Business News

Does RTP need a mega-donor to realize its grand vision?

February 20, 2014
February 20, 2014
Staff Writer- Triangle Business Journal

What Research Triangle Park needs is its own David Murdock.

That’s one takeaway from a conversation I had with Lynne Scott Safrit, president and chief operating officer of Castle and Cooke, the organization that oversees the development of the Kannapolis-based North Carolina Research Campus.

She, like us in the Triangle, has been watching what’s been happening in RTP with growing interest. Specifically, I’m talking about Research Triangle Foundation’s plan to urbanize the park, starting with 100 acres of newly purchased land near I-40.

It’s an expensive plan, with RTF CEO Bob Geolas telling me he expects it to require $2 billion in private investments, a sum area leaders such as Sal Musarra, vice president at Raleigh-based Kimley-Horn and Associates, have called “ambitious.”

And he’s not the only one. Keystone Development Corp. owner Pat Gavaghan said he didn’t know if that sum was “realistic.”

“I don’t know who’s going to come up with $2 billion,” he says.

In a perfect world, that’s where our own David Murdock could come in. That’s, after all, what happened in Kannapolis with another “ambitious” idea.

But fundraising was easier for the Kannapolis campus, as it was Murdock, the man pulling the purse strings, that started the effort in the first place.

The Dole Foods CEO not only owned the land for the campus, but he also personally donated more than $600 million dollars to the effort.

While he’s not the only donor – as other entities and state funding also came into play – the North Carolina Research Campus wouldn’t be what it is today without Murdock.

Geolas repeatedly tells me he’s not worried “at all” about raising $2 billion.

And board member Smedes York has told me he’s heard “tremendous interest” from potential backers.

Safrit says funding isn’t the only challenge when you’re creating a huge public-private partnership. Seven universities – including the Triangle triumvirate of Duke University, N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill – work alongside private companies such as Dole Foods at that campus, meaning a lot of voices potentially talking over each other.

“It’s challenging to find ways that people can have common interests and reasons to collaborate, but I think if your mission is clearly stated and you are able to articulate a mission and find those synergies that cause people to want to collaborate, they’re certainly eager to do that,” she says.

Safrit says “it’s interesting” that we’re asking for her thoughts on RTP.

“We aspire to have the types of companies RTP has on our campus,” she says.

Lauren Ohnesorge covers technology, biotechnology and Durham County.


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