Redrawing the Research Triangle

North Carolina’s venerable corporate park is showing its age, but an ambitious plan may restore its luster.

The headquarters of the Research Triangle Park Foundation near Durham, N.C. (Research Triangle Park Foundation of North Carolina)
National Journal
James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
Sept. 19, 2013, 10:40 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a weeklong Amer­ica 360 series on Raleigh.

RALEIGH, N.C. — For dec­ades, a monu­ment to the 1950s has shimmered in the woods due north­w­est of Raleigh, an en­dur­ing trib­ute to the time when cars were king, sub­urb­an liv­ing was the idyll, and the fruits of Amer­ic­an in­ven­tion seemed lim­it­less. At the time, the Re­search Tri­angle Park felt as fu­tur­ist­ic as To­mor­row­land, the largest cor­por­ate re­search park in the world, stretched across a cam­pus half the size of Man­hat­tan. Gi­ants such as IBM sent thou­sands of em­ploy­ees here, trans­form­ing this re­gion of North Car­o­lina so dra­mat­ic­ally that the area is named for it. “It changed our cul­ture and our des­tiny,” says Bob Geolas, the chief ex­ec­ut­ive of­ficer of the park’s found­a­tion. “It changed the way we thought of ourselves.”

The park re­mains the world’s largest, but so much of that world has changed, has passed it by. And now it is look­ing to ad­apt to a present with wildly dif­fer­ent val­ues, one that cher­ishes urb­an spaces, en­tre­pren­eur­ship, col­lab­or­a­tion, and, well, high-grade cof­fee. “We have 7,000 acres,” Geolas says. “And you can’t buy a Star­bucks any­where in this park.”

The cam­pus re­mains home to more than 170 com­pan­ies — along with IBM, they in­clude Glaxo­S­mithK­line, Syn­genta, RTI In­ter­na­tion­al, Cred­it Suisse, and Cisco. But the place re­tains the feel of a sub­urb­an mall that lacks not just a Star­bucks but aso an Ap­ple­bees, much less a Pan­era Bread or a Sweet­green. There is no re­tail. There are no res­id­en­tial units. Com­pared with the boom­ing start-up tech cul­tures in the down­towns of Raleigh and Durham, where res­id­ents are sur­roun­ded by brewpubs and cafes, it’s in danger of com­ing off as a rel­ic of by­gone days.

Geolas wants to change that by up­dat­ing the park’s look and feel. “This needs to be a place of great in­spir­a­tion, but there’s noth­ing in­spir­ing about it,” he says. Part of the push is a re­cog­ni­tion that the eco­nom­ics that built the park are shift­ing. Com­pan­ies are in­vest­ing dif­fer­ently, par­tic­u­larly in re­search and de­vel­op­ment. Tech­no­lo­gic­al ad­vance­ments mean they don’t re­quire the kind of space the park provides. And the em­ploy­ees who re­main on site want a bet­ter work­place ex­per­i­ence, Geolas says.

Last year, Geolas and oth­er park staffers took a bus tour of the state to listen to ideas from cit­izens about how to re­vamp the in­sti­tu­tion. The trip was an homage to Arch­ie Dav­is, who, as the chair­man of Wachovia Bank, al­most single-handedly res­cued the park in the late 1950s by trav­el­ing across North Car­o­lina to raise the funds to de­vel­op it. The park was con­ceived as a means of el­ev­at­ing the state’s eco­nomy bey­ond the tex­tile and man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs that had defined it, by at­tract­ing the tech­no­logy and life-sci­ence in­dus­tries. It was a clas­sic pub­lic-private part­ner­ship, with the state gov­ern­ment and uni­versit­ies work­ing hand in hand with private in­vest­ment (and it is the kind of act­iv­ist gov­ern­ment­al in­ter­ven­tion that has fallen out of fa­vor with the Re­pub­lic­ans who have taken power in the state).

To Geolas, who can came off as down­right evan­gel­ic­al about the vis­ion, the park had largely be­come known in more re­cent times as a real-es­tate play­er, sli­cing off par­cels of land from its cam­pus to stay flush. The plan, he says, is to re­store its im­age as a cut­ting-edge cen­ter of in­nov­a­tion, work­ing with its ten­ant com­pan­ies to de­vel­op new products. “Let’s get away from build­ings that are all about marble and ferns and foun­tains and cu­bicles,” he says. The park, he says, must build a “glob­al con­ver­gence cen­ter,” to reach the next gen­er­a­tion of in­nov­at­ors and busi­nesses.

The cen­ter would in­clude a labor­at­ory space that would im­port tal­en­ted stu­dents from sur­round­ing uni­versit­ies such as Duke, North Car­o­lina and N.C. State, as well as com­munity col­leges, and have them work in teams to solve glob­al prob­lems. “We will have a place in the park where we were tackle in­ter­pret­at­ive big data,” Geolas says. “Maybe it is trans­form­at­ive medi­cine, maybe it’s wa­ter in­equal­ity, maybe it’s food dis­tri­bu­tion.”

The second com­pon­ent will be fo­cused on eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment, wrangling ven­ture cap­it­al to help loc­al com­munit­ies in need. “We want to cre­ate an open net­work that links this com­munity to people around the world,” he says. The cen­ter would also fea­ture a “new kind of con­veni­ence space, dif­fer­ent than a con­ven­tion space,” he says. “If you have a product, you can’t launch it here. You have to go to Bo­ston to launch it.” In oth­er words, the park has no abil­ity to mount a Steve Jobs-style rol­lout.

The plan also calls for the es­tab­lish­ment of a demon­stra­tion cen­ter, what Geolas calls a tech­no­logy show­case, that will draw vis­it­or traffic and be­come a civic mag­net. “Think about Walt Dis­ney wanted EP­COT to be — he wanted it to be the liv­ing ex­ample of the best and the most in­nov­at­ive and ex­cit­ing things the fu­ture has to of­fer,” Geolas says.

All in all, he wants the park to take a page from the New Urb­an­ism, to feel more clustered, more at­tuned to mod­ern life­styles, with the idea of trans­form­ing it­self in­to a sus­tain­able com­munity. The pro­ject, however, re­mains in the plan­ning stages, and more cap­it­al needs to be raised — privately. “We don’t want to go to the state and ask for the money,” he says. (What went un­said is that the budget-slash­ing mood in the state at the mo­ment prob­ably wouldn’t sup­port it.) “We in­tend to make this idea big enough and com­pel­ling enough that we’ll raise the money to do it,” he says.

The over­arch­ing goal is to make the Re­search Tri­angle Park as rel­ev­ant to the lives of mod­ern North Car­o­lin­ans — and the world — as it was in its 20th-cen­tury hey­day. Geolas says it would show that Amer­ica can still think big, as am­bi­tiously as it did back in 1956. “If we can’t do something like this,” he says, “shame on us.”

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