This story was written for WRAL TechWire Innovator partner the Town of Holly Springs.

Archibald Leslie would hardly recognize Holly Springs as it is today.

The 19th-century tailor built his Holly Springs home in 1840 for his wife, Isabelle, whose initials are carved into it. Today the house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Holly Springs Town Landmark. But much has changed since then.

Once a sleepy town named for the cool waters and the age-old holly trees that characterize the area, it now boasts a population of more than 37,000.

Just 15 years ago the population of Holly Springs was roughly 12,500. The growth over the past decade and a half is impressive but not surprising, as the town has mirrored the growth trends of its surrounding areas and the explosiveness of the region at-large.

Town officials will tell you that economic development goes hand-in-hand with population growth, since infrastructure is what supports people who need places to live, work and play.

If Leslie was around today, he’d see a lot more buildings in his neighborhood. It’s hard to pinpoint whether economic development inspires population growth or vice versa — similar to the “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” question.

What is conclusive is that Holly Springs was intentional about branding itself as a prime place for economic development over 15 years ago.

“In the early 2000s, we were aware of the substantial biotechnology growth in the region and wondered if we, too, weren’t in a position to attract similar companies,” said Irena Krstanovic, economic development director for Holly Springs, noting that a skilled workforce and strong infrastructure make for a high quality of life.

“With that in mind, in 2001, the town hired Jennings Consulting to perform a branding study,” Krstanovic continued. “The results of the study confirmed our assumptions that Holly Springs would be a great place for life science companies to come. Knowing this, we developed a multi-year marketing strategy.”

Holly Springs is now home to companies like pharmaceutical manufacturer Seqirus (formerly Novartis), and automation and information solutions company RoviSys. But this didn’t happen serendipitously — the town planned and intentionally strategized for several years to become the economic development hub it is today.

Krstanovic said the first step of its multi-year strategy was to develop sites that would be attractive for life-science companies. To make this happen, they certified the Holly Springs Business Park in 2002.

Certified means a site has undergone rigorous pre-qualifications to ensure it is “shovel ready” for immediate development and meets an outlined set of standards.

It was the first and only certified business park in Wake County for several years. Later, as the town anticipated, the opening of the NC-55 bypass and the industrial development opportunities the new road would generate, Holly Springs began the process of recruiting companies for economic development projects.

“There was a lot of intentionality around planning for that site, acquiring the site, running infrastructure to it and creating marketing materials,” said Adrienne Cole, Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. “There’s a lot that goes into a community positioning itself to be ready for a large employer like Novartis.”

Cole echoed Krstanovic’s acknowledgment of the growth and economic trends at the time, saying Holly Springs saw an opportunity and intentionally planned for it, carving out a future for its community.

“If you go back 15 years, there was a growing cluster of companies in the region that were on the manufacturing side of life sciences — most notably pharmaceutical and biomanufacturing. The state was looking at making investments around talent and labor,” said Bill Bullock, senior vice president of Economic Development and Statewide Operations at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. “From a labor perspective, if you were a big pharmaceutical company and you decided that you needed to invest a lot of money in a new facility, these [cluster communities] would be the places that you would tend to look because you know talent was there.”

In reference to companies like Merck in Durham and Biogen at Research Triangle Park, Bullock continued, “There was already a small, critical mass of companies that had existing talent plus good training programs, and North Carolina was on that list.”

Krstanovic noted Holly Springs’ proximity to RTP and major research universities as attractive drawing points for companies. Additionally, Holly Springs had large parcels of available land, growing infrastructure, a talent pool to draw from, and a high quality of life.

“At that time in the early 2000s, there were around 500 life science companies in North Carolina — mostly focused in the metropolitan areas of Raleigh and Durham. The state at that time was the third largest biotechnology cluster in the U.S.,” Krstanovic explained. “We wanted to leverage our position of where we are in the region, with our proximity to these already existing hubs. We understood that the large parcels of land [we have] were secure and set for development.”

“I think that Holly Springs was really able to take a very forward, visionary approach in planning for their future,” Cole added. “The region was becoming known as a life science hub. We had a strong life science cluster that was really growing, based on the strengths of the institutions of higher learning and the strength of RTP.”

Cole also pointed out that Holly Springs knowingly recognized that not every company would want to go to RTP.

“[They took] a forward-looking approach at what they could do to make themselves attractive to life science companies and that really started them down the path that ultimately led to Novartis making the decision to locate in Holly Springs,” Cole continued. “They have just continued that growth trajectory and really changed the whole face of Holly Springs.”

Cole said that strong clusters strengthen an overall economic ecosystem, making talent more willing to move to a community.

“Every community has to make the decision about what’s right for them, what works with the assets they have to offer and building on what makes sense in that local community,” Cole said, speaking of Holly Springs’ decision to focus on the life sciences. “Economic development is very local. Communities must assess what’s going to work for them and what they want to go after.”

People say luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, but if you ask Bullock, Holly Springs’ change and growth can also be attributed to “vision and leadership.”

This story was written for WRAL TechWire Innovator partner the Town of Holly Springs.