Lessons for the Upstate From the Triangle

John Easterling, president/CEO of Pulliam Investment Company and the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce's board chair, discussed the importance of regional collaboration. Photo provided

By Megan Campbell, communications coordinator, Greenville Chamber

Raleigh and Durham, N.C., were not always the economic powerhouses we know them to be today. The Triangle Region, primarily composed of the cities of Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Cary, is now considered one of the most economically vibrant metro areas in the nation. How did they get to where they are today? We set out to learn more.

The Greenville and Spartanburg chambers of commerce took 115 business leaders to the Triangle Region to learn about the dynamics of a hyphenated market. Both Hughes Development Corporation and Johnson Development Associates Inc. were presenting sponsors on the trip that was focused around collaboration and regionalism. The Intercommunity Leadership Visit included everything from tours of large headquarters to visits with entrepreneurs and their ecosystems for innovation.

Here are some of the key themes from the three-day visit.

Talent Attraction and Retention

This past year, more Duke University graduates chose North Carolina over New York and California for the first time ever. Chief among the reasons students are choosing to stay is the quality of life the region affords. For Duke, showcasing the community meant that they could not fortress the school. Their Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative is housed off-campus in downtown Durham. Internships also serve as an important bridge between campuses and the community.

The region works together on the issue through their community-wide Work in the Triangle initiative. “Success has a lot to do with natural resources. Ours is brain power,” says Adrienne Cole, president/CEO, Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. She adds that they’ve simply been “good stewards of the benefits they have.” By working together, the region is able to retain their workforce and compete with the likes of Boston and San Francisco to attract talent.


“We’re not big on manufacturing. What we sell is intellectual capital,” noted one speaker. Coworking spaces like American Underground in Durham and HQ Raleigh, as well as North Carolina State University’s Centennial Campus and Duke’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, all work to spur innovation and support entrepreneurs. Many of these hubs are strategically “engineered to spark new connections” and cause “creative collisions.” Part of the success of these ecosystems is attributed to the fact that they are simply meeting a demand. “We’re solving the real estate problem for entrepreneurs. We’re just answering a call,” said Phillipe Charles, director of communications and member experience at American Underground. American Underground, in particular, was instrumental in turning downtown Durham into a destination. These facilities are helping create flourishing downtowns, are having a major economic impact (2,000 jobs created by American Underground and an estimated $3.5 million spent on downtown businesses), and are a key component to keeping top talent in the region.


Forty-eight percent of American Underground companies are minority or woman-owned. The city was once home to “Black Wall Street” and continues to project an eclectic, inclusive environment. According to Phillipe Charles, this is simply a reflection of the values of Durham as a city. He adds that the “startup capital of the South” is the “counter-story to Silicon Valley” because of their diversity. The Triangle also takes a regional approach to issues such as affordable housing and economic mobility by bringing public and private sectors together to provide an infrastructure of opportunity.

Collaboration and Regionalism

Much like the Greenville-Spartanburg area, the Raleigh-Durham area considers the Raleigh-Durham International Airport one of their first and best examples of collaboration. As the 39th largest airport in the country, it is a key economic engine for the community. The Triangle has since built off the success of the airport to build a vibrant community with international recognition.

Some of the tips for achieving collaboration shared throughout the visit included the following:

  • You don’t have to do everything together. You just have to move in the same direction.
  • Progress occurs at the speed of trust. In the absence of communication, people assume the worst. Over-communicate your goals.
  • There needs to be a regionalism/collaboration champion.
  • Remove the ego. Project a “let’s get this done together” attitude.
  • A regional brand does not diminish each community’s individual brand. In fact, the value of the region is that each community is different.

For Raleigh and Durham, adopting a regional approach required champions of collaboration, years of dialogue, and a steady flow of communication. The path forward may not be easy or quick, but with an intentional emphasis on collaboration and regionalism, we can work together to propel the Upstate forward.


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