North Carolina’s capital city has undergone its share of transformations over the years, from the growth of the suburbs in the 1960s to a recent downtown rebirth that has brought luxury apartments and $14 mixed drinks to what used to be a sleepy state-government town.
Now Raleigh could see the biggest game-changer yet: Amazon.
Raleigh was thrust into the national spotlight when it landed on the list of 20 potential cities for the technology giant’s second headquarters, which promises a $5 billion investment and 50,000 jobs.
Many people in Raleigh have cheered the news while acknowledging challenges, including traffic, an affordable-housing shortage and lack of an advanced transit system. But there’s another worry, too: How would a mammoth company like Amazon affect the character of Raleigh, a city that has already seen so much growth and change?
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“That atmosphere, that knowing your neighbor, is slowly drifting away,” said Evelyn Murray, owner of Briggs Hardware downtown. “(Raleigh) will be less personable. It’s all business and we’ll lose that hometown atmosphere.”
Murray’s family ran Briggs Hardware on Fayetteville Street for 130 years before it relocated and she eventually brought it to Hargett Street. So she knows all about small-town Southern charm. But many of the city’s nearly 470,000 residents never knew that Raleigh. They got here in the last two decades, many arriving from northeastern states in search of jobs, cheaper real estate and a warmer climate.
So Raleigh’s culture can be hard to pin down – The modern South? Hipster? Family-friendly? Artsy?
The city is already home to tech companies like Citrix and Red Hat. Festivals such as Hopscotch, Artsplosure and SPARKcon celebrate the arts, and the World of Bluegrass music event typically draws more than 200,000 people each fall. The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, the Museum of History and Marbles Kids Museum rank among the state’s most popular attractions.
Les Stewart, director of brewing operations at Trophy Brewing, describes Raleigh as an energetic city that has the potential to be shaped by a large company like Amazon, for better or worse.
“What we have is a lot of young and excited people that are already contributing in meaningful ways to our unique fingerprint of culture, whether that be small businesses starting here, like craft beer, or arts and music that’s homegrown here,” Stewart said. “But it’s certainly exciting and poignant. It feels burgeoning. It feels like we’re at the beginning of something big and part of the culture of the moment.”
Amazon’s HQ2 would bring the equivalent of another Research Triangle Park, which has 50,000 workers at 200 companies. The park, which was created half a century ago, has helped fuel an era of tremendous growth for the region.
It’s unclear where Amazon would build its second headquarters if it chooses Raleigh. The company has said it would consider sites throughout the Triangle. Wherever it would land, Amazon has the chance to build on decades of forward-thinking ideas and would enhance Raleigh’s culture of innovation, said Smedes York, who served as mayor from 1979-83 and is now chairman of the Research Triangle Park Foundation.
“This community and region is in a position of growth, of positive growth,” York said. “I think they would be good citizens of the community.”
Amazon would likely hire many people who are already here, pulling from the talent base at N.C. State, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University. But that’s still a lot of people who need homes and places to shop and eat.
Downtown’s rebirth has featured plenty of locally owned businesses, including restaurants by renowned chef Ashley Christensen, breweries and boutiques. As national companies move in – a Publix grocery store is planned for Peace Street, and a Wahlburgers eatery is opening on Fayetteville Street – it will be important to continue to support local businesses, said Bill King, senior vice president of economic development and planning for the Downtown Raleigh Alliance.
“Particularly local businesses, we want to make sure that is part of the tide that is rising and doesn’t get overwhelmed by growth,” he said. “That’s not even really an Amazon thing. It’s a growth thing.”
Mike Phillips’ Men At Work Car Center became overwhelmed by growth. The popular car wash, which employs previously incarcerated men, was forced to leave its rented space at South Saunders and West South streets last year after a developer bought the 0.22-acre property for more than $400,000. Phillips moved the business to Tryon Road, but he figures it’s just a matter of time before downtown’s borders reach him again.
“But it’s a good thing,” said Phillips, adding that he wants Raleigh to continue to thrive. He hopes to buy a piece of property so he won’t have to move again.
