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Growth through 'knowledge cluster'
Carolina model cited at summit in Falls

It might be difficult to think of Raleigh-Durham, N.C., as anything but a thriving technology hub, home to the Research Triangle Park.

But when the business park was founded 50 years ago, a region known for agriculture was trying to create a new image.

The strategy that Raleigh-Durham adopted: encourage companies to set up research and development operations on 4,000 acres of old farmland, using the region's ample acreage, people and university resources to create a "knowledge cluster," said Tina Valdecanas, chief strategy and branding officer for the Research Triangle Park.

"It was that big bet, that commitment to that overall goal, and knowing they needed to change something to keep their young people in the state that kept it going," Valdecanas said during Thursday's Binational Economic and Tourism Summit in Conference Center Niagara Falls.

Valdecanas and other guest speakers from out of town weighed in on how their regions "reinvented" their economies, an issue relevant to Buffalo Niagara and Southern Ontario.

Speakers from Southern California, the Pacific Northwest and the Kitchener, Ont., area talked about maximizing an international border location, identifying unique strengths and attracting new employers as old industries fade.

Buffalo Niagara is trying to develop its biotechnology sector, building up the Buffalo Niagara Medical Corridor and sees potential in "green" industries, as it copes with the loss of manufacturing jobs that were a historic strength.

While the Research Triangle Park is envied for its high-tech job growth, Valdecanas said that it took about 25 years to really take off. But its backers were patient and had enough early successes to maintain
the momentum, she said.

The park's growth was enhanced by an emphasis on an educated, productive work force, establishing support operations like the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, and nurturing university cooperation, she said.

The result: The park has grown to 7,000 acres, with more than 170 companies employing 42,000 full-time workers and a $2.7 billion payroll.

About 100 miles from Buffalo, the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge, Ont., area has attracted employers to what is known as Canada's Technology Triangle.

As that region has lost manufacturers like Greb Shoe, BF Goodrich and Dominion Button Manufacturers, it has lured the likes of Toyota, BlackBerry maker Research in Motion, and Christie Digital Systems.

Bill Elliot, vice president of business development for Canada's Technology Triangle, said the growth is a mix of homegrown companies that have expanded and multinational companies that have either set up operations locally, or have acquired local operations and then grown them.

"[It is] all about talent, skill and lifestyle," Elliot said of his region's appeal to employers.

Regions such as Buffalo Niagara and Southern Ontario should think big when promoting themselves, Elliot said, reflecting on his experiences on business trips. "If I travel to Europe or to Asia, they don't distinguish between Canada and the United States," he said. "They call it America. And they want to come to the North American marketplace. It makes sense that you collaborate. You can't be parochial about your own region."

Lee MacTaggart, political-economic section chief for the U.S. Consulate General in Toronto, praised the innovation demonstrated by Canada's Technology Triangle.

"You're sort of showing what maybe the Niagara region should have done, 50, 60, 70 years ago, start discarding some of the old paradigms, the old industries that had moved on or been replaced or for whatever reason are not here, and actively seek alternatives, seek a different way to get things done," MacTaggart said.

At the San Diego-Mexico border, a "mega-region" economic-development strategy is trying to unite the strengths of San Diego; its rural neighbor, Imperial County; and Mexico's Baja California.

"It's about broadening the tools we have, making ourselves more competitive," said Christina Anne Luhn, director of the Mega Region Initiative.

Luhn has urged the partners not to look for instant results with the initiative, which is entering its third year.

"Do not expect within a year or two to see 20 new companies around," she recalled telling them. "This is a long-term investment, this is a long-term effort."

The Pacific Northwest has faced issues similar to Buffalo Niagara and Southern Ontario, such as stricter documentation requirements at the border.

Ian Burkheimer, director of partnerships for the Pacific Northwest Economic Region in Washington State, said the organization agrees with the need for border security, but also wants to ensure trade and tourists flow across as smoothly as possible.

The fifth annual summit was organized by the Binational Economic and Tourism Alliance, which expanded its name to reflect its broader focus beyond just tourism. The two-day event ends today.

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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