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January 06, 2011 4:31 PM North Carolina’s Best Idea

By Daniel Luzer

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The Research Triangle, located in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, has for decades been the model for the idea of economic development driven by academia. This part of the state, where Duke University, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, are all located, is home to numerous high-tech companies and other enterprises. It’s now one of the most prosperous parts of North Carolina and, indeed, the South itself.

It wasn’t always like that; until the 1950s the region, and the state, had fragile economies and were particularly dependent on tobacco farming. The universities and their affiliated Research Park changed all that.

This was a model for the sort of “if you build it they will come” mantra of colleges. These fancy research universities attract industries. All of these smart people generate good ideas and, thus, money for the state. The research triangle area of North Carolina was the first, biggest, and most successful model of this enterprise. Numerous regions of the country have tried to emulate the success of the region. But it might be pretty hard. Part of the trouble is that Research Triangle wasn’t just the creation of the universities.

According to a piece by Jay Schalin at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (itself located in Raleigh):

The principals involved in the project were well aware of the developments in Massachusetts and the Silicon Valley, and the post-World War II era was ripe for an expansion of research. And they were also aware that their particular region of North Carolina had special qualities. While it lacked the historical economic development and technological infrastructure of the other two clusters, it had its own advantages. Few other areas in the country had large tracts of inexpensive farms and woodlands and a large airport in the middle of a triangle formed by three major research universities, all within a short distance of each other. Those universities were Duke (in Durham), the University of North Carolina (in Chapel Hill), and North Carolina State University (in Raleigh).

So the thing about the region was that it both needed a research economy and was the sort of place that could support it. Schalin goes on to explain the particular nature of the North Carolina project:

The Triangle was a project driven, for the most part, by civic-minded men who donated their time and money to making it work.
But the profit motive played its part as well. While politicians and academics made speeches and had discussions, a private construction company owner from Greensboro named Romeo Guest led the initial charge. He was given credit for suggesting the name “Research Triangle,” although Link said that the name might not have been completely original, given the configuration of the three universities. In the early 1950s, before the idea of a research park was introduced, Guest traveled the East Coast with Brandon Hodges, the state treasurer, and Walter Harper, who headed the Commerce and Industry Division in the state’s Department of Conservation and Development, looking for companies to relocate in North Carolina.

It’s not just the schools; it was also a civic structure eager to exploit the schools a region that could really support growth.

Even so, the venture didn’t begin to pay for itself for almost many years. North Carolina Governor R. Gregg Cherry first proposed the idea of putting an industrial research in the region in a speech he made in 1945. When IBM bought land in the region in 1965, that was a sign that the project was working. It was not until then that the venture began to operate in the black.

While wildly successful, this model may not be really replicable elsewhere in the country. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer