James Nichols at the Downtown Durham Rotary Meeting

Triangle Business Development

by Jay on November 17, 2009

It has been my privilege over the last few years to write-up some of the more interesting programs of the Downtown Durham Rotary for its bulletin. One of the reasons that I am so fond of the Rotary and this club is because its membership includes a lot of folks who have deep personal and professional interests in the economic development of Durham and the region. Because that affects everyone in the area that wants to buy, sell or own real estate I’m republishing this one here.

James E. Nichols – O’Brien/Atkins

Although it’s hard to imagine a Rotary having a better schedule of consistently good programs than we do, there are a few that are so well done that nobody leaves early and even the hotshots with Blackberry devices leave them in their pockets to let the spam emails accumulate unacknowledged.

The presentation by James E. Nichols, the Business and Development Leader for Science and Technology for Triangle architectural behemoth O’Brien/Atkins came very close to meeting that high standard.

Mr. Nichols, who spent many years with the state’s business development agency in the Department of Commerce, first engaged the group with a series of questions he likened to Jeopardy. The first answer was “the 16th largest city in the U.S.” After hints that narrowed the choices down to cities in Ohio, the surprise was that it was neither Cincinnati nor Cleveland (which both have NFL and MLB franchises) but Columbus which only has the AAA Columbus Clippers but may make up for that with Ohio State. They also have 25 other institutions of higher learning and many corporate headquarters.

O’Brien/Atkins had been brought in to consult about how the city could create something with the same impact as the Centennial Campus of NC State in Raleigh. This has become the 315 Research and Technology Corridor. (Some interesting facts about this can we seen at http://www.315corridor.com/cf.htm )

Mr. Nichols also provided “answers” about the space program and a small city of 5 million people in China, Taizhou, which is becoming a leading cancer research center as China prepares for a future when it has over 400 million citizens over age 60.

Mr. Nichols left us with several fascinating impressions. First of all, globalization is here whether we like it or not. When a firm such as O’Brien/Atkins operating in specialized niches can reach out not just to the mid-west city of Columbus but to China, it’s good for them and good for us. Our own viability in a globalized economy is also enhanced by investing in our own infrastructure. Two examples he cited were the new Terminal C at RDU and the new Raleigh Convention Center.

The second impression was created by another “answer” provided by Mr. Nichols, “the leading life sciences education center in the world.” It’s right here in the Triangle which we already had a clue to from Dr. Nelms’ presentation a couple of weeks ago. Mr. Nichols cited both NCCU’s biotechnology initiative and complementary ones at NC State as well as vaccine manufacturers in the Triangle and the Hamner Institutes for Health Services. It also answered my question about why a seasoned state government veteran of business recruitment like Mr. Nichols would now be working for an architectural firm. Government and private industry must work closely together to bring these well paying high tech jobs into our economy.


When he started the presentation Mr. Nichols, a Raleigh native, asked how many other natives of the Triangle were in the audience. A third to a half raised their hands. I wasn’t one of them but last month I did celebrate my 25th anniversary as a citizen of Durham and I’ve been fortunate to witness fairly close at hand the growth of the region and Durham’s successful struggle to catch up in so many ways. But this presentation opened my eyes and perhaps most of the group a little bit.  I now see what we’ve witnessed as just presaging much more spectacular things to come. I hope I live a few more years to see some of it realized.

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