CHICAGO -- David H. Murdock, 82, has a ninth-grade education, billions of dollars and dreams of changing a down-and-out textile center in North Carolina into a greenhouse for scientific innovation.
Murdock, the owner of Dole Food Co., is investing $1 billion into converting the old Cannon Mills site in Kannapolis, N.C., into a 350-acre research park. It's the latest twist in the career of a man who once aimed to revive Baltimore's Howard Street retail district and built the Harbor Court hotel, office and condo complex at the Inner Harbor. Murdock's Castle & Cooke Inc. real estate arm sold the Harbor Court early this year.
His promotion of science ties in with an interest in bananas, pineapples and other foods that have made him wealthy - and, he says, healthy. Dole, based in Westlake Village, Calif., is the world's largest producer of fruit, vegetables and cut flowers.
"I am a fish vegetarian," Murdock, dressed in a gray suit with purple pinstripes and wearing brown sneakers, said in an interview at the North Carolina pavilion at BIO 2006, the biotech industry's annual convention, last week in Chicago. "We sell only fresh fruit and vegetables. I sell no saturated fats or anything like that. I'm in great condition myself. Never have been sick."
Castle & Cooke owns the site where construction of the North Carolina Research Campus is under way. Murdock has the blessing of state officials, who are seeking biotechnology investment to help make up for the loss of 200,000 factory jobs - many in tobacco, textiles and furniture - in the past five years. Three universities are collaborating in the effort.
"We're about the business of transitioning our economy from a labor-intensive manufacturing base to one that is more science- and technology-driven," said Jim Fain, North Carolina's secretary of commerce, in an interview at the biotechnology convention. "One of our target areas for recruitment and retention is life sciences: pharmaceuticals, biotech, medical devices."
Labs to be built first
Murdock said the campus will be home to the most comprehensive biotech research center built in one place. The first structure will be a 311,000-square-foot core laboratory building.
Besides providing the real estate, Murdock will donate $150 million for equipment in the core lab and other activities. In addition, Murdock is creating a $100 million venture-capital fund to draw new companies to the park. Ultimately, his goal is to attract several hundred biotech companies to the development.
The campus will include research institutes led by Duke University in Durham, North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Murdock said. The local Rowan-Cabarrus Community College will help employees learn skills needed to work at the complex.
Duke Medical Center is in negotiations with Castle & Cooke to manage the core laboratory, said Robert Taber, vice chancellor for corporate and venture development.
"It's not a done deal, but we're certainly interested," Taber said by telephone. "The plan is for the core lab to open in the fourth quarter of 2007 - which would be an amazing feat. They're building the building right now. The steel is going up."
The Kannapolis development, announced in September, has the potential to repeat the success of Research Triangle Park near Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham to the east, Fain said. Operated by a private foundation, the Research Triangle "has been an engine of growth" since its founding in 1957.
The area is home to offices and laboratories of such companies as International Business Machines Corp., based in Armonk, N.Y.; BASF Corp., a unit of the German chemical company; GlaxoSmithKline, the London-based drug company; and Biogen Idec Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., drug company. About 46,000 people are employed by the 114 companies there.
$4 billion net worth
The sole proprietor of Dole and Castle & Cook, Murdock ranks No. 52 on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 richest Americans, with an estimated net worth of $4 billion.
He parlayed a ninth-grade education into a fortune from homebuilding and food, Forbes magazine said on its Web site. He lives mostly in Los Angeles, with other homes in New York and Kannapolis, which is about 20 miles northeast of Charlotte.
The Cannon Mills plant that was razed was once the city's reason for being, with the name Kannapolis a variant of the old Cannapolis in local newspapers: mill founder James W. Cannon's city.
Murdock bought the site at auction after the former Pillowtex Corp., the owner of Fieldcrest Cannon, went into bankruptcy. Castle & Cooke was the highest bidder at $6.4 million, the company said in December 2004.
At one point, he owned Cannon Mills, before selling it to Fieldcrest Mills in 1986, a sale that created Fieldcrest Cannon.
"It sounds a little bit crazy, I know," Murdock said. "I'm used to doing big undertakings with my own money. Obesity is racing through America, everywhere. It's high time someone spent some money to do something about it."