RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Partnerships that cross city and regional boundaries while also not just focusing on the big metro areas have emerged as a possible boost to economic development across North Carolina, says a new report from RTI International.

Further, the report titled “Federal Funding Applications and What They Tell Us About the Future of Economic Development in North Carolina” finds an emergence of “cross-institution” partnerships rather than “go it alone” by universities or organizations.

In what is called a “new era of place-based development where growth opportunities are often based on geography” – think of all the “best places to live,” “best places to work,” “best places for business” – the RTI team’s review found place didn’t matter as much among teams fighting for dollars.

“There’s a clear focus on innovation to stimulate growth in regions across the state with an emphasis on manufacturing, climate technology and clean energy,” said Sara Lawrence, director of economic development at the international non-profit based in RTP. She’s also one of the paper’s authors. “The proposals also indicate the potential to leverage innovation to expand growth and economic resilience in regions outside of Research Triangle Park. The proposals underscore the importance of forging regional ties to lay the groundwork for meeting this economic development potential.”

Complaints from local to state officials have for years focused on how regions other than the Triangle and the Charlotte metro area  can benefit from economic development and jobs recruitment that has made North Carolina the “Best State for Business” two years running. And the RTI study found that these emerging partnerships are broad based.

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Triangle outnumbered in proposals

The authors “analyzed records in five categories: the location of proposal leads, the geographic reach of proposed projects, the type of organizations included in the proposals, the industries of focus and the extent to which applications focused on equity or entrepreneurship,” RTI says.

Reflecting the diversity of geography and partnerships, applications from around the resource, tech-rich Triangle were outnumbered 28 to 11.

Analysis of 39 regional-based grants for federal funding could offer a roadmap for future collaborations to spread economic wealth, the authors add. Applications for Economic Development Administration’s (EDA’s) Build Back Better Regional Challenge (BBBRC) and the National Science Foundation’s Regional Innovation Engines program (NSF Engines) were analyzed.

Findings highlighted by RTI include:

  • “Applicants represented nearly every region of the state with 28 applications from outside of the Research Triangle area, and 11 applications submitted from the state’s leading innovation hub around the Research Triangle.
  • “Nearly half (18 of 39) of the proposals originated from higher education institutions, including universities,” Historically Black Colleges or Universities, a community college and a university-affiliated research lab.
  • “Most submissions (31) had a specific industry focus with manufacturing and climate tech & clean energy comprising more than half.”

Regions cited for their efforts include the Triad, eastern and southeastern N.C.

These applications indicate “momentum and enthusiasm of North Carolina’s regional leaders, from across sectors, for addressing the state’s most pressing economic, social, and environmental challenges,” the report says. “Beyond energy and enthusiasm, the proposals reveal how regional economic development leaders are shifting their strategies to be less isolated and more collaborative, and to depend less on recruiting businesses and more on leveraging existing assets.

“Moreover, they are examining ways to harness new technologies to foster economic growth in parts of North
Carolina that need it most.”

[RTI itself secured a $4 million grant to “support the Build Back Better Regional Challenge,” working with an Ohio coalition.]

RTI International lands $4M grant to support ‘Build Back Better Regional Challenge’

Inside the report

Here’s a look at a section of the report focusing on regional and cross-institution applications – some of which have secured federal funds:

  • Forming Regional, Cross-Institution Coalitions

“Across the state, proposals featured partnerships between a variety of organizations including COGs [councils of government], institutes of higher education, private companies, and nonprofits to address known industry challenges and proactively fill gaps related to workforce, equity, and entrepreneurship.

“Coalitions aim to build sustainable, inclusive, dynamic local economic structures, not just generate economic growth, or improve profit margins. Coalitions described in their applications plans for improving the well-being and quality of life for residents through opportunities that would push families toward the middle class, enable greater opportunity and mobility for all, and strengthen industries that could serve as a backbone for long-lasting, sustainable development.”

“Even for North Carolina’s coalitions that did not secure federal funding … the exercise of coming together, forging regional ties, and producing a collaborative vision for the future can be powerful. Through applying for funds, organizations, companies, leaders, and entrepreneurs identified allies and mapped resources that can lay the groundwork for future collaboration.”

  • Emphasizing Opportunities Outside Charlotte and the Triangle

“Traditional economic development thinking often assumes that for high-tech coalitions to succeed, there must already be dense concentrations of resources such as in the Triangle or Charlotte. However, coalitions from North Carolina showed surprising geographic diversity, with proposals from all over the state.

“Many proposals were submitted by organizations from eastern and southeastern North Carolina as well as from the Triad.

“The Triad region submitted more proposals than either of its metropolitan Triangle or Charlotte counterparts, with applications focused on fortifying the burgeoning automotive industry and building on the already strong biomedical industry in the area.

“The eight proposals from eastern and southeastern North Carolina indicate that leaders in this region are examining opportunities to capitalize on emerging technologies in ways that address key regional challenges such as climate vulnerability, or to innovate within traditional industries such as agriculture, agribusiness, food production, and manufacturing. Many potential partners come from rural counties that have not significantly benefited from innovation and technology industries. The high number of applications from these two areas indicates strong regional partnerships and momentum, motivated leaders, and ready-to-go plans and strategies for innovative economic development programs.”

Read the report