Progress that has already been made shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle of a giant newcomer like Amazon, said Raleigh City Council member Russ Stephenson.
“If we are lucky enough to get them, then the big tasks are how can we keep all the great things we have been doing and not lose them in the tidal wave of Amazon,” he said.
A reporter for the Chicago Tribune wrote a story in January in which he explained why Amazon will choose Chicago and not the other 19 finalists. Atlanta, he said, is “a fetid swamp, hotter than the sun,” and Austin is “riddled with weirdos.”
Here’s what he had to say about Raleigh: “Nobody actually knows where this is.”
An exaggeration, for sure, but there’s no doubt Raleigh is on a different tier than finalists such as New York City, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Raleigh has only one professional sports team, no transit service except Amtrak and buses and a downtown that has only recently found its groove.
But plenty of people aren’t ready to disregard Raleigh so quickly.
“I think there has been a perception that Raleigh is a small town, but Raleigh is growing into something more than that,” said Brent Woodcox, who founded the pro-growth YIMBY Raleigh group. “It’s becoming a cultural, technology and business hub in North Carolina and the entire Southeast.”
Meanwhile, voters last fall elected some people to the Raleigh City Council who want to take a more-cautious approach to growth in an effort to preserve the character of neighborhoods. Their influence has already been apparent in a scaled-back plan for Hillsborough Street and Cameron Village.
But more change is on the way, Woodcox said, and there’s no stopping it.
“There are 67 people who move into (Wake County) every single day and a lot of them are moving into Raleigh because of all the things Raleigh has to offer,” he said. “We can’t continue to say no to change and try and shrink wrap our neighborhoods and (slow) development and think Raleigh can become the city we all want it to be.”
Increased traffic remains a concern for residents who are already weary of clogged roads.
“Everything else (with Amazon) would be fine, but traffic is a nightmare,” said Bill Peterson, who lives in Cary and works in Raleigh. “I don’t think the traffic is going to offset any benefits.”
Wake County is big enough that it could absorb Amazon without a lot of problems, said Dewayne Clark, who lives in Raleigh. To him, traffic is just a part of life.
“Raleigh is changing now,” he said. “It’s open to all races. I don’t think (Amazon) would change the culture at all. If anything it’d make it better.”
Most City Council members have said they are in favor of Amazon coming to town. But they say it could exacerbate problems that Raleigh, and many other cities across the United States, are encountering. Home prices and rent prices could surge at a time when elected leaders are already scrambling to deal with a shortage of affordable housing – not just for the poor, but for police officers, teachers, nurses.
“As a region it would place a lot of stress on our infrastructure and housing stock and housing affordability, which is now being stressed just through growth that is already occurring,” said Gregg Warren, president of DHIC, a nonprofit that works to increase affordable housing in the area. “I would have concerns about (Amazon) driving up housing costs and rental costs, and our region suffers from a shortage of single-family homes.”
Some say they hope Amazon would work with Raleigh to address concerns.
“We definitely would look for any company like Amazon to be a partner with our citizens,” said Corey Branch, the city’s mayor pro tem. “To make sure all citizens have access to job opportunities.”
Jessica Holmes, chairwoman of the Wake County commissioners, said she would always welcome “an opportunity to create jobs and to make sure people of all incomes have the opportunity to work and provide for themselves.”
But, she said, “I do have concerns with Amazon with it being such a large corporation it has the ability to change the vibe and feel of a city and a county. We want to make sure Amazon is a part of Wake County and it doesn’t overshadow all of the amazing companies and economic development projects and small businesses we already have here.”
Even if Amazon doesn’t pick Raleigh, some local leaders say it’s only a matter of time before another large company settles here.
Raleigh’s culture is rooted in growing and changing, said Mayor Nancy McFarlane. Amazon would simply speed up the change.
“We’re a city that loves arts and culture and takes care of each other,” McFarlane said. “I think fundamentally who we are isn’t going to change. Just the growth that we were already anticipating could happen a lot faster.”