Perhaps it was understandable, the skepticism going back a decade or so, from Raleigh residents of some years. Nice city weve got here, theyd say. Great shopping, good restaurants, traffics not too bad most places, schools are fine. Not exactly a city with a lot of excitement, but fine. Raleigh was, to use a phrase thats been applied to other medium-sized cities, a nice place to live, but you wouldnt want to visit there.
And they would add, Too bad about downtown. There doesnt seem to be an answer. Ah, well, thats just the way it goes.
Get thee behind us, cynics. Raleigh may have challenges ahead to maintain the momentum behind the tremendous growth and accompanying enthusiasm for whats doing in downtown, but even in a tough economy, things are looking good.
A News & Observer Sunday report, New Life Downtown, showed visitors riding rickshaws, downtown apartment residents out for a stroll with their pets, folks gathered on the sidewalks outside restaurants (couldnt tell the difference between Raleigh and Paris...OK, maybe so) and scenes from First Friday, which typically draws hundreds of visitors.
This is not your fathers Raleigh anymore.
What are the reasons for a revitalization for which many hoped but doubted would happen, at least soon? There are the obvious things.
The old Fayetteville Street mall was eliminated, after having earlier been viewed as a part of a previous revitalization effort, and replaced with...Fayetteville Street, taking the street literally. Turned out it provided a nice vista and a lot more lively business-by-day, entertainment-by-night venue. (Fireworks? Not so much.)
Then theres the very cool amphitheater and the shimmer wall and the convention center and apartment developments that appeal to younger folks looking for that urban lifestyle they got used to when they lived in Minneapolis or Chicago or St. Louis or New York.
And really, as Raleigh residents with that aforementioned longevity can tell you, there was a time when living downtown was not even imaginable, ever. Now there are eight apartment projects under construction in central Raleigh, and only one is more than 3 miles from downtown.
Some of the 1,800-plus new units will doubtless be occupied by employees of Red Hat and Citrix, technology companies moving huge numbers of employees to offices in downtown Raleigh.
Red Hats got space in one of Progress Energys downtown towers, and Citrix is going to be occupying the old Dillon Supply warehouse.
One thing that some of the early progress in downtown seems to have done is given risk-taking entrepreneurs some of their daring back. Make no mistake, its still risky to start something new whether that something is in downtown or in the suburbs, but there seems to be a feeling that the chance in downtown isnt as risky to take anymore.
Greg Hatem was one of the pioneers in downtown with his real estate and restaurant businesses. He said some of the infrastructure such as the convention center and the amphitheater has helped encourage smaller businesses to join the party.
This is not to say there are no worlds left to conquer. The citys strategy of paying for its parking decks with revenues from parking fees is a two-edged sword. Sure, someone has to pay for the decks.
But an infusion of retail shops and the addition of something like a move theater are not going to work unless the city can figure a way to make parking free. People are not going to pay for the privilege of shopping downtown when they dont have to pay in the suburbs. The exception, of course, is big cities such as Seattle where the retail offerings are unique and not part of chains, etc.
All in all, the dramatic progress in the citys core over a decade is remarkable, a winning risk to those like Hatem who got in early, and a delightful surprise to newcomers who feared theyd be leaving behind lifestyles they liked in the larger cities they left behind.
Instead they found themselves in a city with many of the things to which theyd grown accustomed, a city that has grown up, as they say, quite gracefully.
A nice place, even a great place you might say, to visit.