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If you try really hard, you can probably get Bob Geolas, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Park (RTP), to get in a car and drive with you around

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

If you try really hard, you can probably get Bob Geolas, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Park (RTP), to get in a car and drive with you around

The Man and Plan Behind
Research Triangle Park

If you try really hard, you can probably get Bob Geolas, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Park (RTP), to get in a car and drive with you around the groundbreaking park, which occupies nearly 7,000 acres between the research universities that constitute the Triangle’s three points: North Carolina State University in Raleigh, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and Duke University in Durham. Among the pine-covered hills, he could point out buildings and corporate campuses — here’s IBM, which came in 1965 and gave RTP serious cred; here’s the National Humanities Center, which opened in 1978 and underscored that “research” didn’t mean only hard science; here’s Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, Cisco — companies that need no introduction, especially to the 40,000 people the park now employs, or the two million people it has helped draw to the central Carolina area that surrounds them.

But in the first place, at least at the moment, that would be a pretty boring drive. The Research Triangle Park, built on gently rolling Piedmont land, is pleasant enough, in a mowed-lawns-and-pine-trees kind of way. It looks like what it is: a vast, car-oriented corporate campus. And Geolas and his colleagues are nowadays thinking hard about how to reinvent RTP for a future that has less to do with cars and more to do with people, and the places people like to be.

In fact, Geolas says, if you’re looking at the companies, at the buildings, you’re missing the point. “One of the things we focus on about RTP is to not get too hung up on the land part of it,” he says, enjoying lunch in a pleasant RTP headquarters conference room rather than gobbling a sandwich off his knees, rolling around in a car, the way a reporter had asked him to do. “The thing to focus on is the stories of the people.”

Fair enough; let’s do that, but let’s take a kind of nutty route. Let’s go through Bob Geolas’s family dog.

“We just got a new puppy,” he says, smiling. “And we named him Archie Davis.”

The spirit of the park

Of Archie Davis — the man, not the dog — the North Carolina Business Hall of Fame says he was “a renaissance man in a banker’s suit.” Which, if it’s hyperbole, is so only because he didn’t always wear the suit. Davis died in 1998 at the age of 87, and before his fourscore and seven had run out, he had built a career at Wachovia Bank and Trust and helped lay the foundations for the Research Triangle Park. And he still had time to get an advanced degree in history when he retired.

Born the son of a wealthy physician in Winston-Salem in 1911, Davis traveled around the entire world with his family in the 1920s (flickering film of this trip even exists, in the UNC library system). Yet Davis, perhaps the most important spirit behind the creation of the Research Triangle Park, never found, on the rest of this entire planet, any place he preferred to North Carolina.

“He comes home with a renewed commitment to North Carolina,” Geolas says, “to doing things at home.” Davis earned his degree at UNC, then got a job right around home at Wachovia Bank. It was kind of a big job; before he was finished, he was chairman of the board. He served two terms in the North Carolina State Senate and was the president of the United States Chamber of Commerce. So when, in the 1950s, the Research Triangle Park concept was struggling to be born, Davis was the natural person for developers to turn to.

See, in the early 1950s, academics at N.C. State and Duke began floating the idea of finding ways for the universities in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill to cooperate in their research undertakings. They hoped to leverage the area’s strengths — and find a way to hold on to the schools’ highly educated graduates, who otherwise had little to do in a state whose main industries were agriculture, textiles, and furniture. So in the mid-1950s, Wachovia president Robert Hanes and Greensboro contractor Romeo Guest urged Gov. Luther Hodges to commission a report on creating some kind of research park. The chancellor of N.C. State was on board, and so, quickly, were the chancellors of UNC and Duke. The first known written use of the term “Research Triangle” shows up in the appointment book of Romeo Guest in 1953.

Archie Davis wasn’t usually a hard-hat kind of guy. But he was a mover and a shaker, and he believed in the importance of RTP. • Photo courtesy of the Research Triangle Park. photograph by Natalia Weedy

That meeting was between Guest and a business leader: The park was originally a for-profit land deal — more a development than an institution — and Guest optioned land to get the thing started. But when it came to actually paying for the land, the business community didn’t step up, so in 1959, the planners called on Archie Davis. Davis got in his car and began driving around, calling less on individuals than on institutions and corporations — enterprises he thought most likely to be looking, in the words of Geolas, “to lift up all the people of North Carolina.”

That is, RTP had three goals from its start — yes, to provide good jobs and economic development, and yes, with its university linchpins, to work for education both on and off campus. But what Davis called “a generosity of spirit” had to pervade the park. What would provide it, in Davis’s mind, was simple: “The love of this state … was the motivation for the Research Triangle idea,” he said. “Research Triangle is a manifestation of what North Carolina is all about.” In a state then likened to Rip Van Winkle, its embrace of technology and education was a leap toward the future. In a state with one of the lowest wage structures and poorest education systems in the nation, Davis believed that its citizens could — and should — lead the world.

It’s hard to put that in a profit and loss statement, so the group decided maybe the park would work better as a nonprofit.

It did, and instantly: Davis raised enough money for the first land purchase in a matter of months. The nonprofit status proved to be a draw. For one thing, the state wouldn’t purchase land for a development deal, but it would fund infrastructure and the universities in support of the nonprofit research park. Independent funding came from all over the state, and companies quickly began arriving, including the Research Triangle Institute, created when the park became a nonprofit.

