City of ... ideas

Raleigh wants to make entrepreneurs feel welcome, and help bring them together in a downtown space.

November 26, 2011 

Lots of people in the world of entrepreneurship are bullish on Durham these days, no whimsical play on the Bull City intended. Well, OK, maybe a little play. In any event, with Durham's American Tobacco campus bringing in all sorts of start-up companies and other young firms that specialize in helping them, soon-to-be-former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and N.C. State University leaders will host a summit of sorts in January to talk about recruiting start-up companies in their city.

Given the success Durham already has had, Raleigh may be a little late to the party, but the Capital City ought to have plenty to offer those folks who are just starting to realize the dream of having their own companies.

The idea is to bring entrepreneurs together and basically ask them, "How can government help?" The city wants, for example, to have a space in the core devoted to bringing the heads of startup companies together.

One entrepreneur noted that there are lots of people in Raleigh doing interesting things, "but they're miles apart from each other." Further, said Josh Whiton, a 31-year-old chief executive of a software company downtown, "There's not the serendipitous running into each other when you go to the coffee shop."

Whiton notes that Durham has been able to create that kind of "concentration." Hmmm ... does anyone else see a similarity in Raleigh's scattered, sprawling growth pattern of years past for residential neighborhoods and the way businesses are far-flung?

In Durham, the former American Tobacco campus lures young businesses with the promise of help from the Council for Entrepreneurial Development, which is on the campus, and with companies that help startup businesses with technology, legal advice and so forth. And once the word gets out, a Durham official says, the word spreads from one entrepreneur to another.

The vibe of downtown Durham, with the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Durham Performing Arts Center, American Tobacco complex and Brightleaf Square's renovated tobacco warehouses all in proximity, certainly spurs a creative ambience. Raleigh is a little more buttoned-down, but with its resurgent downtown it is heading in the right direction as a place where innovators could find a good fit.

Naturally, officials of both cities say there are ways to help each other and that this isn't necessarily a competition. But it is certainly a competition to some extent, benefitting the region. And Raleigh will have to quicken its pace if it wants to be active. That means moving ahead on finding the right kind of space for a recruiting headquarters, and for those entrepreneurs who might be interested in finding a niche.

In Research Triangle Park a few miles to the west, business and community and university have been coming together for more than half a century. Raleigh's focus can be more specific, on small business. This is an initiative that can work, provided the city puts its full energy and its best minds behind it.

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