With economies heavily reliant on public administration jobs, US state capitals do not tend to be hives of economic activity. One exception is Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina.
Thanks to its location within the so-called Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, the city boasts several biotech and information and communications technology companies. This has been a draw for newcomers, resulting in Raleigh’s population growing fourfold since the Research Triangle was conceived in 1959.
Abundant economic opportunities in Raleigh were also what brought Nancy McFarlane and her husband when they relocated here from Virginia in the 1980s. Back then, however, while economic opportunities in Raleigh were appealing, the city itself looked less so.
“When I moved here there were just a handful restaurants and really not much activity in downtown,” says Ms McFarlane, who has been mayor of Raleigh since 2011. “Following years of inactivity in our downtown, strategic investments were made, such as a new convention centre, that were followed by investments from the private sector such as restaurants, housing and entertainment.”
Changes in the city’s urban core and size are not the only developments transforming Raleigh. Its economy is changing too. “While we have many great job opportunities here, there was not a focus on entrepreneurship in the city,” says Ms McFarlane. She adds that Raleigh was the first city in the US to appoint an innovation and entrepreneurship manager and has been actively encouraging local companies to work with startup accelerators and incubators.
These efforts have not gone unnoticed. Raleigh has received several accolades for its efforts, including a recognition from CNNMoney as one of the best cities in the US in which to launch a startup.
Not everything is a plain sailing, however. “We get as many as 64 new residents per day which is great, but it also puts a strain on our infrastructure,” says Ms McFarlane. “Therefore, we need to continue to build up our public transportation system and really focus on planned development to prevent city sprawl.”
To that end, last year Raleigh residents approved in a referendum a 0.5% sales tax increase to fund a 10-year, $2.3bn public transportation project aiming at constructing a commuter rail line and improving the bus service in the city and its vicinities. The city is also developing a 300-acre property near downtown into a destination park.
Additionally, to avoid situation in which newcomers, attracted by the rapidly growing economy, price out existing residents, Ms McFarlane supports affordable housing projects. In her last State of the City Speech, she announced a plan in which the city partners with local non-profits to build new housing of that kind. “Our strength is in a diverse economy, but also in a diverse community and we want to keep it this way,” she says.
Ms McFarlane takes similar approach to the so-called ‘Bathroom Bill’, passed by North Carolina legislature in March 2016 (and repealed a year later), which restricted access to public restrooms for transgender people. “I cannot change the law passed at the state level. All I can do is go out there and tell people that we are an open, accepting community and I am willing to tell that to anyone and everyone who wants to listen,” she says.