Perhaps North Carolina’s history should be dated “B.T.” and “A.T.” — Before the Triangle and After the Triangle. In the early 1950s, when Research Triangle Park was conceived, the state was a poor, largely rural backwater, near the bottom nationally in many socioeconomic categories, such as family income.
The future did not look bright: its traditional economy was based on agriculture (particularly tobacco), textiles, and furniture manufacturing. These three industries would soon face severe global competition.
By the 1970s, when the Triangle was in full swing, North Carolina had become a national hotspot, attracting educated people from not just the entire country, but from the whole globe.
The success of Research Triangle Park led to a widely accepted belief that cooperation among government, academia, and business can spur economic growth. Many states have adopted policies that reflect this belief through heavy investment in their higher education systems. Such policies are coming under increasing scrutiny, however. It is starting to appear that, rather than showing a certain path to prosperity, the Triangle’s success was the result of a particularly propitious place and time.
RTP’s history differs from the history of the nation’s other two celebrated research hubs, Boston’s Route 128 corridor and California’s Silicon Valley. Those were, for the most part, spontaneous and indigenous. That is, according to MIT economist Nancy Dorfman, expansion depended on “the growth of existing firms and the start-up of new ones by entrepreneurs with roots in the state” and on natural growth within the business community, “unabetted by efforts on the part of local interest groups or government.”
The Research Triangle, however, developed as the result of a fairly explicit partnership among government, academia, and private industry. It also relied on outside firms relocating in the area.
The idea of using the region’s three universities — Duke University (in Durham), the University of North Carolina (in Chapel Hill), and North Carolina State University (in Raleigh) — to attract industry was bandied about for a long time. Albert Link, a University of North Carolina-Greensboro economics professor whose definitive history A Generosity of Spirit: The Early History of the Research Triangle Park was published in 1995, cited a 1945 speech by former Gov. R. Gregg Cherry as the source of the original suggestion.
But a private construction company owner from Greensboro named Romeo Guest led the initial charge. In the early 1950s, 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. Later, William Newell, the director of the Textile Research Center at N.C. State, came up with the idea of the actual research park.
In November 1955, the decision was made that the park should be developed as a private, profit-seeking endeavor. In 1957, Guest, William Saunders, who ran the Department of Conservation and Development, and Gov. Luther Hodges convinced a former North Carolina textile mill owner, Karl Robbins, to pledge $1 million to purchase land for the park.
By the end of 1957, nearly 4,000 acres had been bought or optioned for purchase by the newly formed Pinelands Corporation.
Eventually, Robbins soured on being the sole investor. In 1958, Archie Davis, the chairman of Wachovia Bank, realized that he could raise money for the project more quickly by asking for charitable contributions than by selling Pinelands stock. Davis became president of the Research Triangle Foundation, which was created to oversee the park’s operations.
The first company to build a research facility was Chemstrand Corporation, a joint subsidiary of Monsanto and American Viscose, in 1959. It was not until 1965, however, that the Research Triangle Park reached “the turning point,” according to Davis. In that year, IBM, which had been courted for seven years, bought land for a huge research facility. This not only brought the venture out of debt, Davis said, but IBM’s “presence also validated the mission of the park.”
Although Research Triangle Park started slowly, it is now the nation’s largest research park. It consists of approximately 7,000 acres, with roughly 40,000 employees working at over 130 facilities.
Yet, even with the park’s clear advantages — including three world-class research schools, a nearby airport, and lots of cheap land — more than a decade of effort, investment, and perseverance was required before it became a certainty that the park would contribute to the state’s economic growth. Many attempts have been made across the country to duplicate it; few have achieved the same degree of success.
Jay Schalin is a senior writer with the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (popecenter.org).