they are in the process of building an additional 3,000-square-foot Ready-to-Go lab and an 1,800-square-foot flexible office suite. Both will be completed later this year. That expansion is worth $1.5 million on its own. The additional spec space could be used by anywhere from one to six businesses, depending on how much space each business needs.
“We’ve missed several good opportunities by not having product available for companies, so that’s why it was great Mr. Murdock approved building these two spec units and in the future we are going to do two additional spec units,” said Clyde Higgs, vice president for business development with the Research Campus.
And the Research Campus has already seen success with the previous spec spaces they’ve created that have been filled.
For instance, when the NCA&T Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies reached 40 employees, Director Leonard Williams leased a Ready-to-Go lab suite in the David H. Murdock Core Laboratory Building. NCAT decided to lease an entire Ready-to-Go suite in order to establish a core facility to centralize their equipment and alleviate the crowding in their 5,800-square-feet laboratory and office suite located in the UNC Nutrition Research Institute Building.
“Oftentimes, people they come here, they look and say, ‘we want to do something in two months,’ versus planning for two years,” Higgs said.
One Ready-to-Go lab is currently empty, but it has been used for short-term projects conducted by General Mills, and officials are currently in negotiations with a well-known multinational company to lease the suite.
One reason for that is how attractive the Research Campus has become for companies.
“The only reason that most companies want to be here is because of access to the university and community college talent that we have here. So, they are really the drivers of what we do here in Kannapolis,” Higgs said. “It’s more than just the facilities. It’s the actual people that are here and the research that they are doing that’s really going to attract companies.”
BUILDING A WORKFORCE
The Research Campus is also helping to develop a workforce for future companies. Partnerships are in place now with A.L. Brown High School and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, which has its biotechnology and nurse training on campus.
Higgs said some students have left Kannapolis to attend college and returned to work at the Research Campus.
“Whenever there is a larger employer that is coming to town, one of the first questions they are going to ask is, ‘Where is my workforce going to come from? How many people can I truly hire to work in my manufacturing plant or to work in my laboratory?’” Higgs said. “So, making sure you have a ready-made workforce is critically important.”
One common misperception is that all the jobs at the Research Campus require advanced degrees, Higgs said.
“A lot of people in that laboratory are lab associates, lab technicians, and you don’t have to have a PhD to do a lot of the work in these laboratories,” Higgs said. “It’s really the associate degree, the bachelors degree — those are really the numbers behind biotechnology.”
One market study showed that by 2032 the campus could support more than 5,000 jobs as that developing workforce helps attract more companies to Kannapolis.
“When you really start to peel the onion, it really is the lab technicians, the lab specialists that run the day-to-day,” Higgs said. “There is such a diversity of opportunities here on the campus.”
Higgs said he could see how the campus could attract other businesses to Cabarrus County, even if they are not located at the campus.
“They might not want to come to this physical property all the time, but maybe they want to be by Highway 3,” Higgs said. “Maybe there is a medical facility that wants to be close, but they don’t need to physically be here. So those are some of the spillover effects.”
Contact reporter Michael Knox at 704-789-9133.