A 1958 meeting with contractor Romeo Guest (second from the right), city officials, and philanthropists. Their hard work transformed acres of empty farmland into the shiny, modern campus we know today. • Photo courtesy of the Research Triangle Park. photograph by Natalia Weedy

And again: IBM in 1965 turned the thing from a growing little park into a major player, and since then, RTP has grown constantly. It currently comprises nearly 7,000 acres — about a third of the size of Manhattan — some 190 companies, and more than 40,000 employees, as anyone sitting in traffic on Interstate 40 between Raleigh and Durham any weekday morning or evening can attest. One of the very first research parks in the world (another started around the same time near Stanford University), RTP has had such a positive effect on the community, the state, and the world that it barely needs describing. When, in July 2014, Forbes magazine once again placed Raleigh atop a “best place” list (this time “for business and careers”), it had only to mention RTP, “the largest research park in the country.”

The bar code, ctrl+alt+del, and AstroTurf were all invented here. The actual one true periodic table of the elements is maintained here! RTP is the real deal — and if you drove through it, you might not notice you were here. Because of the park’s ahead-of-its-time enviro demand that no more than 30 percent of each land parcel be developed, the landscape is green and open — and a sense of place is almost nonexistent.

Project Archie

But that’s the exact issue Geolas and his colleagues are addressing now as they design a sort of RTP 2.0. For one thing, a world leader must take care not to rest on its laurels. For another, what catered perfectly to IBM and the giant government and corporate campuses of the mid-20th century no longer seems quite so attractive to the nimble pop-up businesses and research enterprises that drive the 21st-century economy.

Which is where Geolas comes in. Like Davis, Geolas left the state but couldn’t stay away. Growing up in and around the Triangle area, Geolas saw firsthand how RTP improved the economy. He tried to leave the area for college, but after two years at Appalachian State University, he came back to finish his degree at N.C. State. Then, after spending years working with N.C. State’s Centennial Campus, he left in 2004 for Clemson University — but returned in 2011, drawn, like Archie Davis, back to the state where he was raised.

And like Davis, Geolas sees the park in terms of what it has done and can do for North Carolina. “It’s not about the land or the buildings,” Geolas says. “It’s about building something for others. The land is the tool.” At more than 50 years old, RTP, though enormously successful, shows its age. Many of the park’s next steps are obvious — public transit;  more opportunities for smaller companies and for collaboration; and, for the first time, places for people to live, shop, and recreate within the park. Much of this is laid out in an updated Master Plan from 2011.

But every corporate campus, city center, and research park is talking about these things. To be true to its upbringing, RTP has to do more. “We have to have an idea now that’s as big as the idea Archie had when they created the park,” Geolas says.

So they did what Davis did. Geolas and his staff took a bus tour of the entire state, meeting with people to discuss what RTP needed for its next generation of growth. They found people concerned that the park was feeling a bit old, a bit unexciting. So in the process of planning — called, naturally enough, “Project Archie” — the keepers of RTP have focused on several guiding principles. “We’re about idea generation,” Geolas says, so he’s worried less about buildings and more about things like affordability and accessibility. But the real next focus will be about inspiration and authenticity. He points to the new Hunt Library that N.C. State has built on its Centennial Campus, a highly unusual building that has been receiving international plaudits for its uniqueness. “As humans, we design unique places to gather and visit,” he says, and he wants to bring that spirit to RTP.

Staffers are planning not only living spaces and places to eat and drink, not only traditional parks for families to enjoy, but also places to show off what has been developed and created at the park. “Not a museum. That sounds too static,” Geolas says. “The way you do that is through stories.”

RTP is a bastion of science and research, but there’s room for art, too. Painted members of the “Cow Parade” exhibit, including  “Aqua Cow,” “Binary Bovine,” and “100% Certified Locally Grown Durham Bull,” bring a little whimsy. photograph by Natalia Weedy

Geolas is more than confident that RTP’s next generation will be as successful as its first, because he puts his trust in the people of North Carolina, who he believes are — and want to be — forward-thinking and visionary, not hesitant and cautious.

“Imagine if Luther Hodges had said, ‘I’m not going to make any investment; let’s wait until the companies come down, and then we’ll see,’ ” Geolas says, shaking his head. Good ideas need risk takers; investment; people willing to embrace, not fear, the future. Taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the original park would have been like saying you’d build a football stadium in Charlotte once 60,000 people started gathering on Sundays to watch football and just needed a field for the players.

The Research Triangle Park is closer to its next expression than people realize, and you don’t have to go to Geolas’s hoped-for eating commons or displays to find them. Though the IBM’s and Ciscos get most of the attention, 71 percent of the companies in RTP employ fewer than 50 people — and 43 percent employ fewer than 10. That starts to look small and nimble already.

So RTP’s next story is already developing, and Geolas is delighted. The park is meant to support education, create meaningful work, and help lift up all the people of North Carolina. “That’s a wonderful thing to get up and do every day,” he says.

Of course, people ask him when RTP will finally be finished. Geolas just smiles. “I say, ‘Never.’ ”

Archie Davis would be proud.

This story was published on Aug 25, 2014

Scott Huler

Huler is the senior staff writer at Duke magazine and a Piedmont Laureate Emeritus. He has written for such newspapers as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Los Angeles Times and magazines including Backpacker, Fortune, and Child. His award-winning radio work has been heard on "All Things Considered" and "Day to Day" on National Public Radio and on "Marketplace" and "Splendid Table" on American Public Media, and he sometimes serves as guest host on "The State of Things" on WUNC-FM. He is the author of seven books of nonfiction, most recently A Delicious Country, about retracing the journey of explorer John Lawson.