Research Triangle Park

Written By North Carolina History Project

During the mid-1950s, business and government leaders worried about North Carolina’s economic future.   The per capita income ($1,049) was one of the lowest in the Southeast and in the nation, and the state seemed dependent on manufacturing jobs in the agriculture, forestry, and furniture, and textile industries.  Leaders, including Robert Hanes, the president of Wachovia Bank and Trust Company, and Romeo Guest, a Greensboro contractor, planned how to attract modern industries to the Tar Heel State.   Research Triangle Park (RTP) was their brainchild, and it later became one of the top five research centers in the United States.   According to historian Numan V. Bartley, RTP was the “South’s most successful high-technology venture.”

Since 1952, UNC sociologist Howard Odum had suggested that the state should take advantage of the Triangle’s three research universities: UNC-Chapel Hill, North Carolina State, and Duke University.  Leaders decided that RTP should be a private endeavor, with cooperation from the universities, instead of being a government-sponsored action.

Developers had to overcome a few problems. Leaders worked to rehabilitate the state’s image to attract companies (and their employees) from across the nation.  One, the rest of the nation watched and read news reports detailing the Civil Rights Movement.  Two, developers had to convince prospective companies that the South was capable of handling such a research park.  Developers also needed to raise money and purchase land.

The first couple years were uneventful, but when the venture changed from profit to non-profit status, the proposed research center seemed possible.  With Governor Luther Hodges’s endorsement, the Research Triangle Committee was formed in 1956, and its executive director, George Simpson, approached Karl Robbins in 1957 to develop land for the proposed research park. Robbins created Pineland, Inc., a stock venture to purchase land for the potential center.  Few people purchased stock in the company, so developers sought corporate and institutional funding.  The Research Triangle Institute (RTI) was formed in 1958 and operated independently from the area universities. In a year, RTI had raised $1.5 million.

Five companies located in RTP at the end of 1959, and the research center continued to attract more.  (The Research Triangle Foundation was formed in 1959, and it managed RTP.)  By the mid-1960s, public confidence in the feasibility of the Park’s long-term success was solidified: International Business Machines (IBM) announced its plans for a 400-acre, 600,000 square foot research facility in RTP, and the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare publicized its plans to establish its National Environment Health Service Center at RTP.

According to Research Triangle Park: Evolution and Renaissance, the Park annually averaged six companies and 1,800 new employees over the next four decades.  During the 1990s technological boom, RTP’s employment numbers reached its peak at approximately 45,000.  Today, RTP houses nearly 140 businesses that employ approximately 38,000.  Corporations include GlaxoSmithKline, IBM, Nortel Networks, and Cisco Systems.