IN 1983 MGM/UA made the science fiction movie "Brainstorm" at North Carolina's Research Triangle Park. Now many states are using the research park concept as their brainstorm.
"We certainly have had a continuing parade of study groups from all over the world coming for the last 20 years and it shows little signs of abatement," says James Roberson, president of the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina, the developers.
What the groups see is a 7,000-acre park salted with the research and development arms of some of the world's best-known high-tech companies. Those firms provide direct employment for 34,000 people with another 30,000 offering support services within the area. The companies tap the resources of three nearby research institutions: Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University. Imitators abound
Since the Research Triangle Park began in 1959, there have been lots of imitators. The United States had 129 established parks at the end of 1991, with up to 15 more in planning.
There is also interest in Washington. "We're working with some contacts with the Clinton administration on the role research parks may play in the policies and strategy," says Chris Boettcher, executive director of the Association of University-Related Research Parks.
States are interested in research parks for good reasons:
* They can provide a high level of employment. In the Research Triangle area the unemployment rate averaged 4 percent in 1992, versus 7.3 percent nationally.
* They attract high-wage earners. In 1989 three counties around the Carolina park had per capita median incomes 25 percent above the state average and 8 percent above the national average. Since 1969 the state's per capita income has gone from 39th in the nation to 34th. Many locals have "doctor" before their first name. "We are a net importer of PhDs," jokes Dr. Bill Little, a park board member.
* They can be "recession-hardy." Although Research Triangle growth has slowed because of the recession, the real-estate market never collapsed in this area as it did nationally. Now speculators are building new office buildings. Too many parks?
This is not to say such parks are guaranteed success. Many have yet to sign up a major tenant. And, as Mr. Roberson soberly notes, with all the new parks the competition is intense; "I don't expect a lot of the parks to be around much longer."
The parks are competing for a shrinking research and development pie. Roberson estimates that companies used to spend 7 percent of their sales on R&D. Today it is close to 3 percent. An increasing amount of the research money comes from foreign companies. This makes the search for new R&D tenants more expensive. Half the Research Triangle tenants are foreign-owned.
Research Triangle Park faces other challenges. American Airlines is considering pulling out of its southeast hub at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. "We would lose a real advantage since you can fly ... to most places without needing to change planes and spending long hours in an airport," Roberson says.
Aware of the impact of the prospective pullout, Gov. Jim Hunt is planning a face-to-face meeting next month with American Airlines chief Robert Crandall.
The park also has a wary eye on IBM Corporation, which employs about 10,000 in the park. IBM uses Research Triangle for hardware and software development for its successful networking systems, computers that talk to other computers. "This is one of the growth areas; it is the key to the industry's future," says David Benevides, IBM's local manager of external programs.
IBM also produces all PS2s - its main line of personal computers - for North America here. The company's assembly line works three shifts a day to fill demand.
"It looks like the Triangle's facility has the brightest part of IBM's future," Roberson says.
In fact, IBM is planning to move workers here as part of a national marketing group for PS systems.
Meanwhile, the research park must cope with traffic jam-ups on Interstate 40. In an effort to relieve some of the congestion, the state is building a new ring road around Raleigh, but this is years from completion.