The first thing proponents of the planned Pellissippi Place research and development park should be alert for is … nothing.
Kevin Johnson, a business recruiter with the Research Triangle Park Foundation, shared stories about the early years of the park in North Carolina. He exhorted the Pellissippi Place planners not to be discouraged if not many companies come calling initially after it opens.
“In those early years, what we saw, and the first thing you’re going to see, is nothing is going to happen at the speed you think it should,” he said. “You won’t create a significant amount of jobs and won’t make any money.”
Technology-led economic development is the wave of the future, and it’s what presidential candidates are talking about, said Johnson.
Johnson addressed the Volunteers in Progress members of the Blount County Chamber of Commerce Monday morning, Sept. 5, at the Chamber. The VIP program is an initiative offered to Chamber members that encourage them to pay an extra membership fee to help cover the cost of recruiting businesses to the area. In exchange, VIP members get invitations to special programs like the one on Monday.
Johnson outlined how the Research Triangle Park Foundation was formed and how it operates. Johnson said what makes the park special is that there are companies there with one person who is doing work right next to a large corporation doing work on a bigger scale.
The challenges of the future have to do with adapting, Johnson said. “We all want to transform economies so they’re more athletic and cutting edge,” he said. “How do we make it sustainable for the long term?”
Johnson said Research Triangle Park is at the intersection of interstates 40, 80 and 95. When it was started 50 years ago, those interstates weren’t built yet. The initiative to start the development was an attempt to stem the “brain drain” of students leaving Duke University, North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina.
“You had three wonderful universities graduating students who were going to other cities for their jobs,” he said. “We could make talent. We could not keep talent.”
Johnson said the state’s economy was based on low wages, cheap transportation and low skilled labor. The park was started in 1959 with 4,200 acres between the cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. The region impacted by the RTP has 13 counties with 63 cities in them. “The park was in the middle but there was no triangle.”
The public got involved in the fundraising necessary to buy the land. Archie K. Davis of North Carolina raised donations of $1.8 million. Receipts showed people from across the state made donations both large and small to help underwrite the purchase. “We had donations from 100 counties. We had a receipt from a woman who sent $.50. They believed in it,” he said. “It’s a remarkable story.”
While money came in from all over the state, the majority of funds came from the cities of Winston-Salem and Greensboro, Johnson said.
The Research Triangle Foundation was founded in 1959 and the foundation bought the property. They also established the Research Triangle Institute with a $500,000 grant from the foundation. “Now they’re worth $500 million,” he said.
Johnson said the RTP does about $2.5 billion in research annually. He encouraged the Pellissippi Place research and development park proponents not to give up. “You can expect growth with high quality jobs,” he said.
The RTP has attracted well-educated workers. “Forty-five percent of residents have their undergraduate degrees,” he said.
In addition to the universities, there are 11 colleges in and around the park. “The education institutions are an industry in and of themselves,” he said.
Since the park was established, they have grown to more than 7,000 acres. “It is 8 miles long and 2 miles,” Johnson said.
Johnson said there are now 170 companies employing 42,000 employees and 10,000 contract employees at the Research Triangle Park. He suggested the planners create an owners and tenants association and develop standards for buildings and facilities to ensure quality structures.
Johnson said that Pellissippi Place research and development is larger most, but he suggested they purchase options to buy any adjacent acreage for future growth. “You’re 100 acres larger than the average park. You’re in the sweet spot,” he said. “I don’t think it’s too small. If you get any amount of success, it might not be enough.”
Johnson said that as the Pellissippi Place proponents are establishing and building the park, they will hear many businesses saying ‘No’ to buying into the project. That’s why the leaders who believe in the park should busy themselves pitching the Park idea to prospective clients.
“You’ve just got to get out there and sell, sell, sell,” he said.