Research Triangle: incubator for business

The redevelopment of the American Tobacco campus in Durham, N.C., has helped to change the city’s trajectory and provide a home for entrepreneurs.

Durham, N.C. — It's hard to imagine now, but the bustling entertainment district in downtown Durham not so many years ago was a decrepit cigarette factory filled with bat dung and pigeon droppings whose last best use was as a practice field for the local SWAT team.

The American Tobacco works were a civic embarrassment by the late 1990s. American Brands had pulled out in 1987, and the home of Lucky Strike and Bull Durham was crumbling. Its demise nearly killed downtown Durham as other businesses fled. It was an eyesore, visible to travelers along the Durham Freeway that passes nearby.

But with the help of a visionary business leader, Durham re-imagined American Tobacco. Since reopening in 2004, the development has been filled to the brim with bars and restaurants, apartments and chic new offices. The handsome home of the city's beloved minor league baseball team, the Durham Bulls, stands right across the street flanked by attractive red brick office buildings along the outfield walls. The glassy Durham Performing Arts Center opened nearby in 2008. An adjoining Aloft hotel came along last year.

And inside American Tobacco, you can get a glimpse of what's coming next in the Research Triangle.

American Underground, one of the top entrepreneurial hubs in the country, is here. It's where young companies take flight. There's Mati, founded by Tatiana Birgisson, who began brewing her carbonated energy drinks as a Duke University student. Now, she's selling them in Whole Foods. And there's Nugget, a maker of foldable couches hatched by a couple of students at UNC-Chapel Hill. And Smashing Boxes, a digital product agency.

The Research Triangle area of North Carolina — with Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill at its vertices — has long turned good ideas into business enterprises. World class universities attract an enviable supply of talent. and a range of companies — from startups to Cisco, BASF and GlaxoSmithKline — keep that talent anchored. The Triangle has one of the highest levels of educational attainment in the nation.

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