Raleigh's Revival: The Research Triangle Park Boom

In recent years, the city of Raleigh is doing better than ever. Here's why.

In the late 1990s, you would have been hard-pressed to find a good cup of coffee after 6 p.m. in downtown Raleigh. Actually, you would have been hard-pressed to find any coffee after 6 p.m. in the central business district. And forget barhopping.

Downtown was dead, which didn't bode well for a city that was founded as North Carolina's capital in part because it was close to a tavern popular in the late 1700s with legislators. But after decades of post-World War II migration from the city center to far-out and farther-out suburbs, downtown had been reduced to a workaday destination for state employees that was deserted once 5 p.m. hit. Miller Time happened elsewhere.

Downtown Revival

That has changed in recent years. The city's tired pedestrian mall along Fayetteville Street was converted to a main drag for cars. A new convention center is bringing droves of visitors. And new and expanding companies are reviving the center city, bringing hundreds of employees, billions of dollars in private investment, dozens of bars and restaurants, and hundreds of residents filling freshly built condominiums.

Downtown Raleigh's renaissance is a smidgen of the renewal being experienced throughout the region. Indeed, the culture of Raleigh and the cities and towns that surround it, known as the Triangle, is largely based on its expanding population. Newness is part of its essence.

Building Research Triangle Park

It has come on the backs of old institutions. The state government was the reason for the city's being. Raleigh, founded in 1792, is among the few cities in the country created for the primary purpose of being a state capital. The region got its modern-day boost in 1959, when state and local governments created Research Triangle Park, which is still the country's biggest research park.

The 7,000-acre campus, which is primarily in Durham County, takes its name from its location between three research institutions: N.C. State in Raleigh, Duke University in Durham and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Shortly after its creation, IBM brought several thousand workers to RTP. By the late 1980s, RTP became the company's North American manufacturing hub for personal computers. Big Blue employs more than 10,000 people there today.

IBM's growth helped cement this region's reputation as a center for computer innovation, akin to Silicon Valley in California. Dozens of companies followed its lead, helping the Triangle become one of the nation's fastest growing regions. Raleigh alone has almost doubled in population in the past 20 years.

Beyond Politics and PCs

Today, about 170 companies including NetApp, Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks and Sony Ericsson employ roughly 40,000 people in RTP. And many other companies such as SAS, Lenovo and Red Hat have formed campuses beyond RTP's border.

In recent years, companies from other industries have flocked to the region, broadening the local economy beyond computer chips and government. They've been lured by the region's relatively low cost of living, low taxes and educated workforce.

The Triangle has become a center for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, Biogen Idec and Quintiles Transnational. Companies from the financial sector are moving here, too. Credit Suisse and Fidelity Investments have hired thousands of employees in recent years.

The area has been such a fertile ground for growing companies that it's common for people to move to the region with the expectation that they'll find work once they get there.

The growth has led to expanded entertainment and cultural options. A ballet company was formed in 1997, the same year Raleigh got its first major-league sports team, The Carolina Hurricanes of the National Hockey League. But growth also has brought crowded schools, roads and strained resources.

Some of those side effects have spawned renewal in the walkable cores of the region's biggest cities: Durham, Chapel Hill and, of course, Raleigh. Public utility Progress Energy expanded its headquarters downtown in 2004. A year later, Capital Bank said it would move from the suburbs to downtown. Soon after, RBC Bank, the U.S. Subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Canada, said it would move its headquarters to the same block, where the 33-story RBC Plaza, downtown's newest -- and the region's tallest -- tower stands today.

Three years later, a couple blocks south at the new convention center hotel, a sign of the times: The city center's first Starbucks opened. Sure, there were others. But they were on the fringe of downtown. And this one stays open until 7 p.m.

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