North Carolina’s High-Tech Research Park Braces for New Spurt of Growth


Traffic jams? No one worried about them three decades ago, when 6,800 acres of worn-out farmland were bought and implausibly pitched as the up-and-coming place to put laboratory brainpower.

But visit Research Triangle Park these days and you’ll hear talk of rush-hour tie-ups on the local interstate, of a need for car-pooling, of how the place might do with a commuter rail line across its hilly, manicured expanses.

Where tobacco and cotton once grew, 33,000 people today labor in the labs and production plants of 53 major companies, institutes and government agencies. In the next year, another 1,000 or so will join them. Like any community that blossoms from scratch, this one has suffered growing pains along the way. But not badly enough to make it want to stop.

Now road construction crews are at work in the park’s still largely untouched southern tract to open the way for development there. Who will set up there is unclear; land that costs $45,000 an acre and carries major use restrictions is not for everyone.


“We are talking to several” candidates, said James Roberson, president of Research Triangle Foundation, which oversees the park. “We have none . . . ready to make a decision.”

Someone almost certainly will come. Since its birth, the park has joined Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128 as a prestige address for high-tech America. “There’s some aura about being inside the park,” said Richard Sampere of International Business Machines Corp., which has 8,500 people and 835 acres at the park and more in surrounding areas.

The park was conceived in the 1950s by a coalition of North Carolina politicians, academics and business leaders; today it is sometimes cited as a model of public-private cooperation.

Uniting them was concern over the state’s status as one of the nation’s poorest. The traditional industries--furniture, tobacco and textiles--did not seem to be good bets for changing that. So, the idea was born to craft a high-tech research community out of thin air to drive development statewide and encourage students in state universities to stay put after graduation.


The national panic over the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik and the development of air conditioning helped things along.

With moral but not financial backing from the state, $2 million was raised from private sources, and in January, 1959, the park was founded. It was inside a “triangle” of higher education: Duke University in Durham, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Chemstrand Corp. was the first major corporate comer, in 1959, joining the newly created Research Triangle Institute. But it wasn’t until 1965 that the park got its anchors: IBM and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Later arrivals set up operations in such fields as biotechnology, synthetic diamonds, supercomputing, statistics, pollution control, microelectronics and pharmaceuticals.

Astroturf, an artificial turf, originated in Chemstrand’s park lab. Here, IBM developed the bar-code readers that are now used in supermarket check-out lines. And Burroughs Wellcome Co. developed drugs for treatment of herpes and AIDS.

The park has major manufacturing operations as well, encouraged by the state’s low wages, enduring work ethic and anti-union atmosphere. Northern Telecom Inc. makes telephone switches, many of which are exported. IBM makes its line of PS-2 personal computers.

Said Laverne Ellis, who assembles PS-2s and is studying computer science: “In this area, there’s a lot of room for advancement, for those who want to take advantage of it.”

Scientists and researchers are hired from local schools and brought in from outside, producing an influx that has helped change local politics and build myriad housing subdivisions outside the park (there are no homes inside). It has reached the point where the region now claims to have the country’s highest per-capita density of Ph.D’s.

Newcomers could do worse in lifestyle amenities. “It’s difficult to get people to move out of this location” once they’re here, said Ray Mays, who manages IBM’s PS-2 production. Though local property values have risen fast, they remain well below those of many U.S. cities, and newcomers frequently “trade up” in housing.


The universities offer concerts and sports. Broadway plays are sometimes tested first in theaters here, and beaches and skiing are two hours away. “It’s a wonderful place to come home to,” said Alan G. Lutz, a Northern Telecom group vice president who travels frequently.

Connoisseurs of fine cuisine may find local restaurants a bit lacking, however. A more serious concern is public schools. Their less-than-stellar quality has companies concerned that employees with children won’t want to come here. Some companies are donating money and time to help schools improve.

Relations with area towns and counties are generally cordial, as they work to encourage park-related growth and to keep it orderly. One unusual facet of the relationship: Under a 1986 state law, no town can “annex” the park and add it to its tax base.

Expansion waned in the late ‘80s, but now has resumed, partly the result of new interest from foreign investors. Reichhold Chemicals Inc., a Japanese-owned company, broke ground for a $50-million complex in July. Glaxo Inc., a British-owned operation that already has 1,900 employees at labs and a headquarters in the park, has just completed the first phase of a $440-million expansion.