Five Reasons I’m Encouraged About the Research Triangle Region’s Future

By: Chris Johnson

News & Observer


Last year, the world said goodbye to a long list of entertainment icons, Britons opted to leave the European Union and an alarmingly caustic tone crept into our own national politics.

Closer to home, a deadly hurricane and massive forest fire punished North Carolina’s landscape. HB2 made the state’s economy ground zero in the latest culture wars. The social legislation complicated the richly competitive process by which urban destinations like Durham and Raleigh vie for Knowledge Age companies and workers.

Still, there is much to be optimistic about regarding the long-term direction of the Research Triangle region in 2017 and beyond. Here are five reasons I am hopeful about our future:

Connect NC – Last March, North Carolina voters overwhelmingly approved a $2 billion package of bonds that invest smartly in the future. The package provides for a new engineering building at N.C. State, a new home for the N.C. Central’s School of Business and medical education facilities at UNC-Chapel Hill. Along with repairs and renovations to our community college campuses, these classrooms and labs will produce the talent to animate the region’s most lucrative industries. Connect NC also improves state parks. Kerr Lake State Park, for example, will undergo nearly $3.8 million in upgrades, enhancing the potential of the tourism economy in Vance and Warren counties.

Pathways and passages – The region’s economy is set to grow new connections to the global marketplace through transportation infrastructure upgrades now underway. Plans by CSX Corporation to create a $160 million multi-modal rail hub in Rocky Mount have important economic potential for our region, facilitating the recruitment of high-end manufacturing and distribution operations to Johnston, Wilson and other counties. Investments at the state ports in Wilmington and Morehead City will ease the movement of raw materials and finished products, a boon to global businesses here. Interstate status for key highway arteries will boost connectivity for our economy. New facilities and passenger service at RDU Airport will link the region’s business community to top commercial hubs around the world.

Foreign affairs – Among the most bullish indicators for our region is the crush of foreign businesses investing here. Johnston County is the destination for record capital investment by bio-manufacturers Novo Nordisk (Denmark) and Grifols (Spain). British auto-components maker GKN Driveline announced major expansions to its plants in Lee and Person counties. Franklin County is welcoming additional investments by Novozymes (Denmark) and K-FLEX (Italy). In Wilson County, Peak Demand Inc., part of a China’s Nanjing Zhida Electric Co., is building power systems for utilities across the Americas. Foreign firms have discovered the Triangle’s clinical services industry in a big way, with multi-million dollar investments by the U.K.’s Almac and India’s Aurobindo in Durham. These investments come with a wide range of jobs paying handsome wages.

Start-up renaissance – Marquee corporate names may draw the headlines, but small businesses account for the majority of job growth. Crowdfunding legislation passed last year could drive a new wave of technology-oriented start-up activity in our region. The law enables new firms to harness small amounts of capital from community-oriented investors putting up as little as $5,000 each. This can speed the movement of ideas and innovation into the realm of commerce. I suspect some of these firms will take advantage of the lower costs and offbeat charms of our small towns, many of which have acted boldly to create Main Street commercial spaces conducive to creative enterprises.

Mega-sites moving closer – In April, the N.C. Rural Infrastructure Authority joined with the Golden LEAF and Duke Energy to invest money and technical support in large industrial properties that could potentially move the job-creation needle in a big way. Funds are building roads and water and sewer systems at Siler City Advanced Manufacturing (“CAM”) and the Moncure Mega-Site. Those hard assets will make the properties “ready-to-go,” reducing the risk and ramp-up time large manufacturers face when constructing a billion-dollar production facility. A related bonus: Chatham Park, the 7,000-acre mixed-use development in Pittsboro that could alter the Research Triangle Region’s center of economic gravity over the next generation.

Economically, there is much to be encouraged about as 2017 ramps up. Expect other positive developments as Research Triangle Regional Partnership unveils new leadership in the weeks ahead and looks toward its 2017 State of the Region Breakfast in May. The excitement may be just beginning.

Chris Johnson, economic development director for Johnston County, chairs the Economic Development Advisory Committee at Research Triangle Regional Partnership.

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