Triangle Chatter

Cities Driving Statewide Renewal

Charles HayesThe Great Recession was not kind to North Carolina. But as the state enters a new economic era, its city-states are leading the way.

The Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, which crunches huge swaths of data in spotting emerging trends, says this is visible along the I-85 corridor. The Center is forecasting that by 2050 there will be a single “megalopolis” from Raleigh and Durham through the Triad to Charlotte. It would resemble the uninterrupted chain of urban and suburban communities from Boston to Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles to San Diego.

Economic activity in the 21st Century tends to congeal near international airports, research universities, teaching hospitals and tech-rich communications networks. Most people today like to be near such amenities (as well as high-quality retail and entertainment attractions), and so do companies. Though they hold little regard for state borders, county lines or city limits, businesses seek locations within reach of the right workers. That places a premium on quality transportation, housing, education, healthcare and other community assets.

That cities are powerful lures for professional-class jobs and growing companies is hardly a North Carolina phenomenon. The rise of city-states is taking place worldwide. Nor is it unique to the present times. Wealth and people have been migrating to metro areas since the Industrial Revolution, though the trend seems to be amplified in the Knowledge Age.

What’s clear – and potentially unique – is that North Carolina’s largest metro areas are the engines powering the state’s recovery. From 2009 through 2012, gross domestic product (GDP) for the Research Triangle Region’s two core metro areas, Raleigh-Cary and Durham-Chapel Hill, grew by a combined 11.3%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. That was more than twice the rate of increase for North Carolina’s overall GDP, which grew by 5.6%. [Total U.S. economic output increased 6.7% in those years.]

Add in the state’s other major metro areas – Charlotte, Greensboro-High Point and Winston-Salem – the urbanization of North Carolina’s economy becomes even more pronounced. The state’s largest cities, different but complementary, are a noticeable draw for companies seeking the most competitive locations. Last year, MetLife simultaneously selected the Research Triangle city-state and the Charlotte city-state as sites for a new global technology center and U.S. retail headquarters, respectively. While 175 miles separate the two, their mutual appeal captured the imagination of Metlife executives, whose decision is bringing 2,600 jobs to North Carolina.

Addressing the challenges and opportunities an I-85 megalopolis will bring also means coordinating economic development strategies. Such thinking inspired the super-regional promotion now taking place between the Research Triangle and our counterparts in Charlotte and the Triad. Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker strongly supports the cross-selling of the state’s urban areas. She has joined us on the road in outreach efforts targeting top national site consultants and global business media.

Nothing about I-85 corridor marketing suggests rural communities are being left behind. In fact, as high-end job growth in the cities drives the state’s economy forward, it also fills North Carolina’s revenue coffers, which rely largely on personal-income and sales taxes. A sturdier fiscal picture for the state will help fund infrastructure, workforce readiness and product development ventures to sharpen the appeal of our rural communities, moving us toward the illusive goal of “one North Carolina.”

Author: Charles A. Hayes, CEcD, President & CEO, Research Triangle Regional Partnership

This blog post was recently featured as a response to the Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event  which asks, "How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?"

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