Top 10 story lines to follow in 2011

January 1, 2011 

The state budget crisis, a recovering economy and a couple of huge moments in sports should make 2011 a memorable year for the Triangle.

While the nationwide recession heavily influenced the 2008 general election, a faltering recovery has helped shift political control to Republican conservatives in the state legislature and on the Wake County school board. With that shift in influence and other anticipated changes around the Triangle, 10 things worth watching during 2011 are:

Jobs and housing

The nation's economy is showing signs of recovery, and many economists think the Triangle is better positioned than most areas to see improvement.

One key economic indicator to watch will be home sales.

Sales the first six months of 2011 are likely to be down compared to the previous year because of the lingering effects of the federal tax credits, which inflated sales during the first half of 2010.

A better indicator will be inventory.

Many areas of the Triangle have an excess of existing homes for sale. Reducing that inventory will allow prices to stabilize.

But the strength of the area's recovery is likely to be judged primarily on how many jobs are created.

The Triangle's unemployment rate has hovered around 8 percent since May, but judging the pace of recovery by the unemployment rate alone is too simplistic. The rate could rise even if the job market improves as people who had stopped looking return to the labor market.

And, while the Triangle is home to a number of fast-growing companies, it's also home to state government. If, as expected, legislators cut state jobs next year, expect it to put a damper on the region's recovery.

State layoffs

State government has now gone through two years of budget cuts. But the coming year is likely to be far worse.

Facing a $3.7 billion shortfall in 2011, Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue and the new Republican legislature face a series of difficult choices, including the likelihood of widespread layoffs and a reduction in services.

There could be sharp cuts or changes in programs affecting millions. Classrooms could become more crowded, parks may be closed, subsidized dental care for the poor may be eliminated, and state ABC stores could be sold off to private businesses.

School districts across the state may be especially hard hit because that's where much of the state's money goes. One independent group has estimated that 21,000 people could lose their jobs.

Wake student reassignment

Money won't be the only issue for Wake County schools as the system transitions to a new superintendent and works on a still elusive plan for assigning 143,000 children to neighborhood schools.

The hiring of Anthony Tata, a retired Army general plucked from his high-level post in the District of Columbia schools, got raves from the Wake board's five-member Republican majority, but a lukewarm and even critical response from its four Democrats. Tata starts work late this month as the board tries to deal with an estimated $100 million funding gap.

Decisions on hot topics, including magnet schools and reassignment, could rest on Republican member Debra Goldman, who shifted to the Democratic camp on several issues involving student assignment in 2010.

Fall elections could further complicate the board dynamic, though recent elections for Wake County's Board of Commissioners gave Democrats little indication the countywide vote will turn blue again any time soon. Democrats will have to hang on to the four seats they hold now, as well as wrestle one away from the GOP, while dealing with new Republican-crafted district lines.

Legislative hot-buttons

While GOP leaders in the legislature say they intend to focus on jobs, they have a laundry list of initiatives they would like to see passed when they take control in January.

After being in the political wilderness for years, look for Republican lawmakers to renew proposals blocked in past years by the legislature's Democratic leadership, including a constitutional amendment to ban marriage of same-sex couples; bills to require photo IDs for voting; an Arizona-type law against illegal immigrants and a resolution challenging the new national health care law.

Raleigh's mayoral race

Eight of Raleigh's City Council members will be up for re-election in October. The big question is whether Democratic Mayor Charles Meeker will seek an unprecedented sixth straight term.

The smart money is on Meeker hanging it up after this year, his 10th consecutive leading the Capital City.

If that happens, the city will have a different mayor for the first time since Paul Coble in 2001. Some current council members likely will jockey to be Meeker's replacement.

If Meeker does run, expect him to be a big favorite to win re-election.

"I'm sure there's a lot of talk about it," said Meeker, 60. "But I haven't made a decision."

Meeker served eight years on the City Council between 1985 and 1995, and ran unsuccessfully for mayor twice before beating Coble.

Meeker said he thought seriously about stepping down in 2009, but didn't want to in the midst of the down economy.

The NHL All-Star game

Though 2011 promises to be a bitterly contentious one in the political arena, Triangle sports fans are preparing for a treat.

The NHL All-Star Game comes to Raleigh's RBC Center on Jan. 30, amidst a weekend when the hockey world's eyes will be on the Triangle.

