Amazon and Apple have drawn all the hoopla, but state and local officials think the Triangle can win another big economic-development battle, one that 15 communities are vying for: a new U.S. Army headquarters.
The Army Futures Command is supposed to orchestrate the development of new cannons, missiles, combat vehicles and other hardware the service's uniformed and civil leaders think will be needed in the coming years to maintain an advantage over countries such as China and Russia.
Military leaders are now looking for a place to put it, and have said they prefer an area with strong academic and business sectors. That puts the Triangle in the mix almost by definition, and a coalition of federal, state, local and university officials is working to see that it stays there.
"From what I understand about what they're looking for, North Carolina and the Research Triangle were pretty much wired for this type of command," said Don Hobart, associate vice chancellor for research at UNC-Chapel Hill. "I think we'll be very competitive for it."
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
A decision is due this summer. Officials from the N.C. Military Foundation, the group coordinating the local effort, told local leaders they had "very high confidence" the Triangle would make the top 10, but are now waiting to see what happens after the Army decided at the last minute that 15 cities would make the first cut.
The region's currently up against Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.
The area's made it so far because it has the "combination of talent, commercial and academic innovation, and quality of life that we are looking for in locating the command," Under Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy said in an April 17 letter to Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane.
McCarthy's letter included a set of questions for local officials to answer by May 10, focusing on things like the ties between the region's business sector, universities and local governments, and on the quality and likely growth of the region's engineering workforce.
The Military Foundation, a private nonprofit, orchestrated the response but it's had plenty of help. North Carolina's U.S. senators, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, both Republicans, have lent a hand, along with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, several state agencies, the UNC system and various economic-development groups.
"This has been a very well-coordinated effort," said Kathie Sidner, the UNC system's director of defense and military partnerships. "Maybe perhaps part of that comes from having the practice runs, having gone through the experience with Amazon and some of the other recruiting efforts over the last year or two. Folks have recognized that we have to be well-coordinated."
The region's advantages, as local officials see it, include a set of major universities that are already used to working with the Army and other services.
Professors at Duke University, for example, in fiscal 2015-16 received about $58 million in research grants from the U.S. Department of Defense and are working on things like quantum computing, artificial intelligence and landmine detection that are of interest to the military.
UNC-Chapel Hill has links to groups like the Army Research Office, which is based in Research Triangle Park, and through the Kenan-Flagler Business School has provided "executive education" to officers and staff from both the Army and the U.S. Navy, Hobart said.
The region's universities, N.C. State University and N.C. Central University included, have educated any number of senior officers. The most prominent of recent vintage was Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, formerly national security adviser in the Trump administration. He earned a history Ph.D. at UNC-CH.
The Triangle is also near Fort Bragg, one of the Army's primary U.S. bases, and it's close enough to Washington, D.C., "to make collaboration easy but far enough away not to be captured by a Beltway mindset," said Duke professor Peter Feaver, a former National Security Council staffer.
The Army has said the Futures Command headquarters will house about 500 uniformed and civilian employees, all led by a four-star general. The service is looking mainly for existing office space.
Local officials believe the headquarters would spark additional development.
"All major Army contractors will need to open up offices nearby," according to a memo from the N.C. Military Foundation. "Where [Army Futures Command] goes, the defense industry will follow."
In a recent phone conference that included Tillis, Cooper and local officials, "the references were definitely to Raleigh" as the most likely go-to spot for office space if the region lands the project, said Wendy Jacobs, chairwoman of the Durham County Commissioners.
The Army leadership's motive for setting up the new command is clear enough. Service leaders believe there's need for a new round of weapons development, to replace hardware that even after major upgrades still comes from Cold War-era designs.
The existing design process is too slow, taking three to five years just to spell out the service's requirements and another decade to design, build and test the new hardware, according a November memo issued by the Army over McCarthy's signature.
All in all, the hold-ups mean "the Army is losing near-peer competitive advantage in many areas," the memo said. "We are out-ranged, outgunned and increasingly outdated. Private industry and some potential adversaries are fielding new capabilities much faster than we are."
The dilemma stems in part from the military's post-9/11 focus on fighting guerillas and other irregulars. Thus preoccupied, it opted for "incremental improvements to our legacy close-combat capabilities" while nations like Russia and China looked for relatively inexpensive ways to leapfrog U.S. strengths, McCarthy said October.
The Army regards longer-range artillery and missiles as its major needs, followed by a replacement of the 1970s-designed M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
While there's support in Washington for the idea of setting up the new command, there's some disagreement with current strategy for placing it near academic centers.
A recent U.S. House Appropriations Committee report said Congress should force the service to explain the list of 15 cities and "identify current Army locations where Futures Command could be established."
Army leaders, however, have "said they don't want to put it on a military base" to ensure that it's close to academic and business innovators and minimize the chances of it getting entangled in the minutia of traditional service and base bureaucracy, Sidner said.
They've "said, 'We've been trying modernize for decades, if this is going to be successful we have to try something new,' " she said.