“Our vision is for a very open innovation community. It’s not just about science, technology and engineering anymore. Our region’s great strength is that we work together.” – Bob Geolas, The Research Triangle Park’s President & CEO
Bob Geolas had just interviewed for the post of CEO of the Research Triangle Park (RTP) when a drive through a complex of vacant buildings off N.C. Highway 54 set his mind thinking. The empty offices on Park Office Drive had once housed employees of IBM, Lenovo and RTI International. “It was a striking symbol that part of the Park had become inactive,” Geolas recalls of his visit there, prior to being hired to head up the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina, the nonprofit that manages RTP, in 2011.
Today, there is renewed dynamism. In early 2015, Geolas and other RTP officials unveiled The Frontier, about 142,000 square feet of redeveloped office space that is an early glimpse into the Park’s newest incarnation. The Frontier is a stimulating venue for entrepreneurs, RTP employees and creative-class workers. Its airy open space and ultra-fast WiFi service are accessible at no cost to individuals and groups, in fact. There is even free coffee from a local roaster. The site also accommodates businesses needing permanent, private office space at attractive leasing rates.
By March 2015, about 50 percent of the office space at The Frontier had been leased, and about 4,000 people had visited the site, according to Geolas. “It’s becoming a great gathering spot that is changing the culture and perception of the Park,” he says.
Established in 1959, Research Triangle Park remains one of the South’s most successful economic development ventures. The 7,000-acre corporate community houses global business titans from Cisco and Credit Suisse to Sumitomo and Syngenta. In all, about 200 companies call the Park home, and RTP’s employment-base ranges from 40,000 to 45,000 workers. The Frontier is the result of a 2012 Master Plan completed for the Park that calls for more collaborative common spaces, entrepreneur-friendly environments and retail amenities. The Frontier marks something of a “beta test,” Geolas says. Its name derives from the Western ethos of expansiveness and open space. “We loved the idea of a frontier that would bring in pioneers,” he adds.
Geolas, a native of Raleigh and graduate of N.C. State University, says The Frontier also symbolizes Research Triangle Park’s intellectual diversity as it moves into its second 50 years. “Our vision is for a very open innovation community,” he explains. “It’s not just about science, technology and engineering anymore.” Those with backgrounds in the arts, humanities – even music – have a place in RTP’s culture. “Everybody brings something to the table,” says Geolas. Such inclusiveness will likely set a new global standard for the research parks of the future.
“The plan 50 years ago was visionary,” Geolas says. The challenge ahead is one of keeping RTP current with the way businesses and people work and succeed in today’s world. The Master Plan enables the Park to preserve its globally recognizable brand while accommodating changes driven by workforce tastes and market needs.
RTP is the product of the region’s three research universities – Duke, N.C. State and UNC Chapel Hill. As the Park transformed the economic terrain of Durham and Wake counties, it has also served a broader regional and statewide mission as a destination for high-quality jobs. “The larger story is about how RTP challenges and inspires people,” says Geolas. Now the Foundation collaborates with other educational institutions – N.C. Central University, Wake Forest University and UNC Wilmington, for example – and its mission seeks ways to boost the economies of the state’s hard-pressed rural communities. “We’re not comfortable being an island of prosperity in a sea of struggles,” Geolas says.
The Foundation was among the earliest investors in Research Triangle Regional Partnership, and its support remains steadfast. “It’s extremely important that we continue to get together and share information,” says Geolas of RTRP’s leadership role in uniting the region’s economic development professionals. “Our region’s great strength is that we work together.” The Park participates in the annual State of the Research Triangle Region Breakfast because the event is an important opportunity to examine the region’s overall performance – successes as well as obstacles, according to Geolas. “We always leave the State of the Region meeting feeling energized about the future,” he says. “That’s the real value in it.”
This piece was reprinted with the permission of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, and is part of their series called Success Stories. To read more profiles of area change makers, check out their website.