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The Western Research Triangle

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Its safe to say that the Research Triangle Park was one of North Carolina's most successful economic development strategies. Unfortunately the state has not found success with economic development projects of similar scale in other regions (e.g. the Global Transpark). Perhaps its time for North Carolina (budget issues aside) to think about a followup strategy for post-industrial economic development elsewhere in the state. Several recent initiatives lead me to suggest the Western Research Triangle.

I post this only as 'back of the envelope' proposal. Please share your comments, revisions, corrections and criticisms.

The nodes:

1) The Wake Forest medical school and Baptist medical center in Winston-Salem (to the SW of downtown Winston). Combined with the urban Piedmont Triad Research Park (with a biotech focus?), and the NC School of the Arts.

2) UNC Charlotte. A research university which is equal in size to Chapel Hill and the home of substantial programs in biology, optical sciences and engineering. Current discussions of a medical school in Charlotte would create additional research linkages with WFU. 20 miles north of campus (on the same rail line) is the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis which is now gaining traction as the home of nutritional research.

3) Greensboro (the node I know the least about) Strong arts programs at UNC G, an engineering program at NC A&T could produce research inputs while a core of manufacturing expertise is built around Honda Jet and RFMD (what else is a core strength of Greensboro?)

The pitch:

Basic medical research at WFU, PTRP, the NCRC and the possible med school in Charlotte could lead to complementary specializations. Arts programs in Greensboro and Winston could provide design expertise (a skill which is both vital and in high demand in all types of product development according to most scholars of innovation. Engineering expertise in motorsports and aerospace could be complementary and materials developed for each could potentially have medical device applications.

The needs:

1) Transportation linkages: Clearly the nodes are more dispersed than the three universities which form the RTP. However, Greensboro and Charlotte (including the NCRC) will be connected by double-tracked semi-highspeed rail. Travel times between the two nodes should be in the 1.5 hr neighborhood (?) -- while this travel time is longer than the current Durham-Raleigh commute, Triangle area traffic is getting worse. Rail connections should have the virtues of 1) predictability and 2) the ability for passengers to work in route. The Winston-Salem nodes could be connected to Gboro via the existing Norfolk Southern line through Kernersville and to Charlotte either via the Winston-Salem Southbound (to Lexington) or the O line directly to Charlotte (which would offer a stop at Davidson College). Connecting Winston to the rail network would be expensive but (in my view) necessary to encourage interactions between all the nodes. Rail service would have to be frequent enough that making the trip (and a same day return) would not require much planning or effort. Connectivity to the original RTP would need to be strong as well.

2) Finance: In order to have any hope of entrepreneurial spillovers from the basic research a means of supporting new firms is critical. Each university could provide incubator space for start-ups and a pool of venture capital could potential be collected in Charlotte (although bankers are notoriously bad at high-risk investing). High frequency connections between the VCs and the firms will be critical for risk management purposes.

3) The Charlotte medical school.

The Cost: Astronomical. A new med school (which has already been proposed) will substantially erode future political capital in Charlotte. High frequency rail connections to Winston (which is not on the NCRR) on two existing routes will not be cheap. 'Last mile' connections in Winston and Greensboro may also be expensive.

The benefits: 1) Income and job growth via expanded research and spinoff companies. 2) Stronger social and political linkages between Charlotte and the Triad (North Carolina's urban have been competitors for economic development dollars -- this leads to political fragmentation and the continued political strength of the coastal plain). 3) A clear purpose and rationale for expanded inter city rail connectivity in NC -- such a network could stimulate additional economic development. 4) A research complex which will not be limited by worsening traffic.

The risks: While I think such a plan has the potential to succeed (with substantial revision) this will be a LONGGGG term project (nothing much happened in RTP for the first 25 years). This delay makes the project politically undesirable (the costs will be front-loaded while the benefits will be credited to some future administration). Investments in public universities outside the Triangle have always been politically difficult due to the legislative power of Chapel Hill and NCSU.

OK, your turn, shoot some holes in this....

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Greensboro also has a research park and has enough land for associated research manufacturing. "Gateway University Research Park and a school of nanoscience is already under construction there. Gateway University Research Park or G.U.R.P. is a joint research park formed by NC A&T State University and UNC-Greensboro. I think NC A&T is the first historically black college in the country to initiate the development of a research park. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also opening up offices in the Greensboro research park. I think there should be a link between all the research parks along the piedmont crescent and maybe they should all be under one system. All the research parks are associated with universities that are a part of the UNC school system. That would really boast North Carolina as the nation's premier research and development hub and our state could really compete on a much global level. In terms of infrastructure, there definitely needs to be a rail linkage between all the parks. Hopefully Winston-Salem will speed up the process buying the old rail depot on the eastern edge of downtown so passenger rail can return to the Twin City.

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A couple of tidbits:

1) The Medical School is a hot button issue in Charlotte. As it stands, the med school is not affiliated with Charlotte, but UNC Chapel Hill. The proposed school is only available to 3rd-4th year students in primary care. It is meant to help with the shortage of doctors in the state. So this really doesn't help with the research and development aspect of a western RTP. However, there is quite the furor over this branch campus as many would rather see UNC Charlotte start its own medical school (See the Presbyterian Hospital president). While this is expensive it seems far more viable compared to the UNC branch (which is ironically more expensive than starting a medical school in Charlotte).

2. A western RTP should try to include the number of liberal arts and baccalaureate colleges in between. High Point University, Elon (maybe a stretch), Lenoir Rhyne, Davidson, Catawba, Pfeiffer, Queens, Johnson C. Smith, and more would create an excellent talent base of graduates to go onto to graduate study R&D. Plus the Liberal Arts degrees are unique compared to the actual RTP, which could lead to a greater variety of R&D.

3. Charlotte to W-S is about 1.5 hrs, same with Charlotte G-boro. While that is a greater distance compared to RTP, I think it is still highly accessible, especially considering I-85 is the primary linkage, but there is also 77, and HSR corridor. Plus a major international airport (CLT), and another intl airport with cargo specialties (PTI) makes the area far more linked with global R&D because the primary airport for RTP is RDU, which handles a third of the passengers of CLT, and probably less cargo.

4. Global R&D linkages require a great knowledge of global business and capital. Look no further than Charlotte which has numerous global firms represented in its city limits. R&D hotbeds like Germany and the UK have companies represented in the area with substantial amounts of capital. Not to mention UNC Charlotte has one of the largest international student populations from the Middle East and India (engineering is the primary point of entry for the students, but they are diversifying in their majors).

The idea is good, but I don't think it should be RTP of the West. Maybe just a distinct partnership between PTRP, GURP, NCRC, and (you forgot to mention the two in Charlotte): Charlotte Research Institute and the University Research Park, which neighbor the main campus of UNCC. That gives the region 5 research parks...which I find to be substantial considering the amount of research parks in the country.

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