The Value of Partnership

Research Triangle Region, N.C. – A national expert in economic competitiveness sums it up this way: 

“If the Brothers Grimm had been micro-economists, they would have written the story of Goldilocks and the three site selectors and explained how, for economic development strategies, states are too big, cities are too small and regions are just right.”

This assessment by Randall Kempner, the Council on Competitiveness’s vice president for regional innovation, affirms what the Research Triangle Region’s economic development community has known for decades. When it comes to creating business opportunity and jobs, regionalism is the way to go.

And when it comes to regionalism, no one does it better than the Research Triangle Region of North Carolina.

“Fifty years ago, forward-thinking founders of The Research Triangle Park came together to leverage the knowledge resources of three research universities and competitive assets of their three adjoining counties to create an economic engine for our region,” says Charles A. Hayes, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership (RTRP), the public-private partnership that manages economic development for the Research Triangle Region of North Carolina. The region is home to RTP and the 13 north-central N.C. counties of Chatham, Durham, Franklin, Granville, Harnett, Johnston, Lee, Moore, Orange, Person, Vance, Wake and Warren.

“Today, we leverage the assets of all 13 of our counties to extend the benefits of economic success broadly to all of the communities and residents of our region,” says Hayes.

RTRP accomplishes this goal by mobilizing a collaborative regional network of public, private and academic partners that are strategically focused on job creation and business success.

Audits and Reviews Affirm Partnership Model

Independent audits and reviews by both state and private agencies over the past decade have time and again affirmed the effectiveness of the partnership model. It aligns the resources of county, regional and state economic developers and their partners. It prevents duplication of efforts. It creates a continuity of service for companies, both existing and prospective, which enhances the region’s reputation and is a competitive asset.

Indeed, a 2008 study by the N.C. General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division recommended recurring state funding for the state’s partnerships, a strong endorsement of their work. Reviewers noted, in particular, the benefit the partnerships bring to the state’s rural communities. Without their participation in partnership marketing programs, many rural counties would be without an effective presence in the site-selection process. Perhaps most significant, the report noted a high degree of satisfaction among users of economic development services – the businesses that invest in the state and create jobs.

Effective partnerships, such as RTRP, are one of the reasons Site Selection magazine has ranked North Carolina No. 1 for business climate for nine of the past 10 years. That ranking is based on the opinions of site selection consultants who interact with the state’s economic development community and on the large number of companies that choose the state to grow.

Site selection consultant Jeannette Goldsmith of McCallum Sweeney Consulting explains.

“As with many aspects of economic development, North Carolina was a leader in recognizing that a regional approach increases the competitiveness of the entire state,” Goldsmith says. “Among the many advantages of regionalism is greatly enhanced marketing, with a broader array of assets to market and a more effective use of marketing funds. Regional economic development also aligns with the client’s perspective: site selectors focus primarily on regions and typically do not consider political boundaries when evaluating locations. North Carolina’s regional organizations have been quite successful in realizing these advantages.”

A Tradition of Regional Collaboration

The seeds of partnership were planted in the Research Triangle Region 50 years ago, when business and university leaders came together to create The Research Triangle Park.

In 1990, business leaders of the three core counties of the Research Triangle – Durham, Orange and Wake -- came together again for the same reason. Realizing they had more to gain by working together as a region than going it alone, they created the predecessor organization to RTRP, the Raleigh-Durham Association, to collaboratively market their counties.

The concept of regionalism and partnership was quickly gaining traction in other areas of North Carolina in the face of growing global competition for business investment and jobs. Three years later, in 1993, the N.C. Department of Commerce adopted it as a model, dividing all 100 counties into seven economic development partnerships. RTRP was born. It and each of the state’s regional partnerships were charged with developing and marketing their own unique assets and competencies to attract and expand industries and jobs that suited the needs and skills of their communities and workforces.

