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Economic Expansion and Diversification


Democrat Mike Easley as governor
Democrat Mike Easley as governor

North Carolina’s prominence in national politics continued in the 21st century as one of its two U.S. senators, John Edwards, ran for the presidency and eventually became the Democratic party’s vice-presidential candidate in the 2004 elections. Although the ticket of Edwards and presidential candidate John F. Kerry lost nationally and within the state, North Carolina reelected Democrat Mike Easley as governor. The Democrats’ effort to retain Edwards’ Senate seat for the party failed as Republican representative Richard Burr defeated Erskine Bowles, who won the Democratic nomination for the Senate after Edwards decided not to seek reelection. That left North Carolina with two Republicans in the U.S. Senate. However, in the 2008 elections North Carolina voted for the Democratic ticket of Barack Obama and Joseph Biden. Democrat Kay Hagan also upset Elizabeth Dole in the U.S. Senate race, winning handily with about 53 percent of the vote even though Dole was a virtual pillar of the Republican establishment. The state’s voters also elected their first female governor, Bev Perdue, a Democrat.

As the 20th century came to a close, North Carolina was at an economic crossroads, as long-established industries slowed and were overtaken by new ones. Tobacco revenues, for years a major part of North Carolina’s economy, began to fall in the 1980s and 1990s. Although the state still led the nation in 1996 in tobacco production and sales, findings about the health hazards of smoking lessened profits, and the industry faced an uncertain future.

At the same time, textile mills, once a mainstay of North Carolina’s economy, began to suffer from competition by foreign operators with lower production costs. Many of these older industries began to be overtaken by high-tech and research and development industries in the 1990s.

The driving force behind this change was the Research Triangle Park, which opened in 1959. The park was a cooperative research center created by three North Carolina universities—Duke University in Durham, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

A unique complex for organizations engaged in institutional, governmental, and industrial research, the park employed in 1998 more than 42,000 people working for more than 100 companies and organizations. The largest single employer at the park in 1998 was International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), a leading manufacturer of computers, which employed about 14,000 people at its facility in the park. Other major employers included Nortel Networks Corporation, a telecommunications company; Glaxo Wellcome Inc., a pharmaceutical concern; and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a biomedical research institute. The Research Triangle Park has brought prosperity to Durham, Chapel Hill, and Raleigh.

Largely because of the success of endeavors such as the Research Triangle Park, North Carolina’s economy has grown and diversified, and the number of professional and high-tech jobs has increased rapidly.From 1990 to 1997 the state’s economy grew by 31 percent, compared to 20 percent for the United States as a whole in the same period. The state seemed poised to continue its growth well into the 21st century, spurred in part by Dell Computer Corporation’s decision in 2004 to build a manufacturing plant in North Carolina. "North Carolina" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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