RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C.  — If “Staying on Top 2” is as successful as the original, the Research Triangle region will continue to add thousands of jobs over the next five years, business and government leaders were told Thursday.

However, economic planners for the Research Triangle Regional Partnership noted during their annual State of the Research Triangle Region briefing that the “if” is a big one.

Why? The slowing national and global economy, said Ted Abernathy, executive vice president and chief operation officer of the partnership that covers 13 counties.

“The national economy is tough,” Abernathy told and WRAL Local Tech Wire in an interview following his statistic-jammed presentation at the Sheraton Imperial. “It is impacting everyone.”

Since the recession of 2001-02, Abernathy and Charles Hayes, the group’s chief executive officer, have been able to smile and talk enthusiastically about booming growth across most of the region. A five-year plan called “Staying on Top” ends this year, and the key component in that plan has beens jobs. Lots of them.

They had to hedge their bets Thursday, but they said that “if economic conditions hold in 2008,” the partnership will reach its goal of helping create 100,000 jobs over five years ending Dec. 31.

However, job growth slowed to 2 percent, or 17,463, in 2007. While that total boosted the new job total to 102,000 over the past four years, there are no guarantees a national recession won’t take a bite out of that growth, Abernathy said.

To illustrate his point, he showed a film clip of a killer whale, symbolizing the national economy, breaking through ice to swallow whole a fisherman. The unlucky man symbolized the Triangle economy.

Abernathy also opened his presentation with the ‘60s rock group Blood, Sweat & Tears blaring, “What goes up must come down. …"

Well, maybe not. Hayes, an aggressive corporate business recruiter, noted that many companies are still looking at the Triangle area as a possibility for new plants or corporate relocations.

“We will still be above our goal,” Hayes said about the 100,000 jobs target. “Yes, the [corporate project] market has cooled. It dropped off in April, but so far this month, it’s back up.”

He pointed out that the area is still in the running for 44 “prospects” worth more than $1.6 billion and with the possibility of creating 15,000 jobs.

To keep the pipeline filled, the Partnership is already organizing a group to write a new five-year plan tentatively titled “Staying on Top 2.” Ann Goodnight, wife of SAS Chief Executive Officer Jim Goodnight and community relations director at SAS, and Jeff Stocks, CEO of Manpower’s Triangle operation, will lead the effort.

“This plan probably will focus on leadership, globalization and global branding,” Hayes said.

The bottom line remains job creation, and generating more employment in a tougher economy won’t be easy. But Hayes remains undaunted. "We have some things that are close, knock on wood," he said.

Unfortunately, all the nearby tables and chairs were plastic.