How Does a Popular City Avoid the Curse of Success?

Raleigh regularly tops “Best City” lists. Mayor Nancy McFarlane explains why that can be a challenge.

National Journal
James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
Sept. 18, 2013, 8:40 a.m.

Nancy Mc­Far­lane, a polit­ic­al in­de­pend­ent, has been may­or of Raleigh since 2011. A former City Coun­cil mem­ber and a phar­macist, Mc­Far­lane launched a com­pany that provides med­ic­a­tion in­fu­sions to at-home pa­tients with chron­ic ill­nesses. She cam­paigned for the may­or’s of­fice on a plat­form of smart plan­ning, cit­ing North­ern Vir­gin­ia—where she grew up—as an ex­ample of un­wise urb­an policy. She re­cently spoke with Na­tion­al Journ­al about lead­ing one of the na­tion’s most de­sir­able cit­ies. An ed­ited tran­script of that con­ver­sa­tion fol­lows.

Q: Every time you see one of these lists of the best places to live or best places to raise a fam­ily, Raleigh is al­ways near the top. What’s go­ing on?

A: I think the com­munity has done an ex­cel­lent job of plan­ning what they want to be. It’s really been a col­lab­or­at­ive ef­fort. There are just so many pieces that go in­to it. Geo­graph­ic­ally, we’re halfway between the moun­tains and the beach. We have three ma­jor uni­versit­ies in the re­gion. We have the Re­search Tri­angle Park. We’re the [state] cap­it­al, but we do not have any one ma­jor in­dustry. So if something starts to go down, there’s enough di­versity in our eco­nom­ic base to cov­er it. We’ve been very mind­ful of how we look. We’ve put a lot of in­vest­ment in­to our parks and gre­en­ways.

I think fun­da­ment­ally what it boils down to—es­pe­cially now with a more glob­al­ized eco­nomy—is if a busi­ness is look­ing to re­lo­cate some­where, they have to be where people want to live.

Q: Tech­no­logy gives people more mo­bil­ity and more choices. Are you say­ing that qual­ity of life is­sues aren’t just about life­style, but also about at­tract­ing and keep­ing busi­ness?

A: I own a busi­ness. You’ve got to have the work­force, wheth­er you are hir­ing new gradu­ates or ex­per­i­enced work­ers. This area really ap­peals to a very wide range of in­di­vidu­als. The arts and cul­ture scene is amaz­ing. We’ve got a lot of en­tre­pren­eurs. There’s a lot of sup­port here for en­tre­pren­eurs. A lot of it is the tech in­dustry. There’s a lot of op­por­tun­ity in town.

Q: This stuff feeds on it­self.

A: It does, but you can’t ever take it for gran­ted.

Q: Do you ap­proach eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment as a re­gion, or do you com­pete with cit­ies like Durham and Greens­boro?

A: We’re like sib­lings. We’re happy when each oth­er does well, but secretly we want to do the best. We want mom to like us best. We want to grow. But I would nev­er try to take a busi­ness from Durham to come here. Some of it is chas­ing com­pan­ies, some of it is field­ing in­quir­ies. We have highest per cap­ita of Ph.D.s in the coun­try, we have a very well-edu­cated work­force. Al­though once in a while, I get com­ments like: “I just moved here and I love it, but can you keep any­body else from mov­ing here?”

Q: You just an­ti­cip­ated my next ques­tion. How do you make sure you don’t have clogged high­ways and sprawl and over­taxed schools and everything else that comes from growth?

A: To me, it’s all about the plan. And I think a big piece of that is go­ing to be re­gion­al plan­ning. I grew up in Ar­ling­ton, Vir­gin­ia. I get it. We already have a line from Raleigh to Cary, [N.C.,] to Apex, [N.C.]—even­tu­ally, it’s go­ing to be one big blob. Trans­port­a­tion to me is key. We’re look­ing at a planned re­gion­al light rail even­tu­ally, which really opens up the po­ten­tial of the re­gion. Noth­ing pro­duces eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment like rails in the ground.

Q: How to you bal­ance the in­terests of your urb­an res­id­ents versus your sub­urb­an res­id­ents?

A: I don’t think it will ever be one or the oth­er. It de­pends on where you are in your life. If you are 25 and you just got a job and you’re hanging out down­town, then you want one thing. If you’re 35, and you have two kids, you might want an­oth­er. I do know that the largest seg­ment that is grow­ing is single-oc­cu­pancy house­holds. Where are they go­ing to want to live? It’s all about op­tions. It’s not about one or the oth­er. That’s the great thing about cit­ies. The real chal­lenge is get­ting this to not be­come just like the places every­one moved here to get away from.

Q: Is there an­oth­er city that you emu­late?

There is no city, hon­estly, that I would like us to be a lot more like. But we do have a great mu­sic scene. I would really like us to own that, like Aus­tin, [Texas,] has.

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