Geolas, the event’s first speaker, said his foundation is working on a plan that would turn Research Triangle Park into a place where people could live and shop as well as work. Young professionals are increasingly seeking out walkable communities with thriving shopping districts and restaurants, he said.
“They choose where they spend their time, their money, on lifestyle,” he said.
Details won’t be available until November, but Geolas estimates the makeover of RTP will cost “hundreds of millions of dollars.” The foundation would probably not ask for public support, he said, but would raise funding through private investors. He didn’t want to get more specific than that.
“We just can’t speculate (on cost),” he said after his speech. “It’s going to cost what it’s going to cost, and we’re going to have to find a way to pay for it”.
Until its unveiling in November, the plan will remain largely under wraps. Geolas did say, however, that it would be a redevelopment of the park, not an expansion. The foundation would work with outside developers to fill spaces around the companies already in the park.
Geolas said the park remains a powerful economic engine, but said he worries it is falling behind other areas working to bring in waves of young professionals seeking a certain lifestyle. In the park’s 7,000 acres, he said, there’s “not a single coffee shop”. That doesn’t foster the kind of work environment many companies look for today, Geolas said.
“We know, more than anything else in business today, collaborative environments that move ideas drive where an industry locates,” he said.
Geolas also believes Research Triangle Park could benefit from an influx of smaller startup companies. Part of the redevelopment plan would include more space for those smaller companies, he said.
“Our bread and butter in the park for 50 years has been large corporate entities,” he said. “That needs to continue, but we need to expand our impact”.
Abernathy began his speech by taking an informal poll of the room. His question: “How’s the economy?”
By a show of hands, most people gave it a “C.” If Abernathy’s forecast is correct, that sentiment will continue for the better part of the decade.
Although the country has been through 23 straight months of job growth, he said, the growth hasn’t kept pace with the number of people entering the workforce. As waves of new college graduates look for work, older workers are staying put – many of them put off retirement after the financial crisis wiped out their savings. Job growth probably won’t catch up to the size of the workforce until 2020, Abernathy said.
“We dug ourselves a huge hole, and we can’t get out of it fast enough,” he said.
The recovery is even slower in North Carolina, and particularly in Johnston County, Abernathy said. The region is dependent on manufacturing, which was hit particularly hard by the recession. Construction, another important part of the Johnston economy, is hemorrhaging, he said.
“The economy shifted, and we didn’t shift,” Abernathy said. “Where the jobs are being created are not the old industries North Carolina was strong in, and that hurt us”.
Johnston County has, however, improved significantly in the past two years. Unemployment now stands at 8.4 percent, down from 9.8 percent last year and 11.4 percent two years before that. Abernathy said he looked into the causes of the improvement and found the Johnston economy was actually adding jobs; it was not a case of people leaving the workforce.
Abernathy spent most of his time on the forecast, not on the solutions. But he did point to at least two possible areas where the country as a whole could improve. His strategy would be to focus on creating manufacturing jobs and selling those products to customers in other countries.
“We don’t have enough money to buy ourselves out of the recession,” Abernathy said. “What you’ve got to do is find new customers”.
He also talked about improving technical skills to prepare people for careers in fields that don’t necessarily need college degrees. This could help secure jobs for a key demographic – people who never finished college, he said.
“If you want jobs, the biggest area we’re missing is the middle skill area,” he said. “It’s those technical skills that we’re not very good at training”
Photo: Left to Right: Smithfield-Selma Board Chair Jason Wenzel, Benson Chamber Director Loretta Byrd, Clayton Chamber President Jim Godfrey, Johnston County Economic Development Director Peggy Anderson, Research Triangle Park President Bob Geolas and Smithfield-Selma Chamber President Rick Childrey.