Wake Forest gives a boost to Research Triangle’s life sciences appeal

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In the wake of its impressive recent run of high-profile life sciences wins, the Research Triangle Region faces an unusual challenge: an increasingly modest inventory of ready industrial properties capable of handling the needs of today’s biotechnology companies. But a unique partnership between the Wake Forest Business & Industry Partnership (WFBIP) and the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary is adding an appealing entry into the mix.

Since 2018, the collaboration between the two has centered on an amenity-rich technology park off Stadium Drive near US Highway 1. WFBIP, which leads economic development on behalf of the Town of more than 50,000, is spearheading efforts to secure the property, assess its potential and move it to market. The Seminary owns the vast majority of the 191-acre property and would like to see it become an economic generator for the community.

Efforts to position the site as a life sciences destination send a powerful signal to the industrial real estate world, site selection consultants and the tech industry itself, according to Ted Abernathy, a Raleigh-based economic development consultant.

“All of this work, plus the close partnership the town has built with the Seminary, makes a really strong statement: ‘We’re ready for growth in the technology arena’,” said Abernathy, managing partner at Economic Development Leadership LLC.

On the surface, the case is strong: Wake Forest is currently the 8th fastest-growing municipality in North Carolina. Its youthful population is well-educated, with nearly 55 percent holding a bachelor’s degree or higher – more than 21 percent greater than the U.S. as a whole.

But Abernathy’s firm dug even deeper, recently conducting an analysis of the town’s assets and prospects for attracting major technology or life science operations.

“What jumps out from a tech standpoint are two things that will impact Wake Forest,” said Abernathy, whose work with communities around the country often spots opportunity amid oceans of numbers. As a technology region, the Research Triangle is now among the hottest destinations in the U.S., he says. “And it is broad-based and spreading from core areas like RTP, Cary and downtown Raleigh across the region.”

Already communities such as Clayton, Holly Springs and Sanford have drawn high-profile global life sciences operations. “Wake Forest is likely part of a next wave to draw tech workers and tech companies,” said Abernathy.

Abernathy’s 35-year career began with local economic development practitioner roles in Baltimore and Durham. Prior to launching Economic Leadership in 2013, he built a formidable reputation as a thought leader at the Southern Growth Policies Board and Research Triangle Regional Partnership. He believes the pieces are now in place for Wake Forest to claim a more generous slice of the Research Triangle’s technology pie.

“The biggest driver in technology these days is tech talent,” he continued. “It’s in short supply everywhere.” That’s where Abernathy’s recent labor shed analysis provides encouraging evidence about Wake Forest’s positioning. “If you look at commuting patterns, there are big numbers who can come into Wake Forest and staff companies there. You’re not just selling the people who live in Downtown Wake Forest, but you’re considering the entire labor market.”

The town’s accessibility applies to more than just available workers. It also puts the region’s universities, RDU airport, research organizations and other business assets within easy reach. The site itself, known as the Wake Forest Business & Technology Park, has already undertaken a battery of surveys and studies to gauge its readiness for development. It has been certified by the N.C. Department of Commerce, for example, and earlier this year was approved by ElectriCities of North Carolina as a “Smart Site.”

The Smart Sites program collects and organizes geotechnical, pricing, archeological, environmental and other data on industrial properties. The objective: reduce risk and trim ramp-up time for arriving employers. ElectriCities, the Town’s utility partner, calls in top engineering firms and economic development consultants from around the state to perform the exhaustive work.

About 40 percent of economic development projects specifically request a certified site, according to recent data from the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC).

“What we do know is that when site consultants, brokers and industrial developers are looking at a site, the first types of questions involve things like wetlands, soil conditions and infrastructure,” said Carl Rees, manager of economic and community development at ElectriCities.

Rees’ Raleigh-based organization awards Smart Site status to about four properties per year around the state, at a cost of $25,000 to $40,000 each. The resulting site then enjoys enhanced credibility as a location option. Arriving businesses know they won’t encounter ugly surprises after plans are announced and the work begins.

“It speaks to the stability and readiness of the site for development when you’re able to share reams of data about the site and its viability with location consultants and the real estate community,” said Rees.

Wake Forest’s Life Sciences Tech Park is located off Capital Boulevard on woodlands that have been owned by the Seminary since 1950. It was then that Wake Forest College (now Wake Forest University) sold its local property holdings, including what is now the Seminary’s 25-acre campus in the heart of downtown, to the Baptist State Convention prior to completing its move to Winston-Salem in 1956. The $1.6 million sale price is equivalent to $19.2 million in 2022 dollars.

“At that time, it wasn’t known what the purpose of the land would be,” said Ryan Hutchinson, executive vice president for operations at the Seminary. “But since then, development has come to Wake Forest and there’s an opportunity for that land to be moved from a non-working asset to a working asset.”

The Seminary previously sold part of its property holdings for commercial development, including land adjacent to the Tech Park that is now Wake Forest Crossings Shopping Center. According to Hutchinson, proceeds from any upcoming sale of the current acreage would flow into the Seminary’s $40 million endowment.

While the Seminary’s undeveloped acreage could more easily be marketed as residential or commercial property, the school’s leadership is instead interested in achieving the more strategic economic impact that industrial development would bring.

“All tides rise together,” said Hutchinson, who leads the Seminary’s partnership with WFBIP. “If we can contribute to a vibrant town and community, that helps us in the students, faculty and staff we’re able to draw here.”

WFBIP President Jason Cannon says the Seminary’s partnership with the town helps Wake Forest distinguish itself from other Triangle destinations.

“The Seminary’s presence in Wake Forest is so ingrained in our community’s economic and social life that it’s difficult to describe just how central its role here is,” he said. Cannon believes WFBIP’s network of partners – the Seminary, the Town, ElectriCities and others – is ample evidence of its potential as a hub for high-wage jobs. “We’ve worked hard to bring the right players to the table and ensure that all the necessary components are in place to make some exciting things happen here,” said Cannon.

And the timing may be ideal. Data from Wake County Economic Development, a program of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, indicates continued interest from tech and life sciences leaders. As of March 31, there were 13 active life sciences projects considering Wake County, five active I/T projects and three in cleantech.

“We want to bring opportunities to all our municipalities and support product development in all Wake County communities,” says Adrienne Cole, president and CEO at the Greater Raleigh Chamber. “There are major opportunities right now for life sciences in Wake County.”

WFBIP’s Cannon maintains a close professional relationship with Cole and also counts the Raleigh Chamber on his list of key partners.

“Successful economic development is all about having partners who are willing to go to bat for you – and we certainly have that,” Cannon says. He’s also encouraged by what Abernathy’s analysis says about the town’s potential. “Ted’s data point to a future for Wake Forest that involves not just good jobs at strong wages, but to a destination increasingly equipped with the assets today’s high-growth industries look for,” he adds. “The numbers tell an appealing story, but as you dig deeper and deeper into what the data actually means, our story becomes increasingly unique – and really exciting.”

Original Article Source: WRAL