A list of 11 top priorities, written out in marker, were taped to a fourth-floor wall in the Charlotte City Center Hilton on Friday after Raleigh leaders concluded their two-day retreat.
It was a reminder to City Council members and staff of how they should focus their time and energy over the coming months.
City leaders want to start the visioning process for Dix Park, a huge swath of land south of downtown that it purchased from state government last year. They want to make sure construction for Union Station, a transit hub opening in 2017, and Moore Square Park renovations go as smoothly as possible. And they want to implement the affordable housing policy they adopted last year.
Most importantly, though, Raleigh leaders want to focus on expanding their transit offerings through a Wake County government plan that would add bus routes countywide and a train system that would eventually run from Garner through Raleigh to Durham.
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Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said the council traveled by train to Charlotte, which has a rail system, to spark conversations about transit among council members. The group talked about the plan during dinner on Thursday night at The Asbury, and on Friday as elected officials and staff sat around a projector in a Hilton conference room.
The city puts a bond referendum on the ballot every few years to fund park or road improvements. But Raleigh leaders are intentionally holding off on a city bond this year because they want Wake’s transit plan to be the focus of local elections.
It’s nice to learn things in a more structured fashion. It’s helping me to come up to speed quickly.
Councilman David Cox
Wake County commissioners are expected to ask voters in November to fund their transit plan through a referendum. While the city cannot legally spend money to promote the plan, council members are allowed to talk publicly about its benefits.
“Raleigh grew 57 percent over the past 20 years, and our population is expected to double over the next 20,” Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said. “A diverse transit system will help guide that growth, reduce congestion and give people options. It’s a quality-of-life issue.”
The City Council faced some criticism for its retreat, which cost an estimated $31,000 and was held three hours away from most taxpayers. Critics said the council spent too much and that the location made it hard for most taxpayers to participate. Other residents were OK with the cost, but wished the council spent it on a retreat in Raleigh to support local businesses.
Council members Friday defended the trip, saying it helped them avoid distractions and grow closer together.
“It’s nice to learn things in a more structured fashion,” Councilman David Cox said. “It’s helping me to come up to speed quickly.”
Cox, Dickie Thompson and Corey Branch, who on Thursday celebrated his 38th birthday, were each elected last fall. Council members Thursday focused on improving relationships with each other and staff members. Friday featured several updates from city staff on everything from Raleigh’s branding – or lack thereof – to its finances.
McFarlane said she appreciated the council’s interest in governing under the guidance of the strategic plan, which the council passed last year. She reflected on previous city councils in her closing comments Friday.
“There wasn’t a feeling that this really is a team effort,” McFarlane said. “That’s what we have now.”
Raleigh retreat notes
▪ The city’s communications office is eager to rebrand Raleigh. The city government has dozens of different logos and 48 different Twitter accounts, spokesman Damien Graham said. The council’s Strategic Plan calls for a campaign that markets Raleigh as “the Southern capital of arts and culture.”
▪ Councilman Russ Stephenson is ready to put Raleigh’s 10-year downtown vision plan into action. The plan, though it has no funding, includes suggestions for how Raleigh leaders can improve livability and boost the economy through projects such as a major sports facility. “We need to prioritize the 150 action items in the downtown plan,” Stephenson said.
▪ Councilman David Cox wants the city to consider a living wage ordinance such as the one Wake County adopted last year, which boosted pay for the lowest-level full-time county employees. He also wants to improve the city’s outreach to residents so that, by the 2017 City Council election, participation is up by at least 5,000 voters.