Questions about biopolis

Questions about biopolis

- in Fitzsimon File

It has now been more than a month since billionaire David Murdock unveiled his plans for transforming Kannapolis into a biotech research center, creating 35,000 jobs in the process.  With the exception of Governor Mike Easley, virtually all of the state’s leading political leaders appeared at the announcement, and they all pledged what amounted to unconditional support for Murdock and his plans for nutrition and health research.

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.

Some of the news coverage of the event treated that aspect of Murdock’s plan as a foregone conclusion. The support for Murdock from House Speaker Jim Black and Senate President Marc Basnight makes you wonder if they have already promised the money that the General Assembly will have to approve when the legislature convenes in May.

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? 

Senator Fletcher Hartsell, who represents the area, told one reporter that there was not a lot of paper involved in the negotiations with Murdock. That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

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?  

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?

Murdock took out full-page ads in state newspapers after the announcement, thanking state leaders and every state legislator by name.  Good for him and let’s hope the plan works. Kannapolis needs the jobs. But the people in Kannapolis and North Carolina need answers too.  It is the job of the legislators thanked in that ad to get them.