New RTP project seen as economic engine for region

Bill Shore, the interim CEO of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, likens Research Triangle Park to a 50-year-old car that is in good shape overall but needs a new engine.

“They’re putting a new engine in this thing,” Shore said of the plan to redevelop a roughly 50-acre section of Park Center, an aging office park at the intersection of N.C. 54 and Davis Drive in RTP. The plan was officially unveiled by the Research Triangle Foundation, the not-for-profit that runs the park, before an upbeat audience of more than 100 business executives, public officials and others.

Shore is convinced that modernizing Park Center – the first project undertaken under the ambitious, updated master plan for RTP that debuted in November 2012 – will prove to be an economic engine by giving corporate recruitment a boost.

“This new plan is the future,” he said. “It’s going to attract new industry because of the work, live and play scenario.”

The park has essentially been a work-only zone up to now, but the Park Center redevelopment aims to change that by including public spaces – a dog park, sculpture garden and 5,000-seat amphitheater – plus two hotels, 300,000 square feet of retail and several hundred apartments.

The project is being financed in part by a $50 million public-private partnership. The foundation and Durham County are each providing $20 million, with the final $10 million coming from RTP’s owners and tenants.

“It’s an investment in the future,” said Durham Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who attended Thursday’s announcement. The Park Center is in the Durham County portion of RTP.

“What I like is that it has a mixture of uses,” Reckhow said. “It will be promoting walkability and it has a spine of green space running through the campus. Those are features that startup companies, high-tech companies and millennials are looking for.”

If the project works out as planned, “the lights will not go out in RTP at 6 p.m. like they do right now,” Rechow said. “People will be staying here and playing, so to speak, enjoying life. This will be a game-changer for RTP.”

But those changes will take time. Site-clearing is scheduled to begin in January, but it will take about 18 months to put the required infrastructure in place to accommodate what could ultimately become 3 million square feet of new development. In addition, the hotels, apartments and retail space will be built by private developers that have yet to be signed up.

Venture capitalist Christy Shaffer of Durham’s Hatteras Venture Partners believes that RTP will benefit from an environment that enables researchers and other workers from different companies to mingle together.

“Joe Desimone told me one time, science is a contact sport,” said Shaffer. “You have to be bumping up against people and having those conversations.” Desimone is a serial entrepreneur and a renowned scientist who is on the faculty of both N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill.

The current layout of RTP, and the lack of gathering places, doesn’t lend itself to such interaction, Shaffer said.

“The park was a great idea in 1959, but it’s old school now,” Shaffer said.

Shaffer also was impressed with the $50 million in funding that is in place.

“I think it’s real now,” she said. “Before it was a lot of talk, now it’s real. I’m excited about it.”

David Ranii: 919-829-4877, @dranii

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