Over the past two decades, the partnership model has evolved to provide a tightly linked and carefully integrated system of partners on the county, region, state, and even federal, level, who work in complementary ways to expand business growth and investment.

Katherine Thomas, director of economic development for Progress Energy, a key corporate partner for RTRP, says the model has been hugely successful.

“North Carolina’s network of regional partnerships is recognized nationally as a best practice in economic development,” Thomas says. “Complementing the work of the N.C. Department of Commerce, the partnerships provide globally oriented research, industry outreach and other programs tailored to fit the specific needs of each region. Our economic development team highly values the collaboration, leadership, expertise and professionalism that the partnerships contribute. “

Unprecedented Level of Participation

RTRP’s approach to regional economic development has been to build on the region’s knowledge assets and history of public-private collaboration to create a broad-based, collaborative regional network of partners focused on a single vision and plan: to support businesses at every stage of development and make it easy for companies in the region to locate, operate and grow.

RTRP’s path-breaking regional strategic planning effort began in 2004, when it engaged more public, private, academic and nonprofit partners than ever before convened to focus on the region’s economic development strategy. More than 100 organizations voluntarily agreed to align their resources and efforts behind the region’s vision and plan for economic growth and to implement its various components.

The result: more than 100,000 jobs were created in the five-year period of the plan, with employment gains posted in 12 of 13 counties.

The International Economic Development Council recognized the region’s achievement by awarding RTRP its first-ever Award for Excellence in Regionalism and Cross-border Collaboration.

Seven years later, the dense network of supportive, active regional partners continues to work together on the new five-year strategic plan to ensure the region retains its competitive advantage.  The plan, called The Shape of Things to Come, calls for creating another 100,000 jobs by 2014 through a three-pronged strategy of:

  • Business growth – promoting the growth of companies and jobs in 11 targeted clusters related to life sciences, technology and defense by encouraging new companies to locate in the region, helping existing businesses grow and supporting the startup of new ventures.
  • Product development – preserving and enhancing the region’s competitive business climate, infrastructure and quality of life.
  • Regional collaboration – engaging regional leaders and partners in remaining strategically aligned to ensure regional competitiveness.

As part of that plan, RTRP in 2009 hosted another ground-breaking event, Reality Check, the largest regional group ever convened to focus on the issue of quality growth. Facing the anticipated arrival of 1.2 million new residents to the region by 2025, hundreds of people from all 13 counties gathered for the two-day Reality Check event. They emerged with guiding principles and an action plan for ensuring the region retains its superior quality of life in the face of this projected population increase.

The partnership model allows the region to pool resources and centralize common services. RTRP, for instance, provides comprehensive information and data services for the counties, RTP and other economic development partners so that each county and partner agency does not have to develop these resources on its own.

It also enables regional partners to nimbly respond to market opportunities. For instance, a subset of counties in the region’s southern tier leads the regional effort to connect with military decision makers and others at Fort Bragg, in an adjacent region of the state, to grow a defense technology cluster. And four counties in the region’s northern tier are collaborating to create a network of business parks, called Triangle North, which leverages the regional brand to attract business investment to their rural communities.

“The partnership model is the only way to go,” says Ronnie Goswick, director of the Franklin County Economic Development Commission and chair of RTRP's Economic Developers Advisory Committee. The committee of developers from the 13 regional counties and RTP meet monthly to plan and report on their common regional economic development strategy, activities and results.

“We could not afford as small counties to put together a program that in any way allows us to compete the way we do as a region,” Goswick says. “So, selfishly, that’s one reason we’re involved. But we also have the opportunity to learn from our cohorts in other counties, who have been through many of the same challenges. We have the opportunity to travel and meet one-on-one with prospective companies and site selection consultants. We also have the ability to network with the people we need to grow and succeed as an economic development organization.”

For more information on the Research Triangle Regional Partnership and its strategic economic development plan, The Shape of Things to Come, visit or call (919) 840-7372.