Can biotech save an old mill town?

Marketplace Staff Jun 27, 2006

TESS VIGELAND: Three years ago North Carolina experienced the largest mass layoff in the state’s history. The Pillowtex textile plant shut down, leaving 4,000 workers without jobs. A group of them got good news this week. They may finally get checks for unpaid vacation and for not being given enough notice when the mill closed. But that’s small comfort for the town. And for workers who are still struggling to find and adapt to jobs in different industries. Simone Orendain has our report.


SIMONE ORENDAIN: Two classmates sit in front of a computer trying to figure out how to add tables to documents.

WOMAN 1:“Look at this! Why did it do that?”

WOMAN 2:“You can undo.”

WOMAN 1:“I can’t.”

Until about three years ago, Sandra Greene and Donna Loan worked at the Pillowtex plant in Kannapolis, N.C., running machines that turned bolts of cloth into pillow cases and bed sheets. Loan is 45 years old. She put in 8-1/2 years at Pillowtex before the mill went bankrupt and shut down in 2003, leaving her and more than 4,000 other workers jobless.

DONNA LOAN:“The plant closing was devastating but it was the best thing that happened to me. It pushed me into going back to school and changing my life.”

She enrolled in a G.E.D. program at a local community college where she’s now pursuing an associates degree in medical office administration.

Like Loan, the Kannapolis community is undergoing a major transformation. A 350-acre campus for biotech research is now being built on the former Pillowtex site. When it’s completed, it will be one of the biggest biotech centers in the US.

The man behind the plan is billionaire David Murdock, the owner of the fruit and vegetable company Dole Foods. Campus backers say it could bring 5,000 biotech jobs here and possibly 30,000 more in fields such as hotel-restaurant service and construction.

But Nick Gennett, who tracks displaced Pillowtex workers at a local community college, says it’s important to be realistic about job prospects.

NICK GENNETT:“The opening of this enterprise is being billed as a kind of panacea for all that’s wrong. And, it isn’t. There is so much about it we don’t know yet. We don’t know what kinds of jobs there are going to be.”

Gennett says there’s not even a guarantee enough companies will be attracted to the site to provide the job bonanza that some are hoping for. And UNC-Charlotte urban planner Bill McCoy sees this obstacle:

BILL MCCOY:“The state already has a biotech center, particularly in the Research Triangle area. How many states have two centers like that? Not many, as you look across the United States.”

Duke University, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University are already based in the Triangle area, one of the country’s leading biotech hubs just two hours northeast of Kannapolis. McCoy says the three universities are taking steps to build a presence in Kannapolis, but he doesn’t think they’re going to commit as much to the new campus as they have in the Triangle.

Kannapolis Mayor Robert Misenheimer doesn’t share the doubts expressed by Bill McCoy and Nick Gennett. He meets regularly with developers to keep tabs on the campus. He’s convinced it will become a major biotechnology hub after talking regularly with its main backer David Murdock.

ROBERT MISENHEIMER:“I heard him recently say that this thing is gonna come to fruition where persons from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill or at State want to go to a piece of equipment where they can do research and so on, and they would have to go out of state. But he said now, they’re gonna be able to do their research right here in Kannappolis.”

It could take some time to determine whether Mayor Misenheimer’s optimism or the misgivings of Bill McCoy and Nick Gennet turn out to be justified. But unemployed people in Kannapolis are keenly aware of their need for new jobs.

And many, like Donna Loan, have decided that getting training and keeping a positive attitude is the best they can do, for now.

LOAN:“All this school that I’m doing’ll pay off in the end. And everything’ll be OK.”

In Kannapolis, I’m Simone Orendain for Marketplace.

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