Rick L. Weddle likes to call them "techie Tuesdays." As chief executive of the foundation that owns and runs North Carolina's Research Triangle Park, Weddle has been encouraging regular social mixers, with free food and drinks, where some of the park's 50,000 tech workers can mingle, network, and perhaps hatch new companies. He describes a recent gathering to celebrate Earth Day as "the largest collection of pocket protectors and cocktails on earth."
Such events would hardly be worth noting in most high-tech capitals around the U.S. But at Research Triangle Park, the 7,000-acre science park outside Raleigh-Durham that is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, creating a sense of community is regarded as a top priority.
For much of its history, Research Triangle served as a role model for science parks around the globe. Such corporations as IBM (IBM) and Monsanto (MON) liked its woodsy campus within driving distance of research labs at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Duke, and North Carolina State (NCS). Brent Lane, director of the UNC Center for Competitive Economies, describes the Research Triangle of the past as "Ward Cleaver's vision of a perfect industrial park," referring to the father character in the TV series Leave it to Beaver, which aired when the park was new.
"The campuses resembled a set of isolated city states. There were research cloisters rather than clusters," Lane recalls. "It was quite deliberately designed to be the antithesis of Silicon Valley."
A New Collaborative Model
These days, that model is regarded as out of date as, well, television's Cleavers. Several studies show that young "knowledge workers" prefer living in dynamic urban environments over suburbs. And innovation these days is all about cross fertilization and open collaboration. Today's science parks also have a much broader mission than in the past, when they largely were viewed as real estate developments. Now they are regarded as catalysts for economic development across an entire state or nation.
To remain relevant in the 21st century, planners have revised old restrictions on land use to make it easier for workers to live nearby. Over the past five years, 41,000 residential units have been built or started. As a result, most new employees live within five to 10 minutes of work. Before, most staff commuted 30 or 40 minutes each way from surrounding towns.
The park also has added more retail space, built 14 miles of bicycle and hiking trails, started a brown-bag speaker series on different topics, and is expanding its 800-member softball league. "We are focusing more on people now, not companies," Weddle explains. "My major challenge is not allowing this to be a place where people don't want to stay. It is about making this place consistently more attractive to the brightest minds in the world."
Still a Future for Exurban Parks
Research Triangle also has expanded its tenant base beyond technology. There is a humanities center for legal and social science research, and NCS runs an MBA program. The park also has added facilities, such as incubator labs and low-cost space that can be used for short periods.
Weddle contends that Research Triangle isn't under an imminent threat of losing tenants. While business has obviously slowed since the recession hit in late 2007, the park over the past five years has drawn $1.3 billion in capital investments that created nearly 6,000 jobs in such clusters as infomatics and life sciences. Recently, IBM opened a $362 million data center, while Merck (MRK) spent $300 million to expand a vaccine plant.
Despite a back-to-the-city movement, Weddle argues that well-run exurban parks still have value. "Yes, there are studies that say people want to live in a cool place. But they also want to live where there is opportunity that is flexible and dynamic," he says. With its new amenities and broader agenda, Research Triangle Park might well make it another 50 years.
Engardio is an international senior writer for BusinessWeek .