RALEIGH — Somehow it's possible to hide a 1,120-acre research park with more than 2 million square feet of corporate offices, labs and university classrooms inside the capital.
Inside the Beltline even.
N.C. State University is celebrating the 25th birthday of its innovative Centennial Campus today as it breaks ground on a new library that is expected to be its aesthetic and cultural heart.
The campus is revered elsewhere in the world, but many locals aren't aware of what it has become, said Tom Rabon, an executive vice president of Red Hat, the software company with headquarters on Centennial. About three years ago Rabon was invited to Toulouse, France, to talk about the place his company had picked for its headquarters.
"The French government paid me to come over and talk about nothing but Centennial Campus because they wanted to emulate exactly what we have," he said. "People in Raleigh drive past every day and just have no idea what's behind that line of trees on I-40, and no idea that Centennial Campus is the envy of the world."
As it passes the quarter-century mark, though, the campus has begun flowering in ways that are softening its business-park aesthetic and making it more visible here, too.
The 18-hole Lonnie Poole Golf Course was finished this summer, and soon the Jimmy V Celebrity Golf Classic drew a crowd of more than 11,000 to Centennial, many who had never seen the rows of new buildings. And the new library, with its striking architecture and philosophy built around bringing people together, will give the campus a focal point.
The library will be named for former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., who led the push to give NCSU the state land for the project. Hunt said this week that after seeing the interest in high technology on trade missions to Europe and Japan in the 1980s it became clear that North Carolina needed a new strategy to avoid being left behind in fields such as microelectronics and biotechnology.
Some city leaders wanted to use the land for private housing, he said, but that would have meant a huge missed opportunity.
"I wanted to help the university do more with research and teaching, and give the companies a real jolt, to help them with their research, too," he said. "We decided to use that land in a way that I think was unprecedented in the United States at the time."
The idea, then-NCSU design school dean Claude McKinney said back in 1986, was to bring private industry onto campus for joint research projects with students and faculty. No other university would have a park that blended the public and private together so thoroughly.
Former Chancellor Bruce Poulton asked McKinney, who died last year, to develop the master plan for the campus, which clusters most of the buildings in an almost urban grouping, preserving open space for things like the golf course, forest trails, playing fields and future growth.
A place for interaction
As it was planned and grew, the campus spurred debates on how to handle the traffic and the possible risks of letting for-profit companies onto a university campus.
The plans, though, have worked out much as envisioned, minus a few things such as a monorail system McKinney wanted to connect with the main university campus. Another controversial component -- a hotel and conference center -- hasn't been built yet, but is still planned.
Indeed, another 6 million square feet of space is expected in the next 20 to 40 years on the main Centennial Campus and the related 214-acre Centennial Biomedical Campus, near the State Fairgrounds, where the College of Veterinary Medicine is located.
The campus has allowed Prasanth Anbalagan, 27, a computer science doctoral student from India, to work with three internationally prominent companies -- all producing significantly different products -- without leaving the campus where his university department is located.
Anbalagan interned with ABB, which makes electrical transmission equipment, and cell phone maker Ericsson. Recently he started working informally with Red Hat. Even while interning, any time he needed to talk with his academic mentor all he had to do was walk. "It allowed continuous interaction with my adviser because everything was in the same place," he said.
The companies that he has worked with on the campus are among more than 120 government, industry and university partners there. They include the National Weather Service, the state Wildlife Resources Commission and pharmaceutical giant Glaxo-SmithKline.
Construction started this year on a building that will house the FREEDM Systems Center, a smart grid energy research center funded by the National Science Foundation.
On the cutting edge
Companies that locate on the campus can, as Red Hat has, draw on a host of academic disciplines for expertise, Rabon said.
It also helps having NCSU's computer science students exposed daily to Red Hat, an edge when the company is competing for the best and brightest new hires.
In the new knowledge-based economy, the kind of collaboration that springs up naturally at Centennial is the right approach to help the state build a cutting-edge work force and companies that can compete, Rabon said.
Folks who have been driving past the campus without coming in may be surprised at all of this, but Hunt said he isn't.
"Look, I know what it takes to have a successful economy," he said. "It's based on brain power, on research and putting bright people together in the same place."
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