It will be a tough ticket to snag. But local hockey enthusiasts who don't want to pay top dollar for a seat at the game or Saturday's skills competition can still participate in the hockey hoopla.

The City of Raleigh and NHL officials have unveiled a lineup of events billed as "All-Star Wide Open," playing off the city's popular Raleigh Wide Open concert series.

It includes a 5K race for charity, street festival, a series of concerts in downtown Raleigh's outdoor amphitheater and a fan festival Jan. 28-30 at the convention center.

The game and events are expected to pump up to $10 million into the local economy through food and hotel sales, said Scott Dupree, vice president for sports marketing at the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau.

It will be the first time the Carolina Hurricanes have hosted the game.

Duke's bid to repeat

Unlike the NHL All-Star game, 2011 won't be the first time Duke's Blue Devils have set their sites on back-to-back NCAA National Championships.

At this time last year, few college basketball observers expected the Duke men to take the big trophy, but the Blue Devils defeated Butler University's Bulldogs in a memorable final.

Now, most fans will be surprised if the Blue Devils don't win another NCAA title in 2011. No. 1-ranked Duke has been impressive so far this season despite the loss of super freshman Kyrie Irving to a foot injury.

Duke last won back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992, with Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill on the court.

Innovation and art

Another bright spot in 2011 will happen in downtown Raleigh this spring when the Contemporary Art Museum finally opens. After more than a decade of this-time-we-really-mean-it promises, a staff of six has been hired and is about to start moving in, preparing for a commissioned art installation to be set up in time for the April 29 grand opening.

The opening of the museum is important to downtown Raleigh for several reasons.

Behind the $5 million project is an innovative use of tax credits to restore a 100-year-old building that could further revitalize the west side of downtown. Raleigh still hopes to build a light rail, bus and Amtrak station near the museum.

As a non-collecting museum, it will bring an ever-changing mix of new art into a city whose smattering of serious galleries has been struggling to survive. Its partnership with the N.C. State University College of Design will foster exploration of the intersections of art, design, science and technology in a region rich in those fields.

Durham's changing downtown

Durham hopes to add two new jewels to the redevelopment of its central city next year.

The City Council has approved a $4.2 million incentive package for Greenfire Development, the Durham firm that has bought more than 30 properties in and around downtown, to turn the 17-story SunTrust office tower at Parrish and Corcoran streets into a luxury hotel. The Durham County commissioners chipped in another $1 million.

Those incentives, though, are conditional upon Greenfire starting construction by July 31, and getting a certificate of occupancy by July 31, 2013.

Also, Durham entrepreneur Josh Parker's company, Chesterfield Partners, has announced plans to buy and convert the former Liggett & Myers cigarette plant at Main and Duke streets into stores and apartments. Chesterfield plans to cover the $89 million cost with a $65 million recovery-bond issue and other private financing. Construction is slated to begin in the first half of the year.

Opening of Triangle Parkway

Commuters will be the chief customers when the 3.4-mile Triangle Parkway, North Carolina's first modern toll road, opens for business in December.

It will extend the Durham Freeway (N.C. 147) south from Interstate 40 through Research Triangle Park to N.C. 540.

It's the first section of the planned Triangle Expressway, which eventually will complete the southern half of Raleigh's 540 Outer Loop as an all-toll road. The second leg, opening a year later in December 2012, will extend TriEx south to N.C. 55 at Holly Springs.

"The Triangle Parkway leg will be used mostly by commuters coming down the Durham Freeway," said David Joyner, executive director of the N.C. Turnpike Authority. "It's such a short leg, but it's a good opportunity for us to get our feet wet in the first year."

The Triangle Parkway is the first U.S. turnpike built new without cash collection booths, although some older toll roads recently have been converted to cash-free. Toll rates, expected to be in the range of 12 to 18 cents a mile, will be set this spring. In June the Turnpike Authority will crank up a marketing campaign asking drivers to buy the N.C. Quick Pass, a windshield transponder that will debit their accounts every time they make the trip.

Those without transponders will be billed at a higher rate, based on photos of their license plates.

The Quick Pass will be good for future pay-by-the-trip travel in North Carolina. Three more turnpike projects in Monroe, Gaston and Currituck counties will start construction this year.

Staff writers Steve Bawden, David Bracken, Rob Christensen, Tommy Goldsmith, Craig Jarvis, Ray Martin, Jim Wise and Alan Wolf contributed to this article.

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