University Business Parks Model North Carolina State’s Centennial Campus

The campus throws academics, nonprofits and businesses together to facilitate the constant and intense interaction required to bring research breakthroughs to market.

Knowledge transfer,” Claude McKinney used to say, “is a contact sport.”

McKinney knew what he was talking about. The longtime dean of the School of Design at North Carolina State University (NCSU) had worked on the new town of Columbia, Md., for the legendary developer James Rouse and on the 1964 New York World’s Fair. So when, in the 1980s, McKinney was put in charge of designing the Centennial Campus at North Carolina State, a pet project of then-Gov. Jim Hunt, he put decades of common-sense experience to good use.

If North Carolina was truly going to have the most advanced economic development effort in the nation, McKinney reasoned, then academic researchers, nonprofit institutions and for-profit businesses shouldn’t be separated from one another. They should all be thrown together in the same location, in order to facilitate the constant and intense interaction required to bring research breakthroughs to market.

A quarter-century after its inception, Centennial -- located just south of the main North Carolina State campus in Raleigh -- is now everybody’s poster child for how a university business park should work. It’s not exactly urban; in fact, it’s quite pastoral. And just as McKinney envisioned, it is a mixture of research and business: NCSU’s College of Agriculture and College of Textiles are located there, along with a wide range of companies that work with NCSU’s research institutes, faculty and students. It’s a great example of open innovation in action.

Now, it seems, every university wants to create a mixed-use research/commercialization campus within walking distance of faculty labs. Arizona State University has moved many of its health-related academic operations to downtown Phoenix in order to be close to the commercialization action. The University of Nebraska recently created the Nebraska Innovation Campus adjacent to its main campus in Lincoln. It’s a direct knock-off of the Centennial idea, as University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken, a former systemwide administrator at the University of North Carolina, would be the first to admit.

Centennial’s influence has even reached the unlikeliest place of all: Research Triangle Park (RTP), the other major economic engine in the Raleigh-Durham area and, for the last 50 years, a business park best understood as the anti-Centennial.

Like Centennial in the 1980s, Research Triangle Park was North Carolina’s major economic development initiative in the 1950s. Hatched by the state and its universities, the idea was to create a free-standing research park capable of luring big corporate research facilities from the Northeast that would benefit from being in a low-tax state near three major universities. Located on the Wake County/Durham County border west of Raleigh, RTP is a world unto itself: a 7,000-acre research park that is at once a nonprofit foundation, a for-profit development company and a governmental taxing district.

On its own terms, Research Triangle Park has been fabulously successful, with about 22 million square feet of office space, 170 companies and 40,000 workers. But RTP is in danger of becoming a dinosaur, a monument to an earlier age when research and innovation occurred in closed corporate research labs behind locked gates. The number of workers has been flat for a decade and RTP is at last running out of land. So it’s not surprising that RTP is now trying to become more like Centennial.

It hired New York-based Cooper, Robertson & Partners, an architecture and urban design firm, to draw up a new master plan, focused on creating a mixed-use center. Although RTP won’t reveal exactly where the mixed-use center is to be located, it most likely will be adjacent to one of the two planned rail transit stations along the eastern edge of the RTP property. And RTP just hired McKinney protégé Bob Geolas -- a graduate of North Carolina State -- as CEO.

In reality, Centennial and Research Triangle Park do not compete in building the Raleigh-Durham regional economy. Each plays a very particular role in the region’s prosperity, and they play to different markets.

But it’s also clear where the future of economic development lies: not behind the gates and walls of Research Triangle Park, with its proprietary innovation on closed corporate campuses, but in the walking, strolling and random interaction of Centennial. Think Silicon Valley, where open-source innovation thrives because people from different situations -- academic, research, financial and start-ups -- interact freely with one another. This kind of knowledge transfer is the future and it is very much a contact sport.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.