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Barnett: Raleigh stays atop 'best of' lists, but shouldn't be content

ned.barnett@newsobserver.comApril 19, 2014 

Last week Forbes magazine ranked Raleigh as No. 1 on its list of “Best cities for raising a family.”

The capital city didn’t even blush. Indeed, the honor came and went with little notice. Raleigh, like the Triangle in general, is getting used to being cited for its quality of life.

Even Forbes is getting a bit bored with the result, but it says there’s no way around it, pointing out:

“You’ve probably noticed that Raleigh has appeared on a few of these ‘Best’ lists in recent years, in Forbes and other publications. And for good reason: It’s managed to grow into a major metro area (its population has expanded about 50 percent since 2000) with a minimum of the hassles that invariably come along with it, like rising prices and congestion.”

The magazine did worry a bit about the rising price of Raleigh housing but not enough to knock it off No. 1.

“It could be a sign that growth beyond the family comfort zone is slowly creeping in. But for now, Raleigh sits in the sweet spot of big city and small town life rolled together,” Forbes said.

But this latest ranking honor raises another issue. Has Raleigh become the Duke and Yankees of rating lists? Is it the winner people start to hate?

Two years ago, the website Walkscore ranked U.S. city transit systems and put Raleigh last on a list of 25. (The subsequent introduction of pedicabs might have helped Raleigh’s dismal rating for alternative ways to get around, but the continued presence of an anti-transit Republican majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners hasn’t.)

In 2011, GQ magazine put Raleigh on its list of worst-dressed cities. (There was a lot of disdain for Raleigh men wearing khaki pants with pleats.)

Last week, Zoosk, an online dating service, punctured the glory bestowed by Forbes by naming Raleigh “worst city for singles to find unbiased love.”

The Triangle Business Journal looked into what “unbiased love” means. A Zoosk manager said it means that Raleigh singles are too picky about whom they’ll date.

That actually sounds like a good thing, but it’s worrisome in the long run. If its single people are skittish about dating, Raleigh will soon be at risk of losing its title as “best place to raise a family.”

It also makes you wonder what’s happening with the new wave of hipsters. On the romantic scale, Raleigh has fallen from first to worst since 2008 when it was named “The Best American City for Singles” in Every Day with Rachel Ray magazine.

The real problem for Raleigh’s “best of” rankings may be too many of them. In 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek named Raleigh “America’s Best City,” capping honors that keep rolling in. Wake County’s economic development office publishes a list of Raleigh/Wake County rankings that takes up two pages with top rankings since 2013 alone.

Only four months into this year, there are already more than 20 top rankings. They include:

•  No. 3 Best city for young entrepreneurs (Credit Donkey)

•  No. 5 fastest-growing retirement place, Raleigh-Cary (Nerdwallet)

•  No. 5 Emerging Tech Hub in the World (TransferWise)

•  No. 7 Best Regional Airport (Skytrax)

•  No. 3 fastest-growing city (CNN)

Raleigh was even a top dog in dogs last year: No. 1 top dog friendly city in America (PetCareRx).

It’s good to be well-regarded, and appearances on “best of” lists do have an effect, says J. Andrew Petersen, an assistant professor of marketing at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Petersen, who graduated from UNC-CH in 2002, said he came to the Triangle in part because, “It was beginning to be seen as the place to be.”

“When Raleigh began being ranked as the ‘best place to live,’ I think it really mattered,” Petersen says. “I think it does have an impact on people’s decisions to take a job in an area.”

But over time, he says, the effects of the plaudits fade. “Now it’s no longer a secret when we get ranked the best place to. We say, ‘We know that.’ But 15 years ago, it put us on the map.”

Raleigh and the Triangle don’t mind being among the best places to be. That’s why people come and people stay. But this is a case where it’s not lonely at the top. It’s getting crowded. And the best place to live may be nearing a tipping point that sends it sliding down the rankings.

The appeal of the area is that it’s green and still relatively easy to get around. Crime is not a big problem, housing is affordable and taxes are low compared with Northeastern states. But those variables can change. A time of prosperity is the time to invest to improve transportation, parks, courts, police services, cultural venues and basic infrastructure. While the area is still at the top of the lists, that investment should be first on the list.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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