The North Carolina Research Campus is nestled in Kannapolis, about an hour outside of Charlotte. The town was once defined by Cannon Mills — a global leader in the production of sheets and textiles — and now has found regrowth in collaborating with the research campus, which receives money from the UNC system as well as substantial private donations. The state’s 2014-15 budget required the UNC system to direct $29 million of its state appropriations to the research campus.
On Monday, the campus also learned of a transition in leadership — as Lynne Scott Safrit, the president of the private company developing the research campus, announced her resignation.
The research campus, a project financed and led by founder David H. Murdock, the owner of Dole fruit company, was proposed in 2005 in front of a government and UNC-system audience, including N.C. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, Sen. Richard Burr and then-UNC-system president Molly Corbett Broad. It was primarily designed to facilitate research surrounding nutrition.
Murdock’s vision for a high-tech research facility is now 10 years in the making. While the campus has not turned the profits it originally expected, it has made an impact on the town’s goals.
Kannapolis — which in 2003 played host to the largest one-day layoff in N.C. history, following the bankruptcy of the Pillowtex Corporation of Dallas — has undergone an extensive rebranding process. The town recently declared that it will embody healthy living among its residents.
“The research campus is pretty much at the core of the assets that our community has to support that brand,” said Irene Sacks, Kannapolis’ director of business & community affairs.
The campus spans 350 acres, and includes eight major research institutes, like the David H. Murdock Research Institute and the Nutrition Research Institute, which boasts UNC-CH researchers and faculty.
“The combination of expertise and equipment is unlike any place I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of places with this kind of stuff,” said Stephen Hursting, professor of nutrition at UNC.
Hursting, whose work is split between Chapel Hill and Kannapolis, said the campus provides a unique opportunity for more targeted research projects in an environment of similar scholarly interests.
“What sets (the research campus) apart is really the focus there is around metabolic-related diseases,” Hursting said.
The work at Kannapolis and at UNC can at times be complementary — for example, Kannapolis is researching connections between nutrition and pancreatic cancer, while the University is looking at a similar relationship involving breast cancer.
The research campus collaborates with UNC-system institutions as well as the larger Kannapolis community, Sacks said.
“I think there is as much interaction as you probably would expect in this sort of environment,” Sacks said. “The campus does do community outreach, mostly through the academic institutions.”
Kannapolis’ decision in March to purchase its historic downtown area, which had been owned by Murdock, demonstrates another effort to revitalize and provide a vibrant working environment for research campus workers.
Projects currently ongoing at the research campus include a six-week series put on by UNC to share dietary knowledge and health advice with Kannapolis residents.
Sacks said she is unsure of the impact of Safrit’s resignation on the future growth of the campus.
“But I’m certain that the city will still continue to support the work of the research campus and be a strong partner in that.”