By Lawrence Bivins
Given its record-setting run of recruitment wins, you might assume North Carolina’s Research Triangle Region is running low on available properties. Economic developers there would disagree. Working with government partners, private developers and allied funding organizations, communities in the region have shored up their inventories of ready-to-go industrial sites and buildings.
“Our counties have been very aggressive about product development,” says Ryan Combs, executive director of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership (RTRP), which provides strategic marketing leadership for 13 counties surrounding Raleigh, Durham and Research Triangle Park. “We’re well-known around the world for our talent, but we also have invested heavily in accessible, high-quality business spaces equipped with latest infrastructure and amenities.”
In the wake of the arrival of VinFast LLC and Wolfspeed Inc. – two of North Carolina’s largest-ever job creation wins – Chatham County leaders are working with Beacon Partners and the Town of Apex to build Apex Gateway. Beacon is planning more than a million square-feet of spec space suitable for life sciences, R&D and light industrial tenants. Located at the junction of U.S. Highway 64 and NC 751, the property is convenient to RDU International Airport and renowned research universities like NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill.
Even as VinFast develops its 2,000-acre campus at Triangle Innovation Point, Chatham officials are marketing 360 shovel-ready acres just west of the property. The property sits along U.S. Highway 1 just 12 minutes from I-540, Raleigh’s outer beltline. “That site has gotten a lot of close looks because of its proximity to Raleigh and the amount of readiness work that’s been done on it,” says C. Michael Smith, president of the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation. Smith says 1,350 acres also remain available at the Chatham Advanced Manufacturing (CAM) site, where Wolfspeed is building a $5 billion semiconductor materials facility.
Both CAM and Triangle Innovation Point West have met rigorous readiness criteria set by the N.C. Department of Commerce. “There’s been full due diligence at both sites,” Smith says. N.C. Commerce certification gives arriving companies a high level of confidence when selecting industrial properties. “With a certified site, we can tell you exactly what’s there, and what you can and can’t build on it,” explains Smith.
Partnerships are central to product development in Lee County. “Our focus on buildings sets us apart from some of the competition,” says Jimmy Randolph, CEO of the Sanford Area Growth Alliance. The city and county worked closely with Samet Corporation through an LLC to create Central Carolina Enterprise Park. Local governments provide utility infrastructure and road access, while Samet builds shell buildings at the 300-acre site. Should a tenant not be in place upon completion of the buildings, local governments agree to lease them for up to two years. The contractual mechanism enables Randolph’s organization to make sure arriving tenants bring the greatest economic impact.
“At the time, it was the first partnership of its kind in our area,” Randolph says. Central Carolina Enterprise Park’s success has led other counties to replicate the partnership model. Officials in Johnston County have used the same risk-sharing mechanism to work with private developers on erecting Class A industrial spec space.
Since 2021, fast-growing Johnston County has applied its building-lease program to expand its inventory of ready industrial buildings in Benson, Clayton and Smithfield – with more deals on the horizon. “Our building-lease program incentivizes the creation of new industrial product while also maximizing the strategic impact of speculative projects,” says Chris Johnson, director of the Johnston County Office of Economic Development. Among the county’s development partners has been AdvanceTEC, Al. Neyer and E.D. Parker Corporation. “For their part, being armed with a guaranteed tenant for the first two years gives developers more leverage to secure favorable financing terms,” Johnson says. “So, it’s a win-win solution.”
In Wilson County, the private sector has been less involved in creating speculative industrial product. But local government leaders there have stepped in with their own strategy to keep the county’s building and sites inventory aligned with the needs of target industries like biopharma and food production. “We’ve done product development for years,” says Jennifer Lantz, executive director of the Wilson Economic Development Council. Municipal and county governments invest in quality industrial product through their own non-profit corporation. “They’ve been very generous, and a lot of the life sciences development here would not have occurred had we not done this,” says Lantz. The non-profit also taps grants from N.C. Commerce’s Utility Account and the Golden LEAF, a state-created foundation funded through the 1999 master settlement.
Another unique collaboration has enabled Vance, Franklin and Granville counties to assemble large shovel-ready sites. Their Triangle North partnership sets the stage for arriving companies to enjoy 21st century infrastructure and amenities, along with the most generous class of state incentives and grants. Triangle North–Franklin, for example, is adjacent to a corporate airport. Warren County’s property includes 1,000+ acres just 90 minutes from Richmond, Va. Granville’s park features three miles of I-85 frontage and is only 40 minutes from Research Triangle Park.
“The Triangle North sites are all very viable,” says John Nelms, senior economic development manager at Duke Energy. Based in Raleigh, Nelms is especially encouraged about Granville’s site, given the county’s rapid population growth and easy access to Durham. Leaders in Person County have similarly worked to create a utility-rich mega-park that would be ideal for data centers or other industries reliant on redundant power, advanced digital infrastructure, and ample water and sewer capacity. “Person County has done a lot of things right,” says Nelms, noting the 1,350-acre property’s permitting from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“The old adage is true: you can’t sell from an empty wagon,” Nelms adds. Investments across the Research Triangle Region have yielded an impressive array of business-ready properties. “These communities have invested in the kinds of diverse spaces that enable the companies of tomorrow to emerge and grow.”
Lawrence Bivins writes about business and the economy. He lives in Raleigh, NC.