As ousted City Manager Russell Allen moves on from his 12-year stint at Raleigh City Hall, here’s what several city leaders say represent the biggest accomplishments of his tenure:
When Russell Allen became city manager in 2001, downtown Raleigh was in sorry shape. The city center primarily served 9-to-5 office workers, shutting down on evenings and weekends.
The Fayetteville Street pedestrian mall had seemed like a good idea in the 1970s, but it was attracting few businesses, and many people didn’t feel safe there after dark. By the time Allen arrived, city leaders were already considering tearing up the mall and reopening Fayetteville to traffic.
It was a familiar scenario for Allen – he had helped with a similar downtown project while leading Rock Hill, S.C., in the early 1990s. In Raleigh, he oversaw the design process for the new face of downtown and identified ways to pay for the improvements.
“I don’t think any of us realized that the reopening of Fayetteville Street would be as successful as it has been,” said former Mayor Charles Meeker, who worked with Allen throughout his decade as mayor.
Allen has also been credited with arranging incentives packages to build the PNC Plaza tower and lure software developer Red Hat downtown. The R-Line downtown circulator bus and increased funding for the Downtown Raleigh Alliance also had fervent support from the manager, Meeker said.
The downtown improvements, Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said, represent Allen’s “No. 1 legacy.”
Keeping Raleigh running
Allen was responsible for proposing the city’s annual budget each May, and his tenure was marked by two economic downturns – including the recent recession that forced major cuts in other cities.
The last few years have been lean ones for City Hall, but Allen never laid off employees, and his conservative approach to budgeting helped the city maintain its AAA bond rating. Tax rates didn’t change much, and most residents couldn’t tell the city was dealing with declining revenues.
“We didn’t have the type of service cuts that other communities did,” Baldwin said. “I think the crowning achievement is the fact that he brought us through this economic downturn with minimal damage.”
Allen is also credited with recruiting solid department heads, including three popular police chiefs and Planning Director Mitchell Silver, who recently headed a national city planning association. “Every personnel decision he ever made turned out to be the right one,” Meeker said.
Baldwin said Allen was never heavy-handed with staff, letting his department heads pursue their ideas to make Raleigh better. “Russell changed the culture of city government in what I believe is a very positive way,” she said.
A convention mecca
Allen also had a hand in building one of the biggest facilities to open downtown in the last decade: the Raleigh Convention Center.
The 500,000-square-foot, $225 million center was more than double the size of its razed predecessor, which many felt was inadequate for a city like Raleigh. Allen helped forge a partnership with county leaders and the tourism industry to get the new facility under way.
Today, the center is connected via underground passage to a hotel for visitors, and a “shimmer wall” facing McDowell Street is a Raleigh landmark. The Red Hat Amphitheater next door brings summer concerts.
The center hosts everything from trade shows to sports tournaments, and it is estimated to draw 65,000 attendees a year, generating about $40 million in visitor spending.
“Just the size, scope and quality of that project is something he worked on every step of the way,” Meeker said. “He and (County Manager David Cooke) worked together as partners on that. ... Having quality public buildings was certainly a hallmark of Russell Allen.”
Planning a park
Baldwin says residents have Allen to thank for many major parks projects, from new greenways to senior centers. “I think that Parks and Recreation flourished under him,” she said.
And Allen also had a big role last year in negotiating with state leaders to lease the Dorothea Dix property for a destination park. Three people participated in the closed-door talks: Allen, City Attorney Tom McCormick and Mayor Nancy McFarlane.
The lease on the 325-acre site south of downtown is in flux now, with General Assembly Republicans trying to void the agreement they say is a bad deal for the state.
But if Raleigh’s claim on the property holds and the park becomes a statewide draw, Allen can take a bow for getting the ball rolling. The lease, signed by outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue last December, would prove to be Allen’s major accomplishment leading Raleigh.