Sitting at the gate at RDU a few weeks ago waiting for a flight, I noticed Rick Weddle's face on the TV screen. He was being interviewed on CNBC, explaining with a smile how the Park was creating jobs with startups and luring larger employers alike -- even as the Chyron on the bottom of the screen popped up factoids like the +/- 25% vacancy rate at the well-known research site.
Even as the closed captions shared his words, though, it looks like Weddle was getting ready to spend some time at RDU, too. Lining up flights, that is, to the old McCoy AFB and Jetport, better known these days as Orlando International Airport.
The Research Triangle Foundation announced this week that Weddle would be departing, and soon; he starts as metro Orlando's chief economic development booster next week. And the circumstances couldn't be odder:
- He's taking a six-figure pay cut, according to one media outlet;
- He doesn't appear to be talking to the media, at least based on the lack of comment back from the N&O's inquiries; and,
- At least one RTF board member was surprised by the move, again per the N&O.
Hell, LinkedIn sez that Weddle's already checked out for O-Town.
Most crucially, the move comes just as Weddle and the Park have been on the verge of releasing the fruits of its master planning labor, something that's been long-promised to propose a transformation of RTP, whose long-held successes seem one of the best proofs of the old canard that what got you here can't get you there.
The master planning work, which we've discussed here at some length, involved the selection last year of Cooper, Robertson & Partners (CR&P) to plan for the Park's next half-century and beyond.
As we looked at in a long scrutiny last year (that's a must-read if you need background), RTP developed in a Mad Men-era when large corporations were the target, and the Park envisioned getting the Honeywells or Burroughs or General Electrics to come in and build large, self-contained campuses that were private, isolated from their neighbors and suitable to high-tech R&D activities.
Plenty came -- IBM, Nortel and the eventual GlaxoSmithKline among them. But the model's changing.
Corporations don't need as much space as they once did, and they need more flexibility to size up -- or down. GSK, for its part, doesn't need a full 1 million of its 5 million square feet in the region. That's a lotta space to give back.
Instead, RTP's been steering down the road towards reinventing itself as a place that provides greater densities, more intensive land uses, essentially parroting the downtown and urbanized areas -- from downtown Durham and Raleigh, to larger cities like New York and San Francisco, to rapidly-reinventing areas like the Dulles/I-66 tech corridors in northern Virginia -- that are the emerging model for what firms are seeking.
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It's no exaggeration to say that this topic has been one of Weddle's key talking points ever since he arrived in the Triangle from Phoenix nearly seven years ago.
Take, for instance, these words from Weddle:
"We are building a series of nodes and developing niches around the Park that are much more urbanized and dense than we would have seen 25 years ago. We also are seeing more diversification over time. We are trying to offer more robust amenities and to meet contemporary work patterns. After all, when the Park was formed, Starbucks had not been invented."
While the Foundation will remain committed to its core values, Weddle said change is necessary. "It's necessary to enhance the Park in order to preserve it. I don't think we can sit still on our hands and declare victory."
As the metropolitan complex of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill swells, I-40 widens, I-540 expands, mass transit nears realization, and the RDU airport continues to grow, Weddle wants to see the Park enhance its appeal as a global destination for business, research and development.
These words sound remarkably like things Weddle has said as RTP's master planning process loomed in recent years, such as his comments in this fall 2009 BusinessWeek article, which talked of the plan to add "nodes and niches" of density within the Park.
But the pull quotes above are far older -- they date back to a 2004 interview with Weddle by Metro NC magazine.
The years have gone past; the vision hasn't changed.
And in recent months, the plans have finally, at long last, seemed to reach a point of some traction.
The master plan is set for a reveal in the coming months, and press releases from the Foundation still trumpet its approach to tackling land use, zoning and transportation issues.
The RTP blog, as recently as December, has been trumpeting the idea that denser nodes of RTP would allow room for new companies in ways that would preserve as much as possible of the green space that the Park's been known for -- simply by concentrating future economic activity in a smaller number of zones.
And there's big work ahead to get buy-in for the plan at every level, from the state to corporate leaders. And, not least, with Durham and Wake County leaders, each of whom may see RTP's densification as offering competitive challenges to the growth of areas like downtown Raleigh, Wake suburbs, and even downtown Durham.
Still, the very challenge that Weddle seemed to issue for the Park's future seven years ago is on the verge of happening.
And now, Weddle's leaving.
Just why that is, and what that portends for RTP's master planning effort and even its future, has got to be the question on the minds of Triangle leaders this week.
Of course, as an Orlando native, I'd love to tell Weddle how great his new destination will be.
(BCR to Rick: it's not. Welcome to a cesspool heavy on service-sector jobs with lousy pay, lack of access to quality higher education, and -- except for a very few narrow areas like optics and simulation that bred off of Disney, the space program or Martin Marietta's missile/defense shop -- very little in the way of next-generation technologies or jobs.
But just remember: it's not the heat, it's the humidity. Oh, and as long as you stay off both directions of Interstate 4 between the hours of 5am-11am and 2pm-8pm, the traffic is overrated.)