Does quality of life give the Triangle an edge?

Does quality of life give the Triangle an edge?

The Research Triangle is a great place to live and work. Just ask Forbes, Businessweek, CNN, Money and other media outlets which regularly place the region at the top of lists measuring quality of life and business environment.

It’s cheaper than San Francisco and Seattle, has milder winters than Boston and the commutes are shorter than in New York or Atlanta. Office space is cheaper in the Triangle than in many metro areas and so are salaries for engineers, developers and designers.

But does quality of life translate into entrepreneurial growth?

“I think it totally helps (entrepreneurship),” said Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane, who owns a chain of pharmacies. “Businesses are looking for where people want to live.”

The Triangle quality of life makes it easier to recruit out-of-town executives to run companies, said John Glushnik, a partner at Durham-based VC firm Intersouth Partners. “We tend to be very successful when the conversation gets to the kitchen table. The executives are starting to talk to their spouses about the cost of living here, what the communities are like, what the schools are like, what the weather’s like. A lot of things go into that and we tend to fare really well when we get to that stage.”

Still, entrepreneurs are transient. They will move to be closer to money, talent, potential markets and networks.

Kiril Klimuk, for example, is a senior computer science major at Duke University. He lives and works with other entrepreneurially minded students as part of Duke’s Cube program. Though he has nothing but praise for the help he’s gotten in the Triangle, he said he is likely to move to Silicon Valley after graduation because it is the epicenter of tech entrepreneurship.

A different definition

In entrepreneurial hubs such as Boulder and Austin, quality of life is often measured by the density of brewpubs, coffee shops, gentrified urban neighborhoods and independent film festivals. By those standards, the Triangle comes up short. The universities add some alternative culture to their cities, and downtown Raleigh and Durham have come a long way, but neither has the hip quotient of Seattle or Portland.

Triangle businesses and population are dispersed among many communities, often separated by undeveloped land, preventing the development of a critical mass or large urban neighborhoods where young entrepreneurs like to work and live.

But there is more than one way to rate quality of life. For a 38-year-old father of two working at Quintiles or Red Hat, quality of life might be better measured in affordable mortgages, good schools and available tee times. And that is where the Triangle excels. It’s suburban through and through with just enough Thai restaurants and craft breweries to add some spice.

It’s those same qualities that lure some entrepreneurs who were either born or educated in the area to return after spending time in Boston, New York or Silicon Valley. Ronda Closner of First Flight Ventures incubator has lived and worked all over the country, but settled in the Triangle: “It’s sunny; it was a good place for my children to go to school; I didn’t have to commute two hours and, instead of paying $2 million to $4 million in the Bay Area, that buys a pretty big house here.”

According to observers, Triangle entrepreneurs are as likely to emerge from local corporations as from the universities and to already have ties to the area, including a mortgage, a working spouse and kids in school. There are work-related incentives to remain in the area, as well, including existing networks, suppliers and customers.

Even students tend to stick around after graduation, said Ted Zoller, head of the Center for Entrepreneurship at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: “We find that the entrepreneurs that come out of our universities just want to stay here and build their companies here and take full advantage of the evolution of this region.”

It will be interesting to see how growth affects quality of life in the Triangle. The area population, now at about 2 million, is expected to increase by 1 million by 2030. That growth could bring more of the big city features that attract entrepreneurs from elsewhere, but are likely also to lengthen commutes, raise housing prices and otherwise hurt the quality of life for those already here.

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