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Environmental Factor, August 2012

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Bright future planned for RTP

By Robin Arnette

Liz Rooks, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina

Rooks, above, said an economic analysis of RTP found that private industry has an unusually large amount of research and development-funded projects at local universities. “We look at that in terms of dollars per graduate student, for comparable clusters in the country,” she said. “For us, that number is $23,000, but for other areas, the average is $7,000.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

During the weekdays, Research Triangle Park (RTP) bustles with activity, but after 5 p.m. and on weekends, the state’s most recognizable district for research and development turns into a ghost town. Yet, if RTP planners have their way, the development of more retail, residential, hotel, and educational facilities may make it the place to go after hours, too. 


According to Liz Rooks, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina, RTP is in the process of a grand revitalization. The foundation enlisted the help of a prominent New York architecture and urban design firm to develop a 50-year master plan that addresses the needs of the RTP community. Rooks came to the NIEHS campus June 26 to give an overview of the plan and to answer questions about the future of the Park.

Chris Long, deputy associate director for management at NIEHS, who has known Rooks for more than 20 years, hosted the talk. He thanked her for contributing so much to the growth of RTP.

“She’s been with the foundation since 1989,” Long said, “and I think for most people who work with the foundation, she is the RTP.” 

RTP — a turning point for North Carolina

As Rooks explained, in 1959, North Carolina had the second lowest per capita income in the U.S., surpassing only Mississippi. With an economic system based on small-scale farming and three low-wage industries — textiles, tobacco, and furniture manufacturing — then North Carolina Governor Luther Hodges charged a committee of businessmen, academicians, and community leaders to come up with a way to improve the state’s economy.

“We had three strong universities, but the graduates of those schools, particularly those in math and science, were leaving because they couldn’t find jobs here,” Rooks added. “The committee’s idea was to bring research industry here and, with that, the Research Triangle Foundation was born.”

The project needed seed money, so former state senator and former Wachovia Bank chairman Archie Davis, for whom Davis Drive is named, barnstormed the state, soliciting contributions from financial institutions, big corporations, and ordinary citizens. Davis raised almost $2 million for RTP. Once the land was acquired, a few small companies relocated to the area.

Job growth was slow early on, until the watershed year of 1965, when NIEHS became the first major tenant to announce that its campus would come to RTP. Several months later, IBM and another smaller company announced that they were also opening campuses in RTP. Today, more than 170 companies call RTP home. With more than 39,000 full-time workers and an annual payroll of $2.9 billion, this 7,000-acre economic engine is poised to drive North Carolina and the region into a new era of prosperity.

Planning for the next 50 years

Facing competition from international and domestic research clusters, Rooks said the foundation board undertook the master plan as a way of addressing the issues it saw coming. After surveying RTP companies on the Park’s strengths and weaknesses, several themes became apparent.

Overwhelmingly, RTP’s workforce is a strength, along with the park's tranquil pastoral environment. People come to the area for its global recognition and positive economic forecast. However, an aging building infrastructure, traffic congestion, and lack of amenities, such as specialty shops and housing, are challenges that were unforeseen when RTP started.

The plan has several overall goals, such as retaining existing tenants, continuing to attract large and small companies, and recruiting a broad range of new tenants, which should bring a variety of hotels and restaurants to RTP. The designs also include commuter rail stations, and developing common open places that preserve and enhance the Park’s natural beauty. Rooks said the foundation also embarked on a new signage program last year that lets people know when they’re in or out of the Park.

Rooks said that multiple projects will be phased in over time, and that the foundation will continue to work with Durham and Wake counties to build a better, stronger RTP.

John Schelp, from the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity, and Joel Abramowitz, Ph.D.

John Schelp, center, from the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity, and Joel Abramowitz, Ph.D., right, special assistant to the NIEHS Scientific Director, listened attentively to the presentation. Schelp believes the plan achieves a balanced approach. “They’re trying to protect what’s special about RTP,” he said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Chris Long, deputy associate director for management at NIEHS

Those who couldn’t attend the talk in Rodbell could view a webcast of the presentation. NIEHS employees emailed questions to Long, above, who posed them to Rooks. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Map of Research Triangle Park

RTP is 7 miles long and 2 miles wide. The master plan calls for making nodes within RTP more walkable. (Illustration courtesy of the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina)

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