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North Carolina Report: Research and Education Provide Strong Base for Future Economic Growth

Mali R. Schantz-Feld (Feb/Mar 09)
With a goal of diversifying its industry base, North Carolina's economy continues supporting traditional tobacco, furniture, and textile industries, while nurturing knowledge and innovation-based industries as the promise for the future. The Research Triangle, Piedmont Triad, and Charlotte region are hubs for research and development projects. With approximately 450 bioscience companies, the state was recognized by an Ernst & Young survey as the third-leading state in the nation for number of biotechnology companies.

State officials attribute the relative economic stability in the Research Triangle region - 13 counties encompassing the Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill areas - to the fact that 44 percent of the work force holds college degrees or higher, and the strong presence of higher education. Duke University, North Carolina State University, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, along with several other universities and seven community colleges, are located there, as well as the Research Triangle Park, which is home to more than 170 companies with 42,000 employees. Charles Hayes, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, says that between Memorial Day and Labor Day  of last year, $1 billion of new projects were announced, including eight expansions and 12 new projects hailing from seven different countries (including the United States).


Traditional agriculture meets technology in the Blue Ridge Food Ventures Program that touts an 11,000-square-foot incubator in Asheville for development, production, packaging, and sales of specialty foods. Future collaborations with the North Carolina Biotechnology Center and the Bent Creek Institute in Asheville are expected to spur biopharmaceutical opportunities arising from plant experimentation for medical and pharmaceutical purposes.

Technology is also intermingling with some of the state's traditional manufacturing industries. Statistics from the North Carolina Chamber indicate that architectural and structural metals, chemicals and plastics, motor vehicle parts, ship and boat building, and aerospace products and parts are still in positive growth modes and are predicted to benefit greatly from nanotechnology innovations.

Companies involved with green energy can benefit from the North Carolina Green Business Fund, a discretionary grant program. Hamilton notes that Fletcher-based Appalachian Solar Energy was recently acquired by California-based Vanir Energy LLC. Vanir's premier project will be a solar thermal installation at the 900,000-square-foot business park that houses the company's headquarters. This will become the largest installation of solar thermal heating and cooling technology in the world, according to the International Energy Agency.

Companies are also attracted to North Carolina's logistical advantages. Wilsonart International has grown to 700 employees since 1979 and has become the biggest producer of high pressure decorative laminate in the country, according to Tim Gwennap, the company's plant manager, who says that the plant is located at the "halfway point between New York and Miami, a necessity for the firm's logistics' needs for shipping and acquisition of raw materials."

North Carolina Secretary of Commerce J. Keith Crisco plans to use his industry experience to encourage firms to take advantage of global and domestic opportunities. "My textile company adapted to the world economy; we grew from a small company in a medium-sized town in the center of North Carolina to a company with locations throughout Central America and India, while still maintaining a manufacturing base in North Carolina," he says. "I want the state's business people to know that I am someone who has met a payroll, who really cares about them, and is working my tail off to promote economic stability and growth."

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