In the 1950s, state government and business leaders feared that too many of North Carolina’s best and brightest were leaving for jobs in other states, which helped keep per capita income among the nation’s lowest. As the decade came to a close, they established Research Triangle Park near Durham, hoping to use the attraction of nearby major universities to lure companies with the kind of jobs that could plug the brain drain.
After a slow start, RTP scored big with an IBM research center in 1965. Since 1960, developed space in the park has grown from 200,000 square feet to more than 20 million, and more than 40,000 people work there at an average salary of $76,000. The state’s per capita personal income still lags the nation’s, but the gap narrowed from 71% of the U.S. in 1959 to 87% last year. Not only did RTP attract high-salary jobs to the Triangle, it helped other parts of the state by boosting North Carolina’s image, says Michael Walden, an economics professor at N.C. State University. “That probably gave many other business people cause to look at North Carolina, even if they weren’t tied into those RTP industries.”
But as it nears its 50th birthday, RTP has, in some ways, seen better days. Employment peaked at about 45,000 during the dot.com boom of the ’90s and cratered after the bust of 2001. Hoping to reverse their own brain drain, RTP leaders began to look at ways to diversify the mix, including the research arms of companies outside life sciences and information technology. Within two years, it landed big outposts of two financial giants, Fidelity Investments and Credit Suisse. It also shifted its focus to cultivating smaller and mid-size companies. In 1997, about three-quarters of its 70 companies had fewer than 250 employees there. Last year, 87% of the 172 companies there did. RTP’s employment started to rise in 2004, and it’s back up to 42,000 — same as in 2000.
RTP’s success has spawned other research parks in the state, notably in Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Kannapolis. But Rick Weddle, CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina, sees them less as competition than as bolstering the state’s brand. He’s more concerned about rival research hubs such as Silicon Valley and Route 128 outside Boston. “If we’re not careful, they will get further ahead of us while we’re worried about the ones attacking us from below.”