Commentary

Christensen: Zachary oversaw NC growth

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJune 8, 2013 

The passing of former Raleigh City Manager L.P. Zachary last week at age 91 caused me to reflect on the incredible transformation of North Carolina’s cities since he started as city manager in 1973 – the same year I started covering City Hall.

Few states in America have undergone the rapid urbanization of North Carolina since Mr. Zachary – I can’t imagine referring to him as anything but “Mister” – was responsible for the city. When he became city manager, Raleigh had a population of 131,056. Now, Raleigh has a suburb with more people.

First, a personal note: It was the Watergate era, and cynicism about public officials was running high in the early 1970s. But Mr. Zachary was old-school in the best possible way – a small-town, Southern gentleman from Taylorsville, who was friendly, courteous, honest, fiscally responsible, highly competent and always interested in people. It was a privilege to cover him.

One of most urbanized states

The urbanization of North Carolina – because it has crept up on us gradually – is one of the most underappreciated trends in the Tar Heel state.

Although it likes to see itself as a state of pickup trucks and barbecue, North Carolina has become one of the most urbanized states in the country – even if it doesn’t look like it because cities tend to be spread over a large geographic area.

Only five states have more cities with populations greater than 100,000. North Carolina has more cities with more than 100,000 residents than such states as New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.

This has all sorts of implications, particularly in a legislature with a rural mindset. Rural areas are rapidly losing population, while North Carolina’s major cities are among the fastest-growing in the country.

The metro areas are now more than ever North Carolina’s economic engines, and public policy must be tailored to make sure the engines remain in good working order – from providing good roads, schools and top-notch university research centers, to policies that allow the cities to grow and prosper. If the legislature is not careful, it could gum up the engines.

Comparing populations

I used to make fun of Charlotte (775,202) as an overgrown country town. But Charlotte now has more people than Detroit, Boston, Washington or Baltimore.

Raleigh (423,179) has a larger population than Miami, Minneapolis, St. Louis or Pittsburgh. Greensboro (277,070) has more people than Buffalo, Orlando or St. Petersburg. Durham (239,358) and Winston-Salem (234,349) are larger than Baton Rouge, Richmond or Des Moines.

Fayetteville (202,103) has more people than Akron, Little Rock, Salt Lake City and Knoxville. Cary (145,693) is larger than Syracuse, Dayton, Columbia and Charleston. In fact, Cary would be the biggest city in South Carolina if it were moved south of the border.

Wilmington (109,922) is bigger than Fargo and Waterbury. And High Point (106,586) is bigger than Cambridge, Green Bay and Boulder.

Some of those figures are slightly misleading because they include the populations in the cities, but not the metro areas. But even if you compute metro areas, the Raleigh-Durham area has 1.1 million people and during the past two years was the second-fastest growing metro area in the country, after the Austin metro area.

Raleigh does not have a big-city feel, which is one of its charms. But urbanization is evident – traffic congestion is far worse, the cityscape is changing, not just downtown but in places such as Cameron Village and on Hillsborough Street. Big-city amenities are now available – a broad array of restaurants and shows and sporting events.

Whether you like all the changes or not, Zachary, a small-town gentleman from Taylorsville (population 2,093) helped oversee the transformation.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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