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Conference Host City: Raleigh Brimming with Change 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

This one raised the bar. It’s just about unanimous – this is an exciting time to be in Raleigh.

Not the city it was 10 or even five years ago, the capital is flocking with growth that has followed intentional efforts on the part of local government and private buy-in to create a fun, cultural and technologically dreamy hub where the possibilities haven’t found end.

In fact, it’s brought local leaders and planners to a new level of transition: growing pains – which really just means they’re working on the next level.

The results, most expect, will elevate the City of Oaks to the status of larger U.S. peers.

That growth and the cultural and technological offerings of an evolving city will be on display in October as Raleigh hosts the League’s annual conference, CityVision 2016: Accelerate!

“Years ago, we spent a lot of money and time trying to get folks to come downtown for a social experience, or a show,” said Damien Graham, the city’s communications director. “Now, we have issues of parking downtown. How do we handle zoning regarding all of the restaurants that have opened?” He continued to tick off the challenges, and then added: “These are nice problems to have....”

Raleigh has always been one of the “big” cities of North Carolina, while of course serving the state as its capital. But its reputation for so long has been governmental, rather than home to a robust private sector (Charlotte), arts (Greensboro), or lifestyle tourism (Wilmington) – which, really, were pulsing in Raleigh all along.

“What we found is we have a strong arts presence,” for one, said Graham.

“We have a fabulous design school right down the street. Why not try to highlight that in a significant way?”

It’s not arts for arts’ sake. The focus on culture and color has helped to drive the spirit of the city along with attitudes toward development and business.

Arguably, the biggest city-run effort in that category is transforming a 300-plus acre acquisition from the state – the comely Dorothea Dix Campus – into a nationally regarded and aesthetically triumphant destination park. The city in July held a public welcome event on site with live music, food and other fun to get the locals imagining everything the site could become.

“The hope is that we’ll have a lot of public participation in crafting it,” Graham said. He noted that respecting the park vision means spending careful time developing it.

Taste is central to the city’s planning, which meshes perfectly with the sensibilities of local businesses – from small startups to breweries to fine dining to the larger corporate residents – who are quite comfortable thickening their roots in the Oak City.

Officials point for instance to activity around the development of Union Station, Raleigh’s multi-modal transit center in the works. A city/state project, it’s anchoring a farther flung part of downtown, bringing the area new attention and investments. While the Contemporary Art Museum is right next door, developments underway in the same spot include a new 20-story building. Citrix, a significant tech employer, is also right there, having recognized its employees’ desire for easy transit access, whether by bus or train, which Union Station will provide.

“So the investment, I think, will ultimately have a huge impact going forward for us,” said Graham. Transit is a huge component of the city’s planning right now.

This fall, voters in the area will see a referendum at the polls that would authorize a half-cent sales tax specifically for transit funding in Wake County, with a substantial portion addressing needs in Raleigh. Most of it would go toward bus improvements and could lead to a doubling of the city’s bus service within the next decade.

Other recent developments include the city’s investment in a “bikeshare” or bike-rental program to encourage health and a driving alternative (which may give participants a more intimate commute through town). Miles and miles of new bike lanes are already in place. And, meanwhile, residents are increasingly enjoying the city’s greenway circuit, another way to get from place to place, promote walkability and enjoy the outdoors.

By providing so many mobility options with eyes on the future, the city believes it is well positioned for the expectations of newcomers, the growth of businesses and the retention of longtime residents.

In another successful showcase, Raleigh government is now broadcasting live music performances of talented local acts in an effort to expand awareness, inside and outside of the city. Music can play big into local economies and tourism, which Oak City Sessions, as the show is called, is going after in a highly professional way. The monthly show – produced as well as anything you’ll see on TV – airs locally on one of the government access channels and worldwide via the Internet, as highlighted recently on Municipal Equation, the League’s own podcast.

Graham noted that the project has helped to humanize government by connecting with the people in a new, accessible way.

As the arts tie in with business and spirit, things are pretty much wide-open for Raleigh’s future.

“We’re a rarity in that,” Graham said. “Charlotte has a banking core. We don’t really have Fortune 500 companies that are headquartered here. We would like to. But if and when that happens, they won’t be the sole game in town. We’re very diversified in the number of companies and opportunities that exist.”

That’s kind of the city’s banner right now: that just about anything works in the Oak City. It’s anything residents and newcomers want it to be.

Leaders in the city, which is closing in on the half-million population mark, don’t take that lightly.

“I always like to remind folks that the decisions we make in the next five years will shape the next 40 or 50,” Graham said. “We’re sort of at that threshold, where you can exist and operate up to a certain point, and that point is to us, around the 500,000 (population) mark. And you can’t operate like a little city anymore. We’ll
have different kinds of problems, and different kinds of opportunities. So that’s what makes this a really exciting time to be working in municipal government.”