Rob Christensen

Is it time to move state government out of Raleigh? Maybe some of it.

The state Division of Motor Vehicles must vacate its headquarters on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh by November 2020.
The state Division of Motor Vehicles must vacate its headquarters on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh by November 2020. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Journalist John Gunther (1901-1970) once told the story of a Republican state senator who was so angry at The News & Observer that he offered a resolution to move state government to Greensboro.

“We’re not going to leave a thing in Raleigh except the insane asylum, the penitentiary, and The News & Observer,” the senator declared.

The next day, Josephus Daniels, The N&O’s editor, wrote that those are precisely the three institutions needed to keep the Republicans honest.

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Nobody today is suggesting hiring a fleet of moving vans and trucking state government down I-40.

But just maybe we should be thinking about moving parts of it.

That is especially true if North Carolina leaders are serious about the state’s growing urban/rural divide.

The pending relocation of the state Division of Motor Vehicles headquarters provides them with an excellent opportunity to think outside the box.

In case you missed it, the state DMV will leave its headquarters on New Bern Avenue by Oct. 1, 2020 under a provision in the state budget that was recently approved.

The Department of Administration is directed to seek office space for DMV in “Wake County and surrounding counties.”

The move is a long time coming, because the building needs to be replaced.

But it also offers state leaders a chance to move the 479 full-time jobs and 50 part-time jobs to more rural areas that are not experiencing the Triangle’s hot growth.

Why not move DMV to Rocky Mount, Wilson, Goldsboro, or Sanford, or other towns where the offices could make a major economic impact — and yet would be within commuting distance for people now working for DMV in Raleigh?

This is not an original idea. A recent report about the growing urban/rural disparity by the Brookings Institute, the Washington-based think tank, suggested that the federal government look for ways to move more federal agencies and facilities out of prosperous Washington, D.C., into more rural sections of the country.

The Triangle and Charlotte are fast-growing metro areas — fed by market forces. Since 2010, two counties, Wake and Mecklenburg, have received half of the state’s growth.

With the Triangle under consideration for major expansion projects by Amazon, Apple and the U.S. Army for a research center, that trend is likely to continue.

Meanwhile, nearly half the counties in North Carolina have lost population since 2010, with the decline of agriculture and such traditional industries as textiles, furniture and tobacco.

Even during relative good times, we see sharp differences. The unemployment rate in April in Wake County was 3.2 percent, while it was 6.2 percent in Wilson, 5.2 percent in Nash and 7.1 percent in Edgecombe.

North Carolina policymakers have tried various strategies to encourage a more balanced growth policy, but have seen only modest results. Market forces keep funneling the growth to several metro areas and every economic prediction is that the trend will continue.

“The most rapid population growth will be in the urbanized areas of the Triangle, Charlotte and Wilmington areas,” economist Michael L. Walden writes in his book, North Carolina Beyond The Connected Age.

Walden, an N.C. State University professor, writes that Wake and Mecklenburg counties are likely to see their populations double by 2050. Those two counties will likely account for 40 percent of the state’s growth during the next four decades, he writes.

Despite these economic trends, government can still have a modest role in promoting more balanced growth. Where feasible, state government should think about ways to bolster small-town and rural North Carolina by decentralizing state agencies.

In the age of Skype and cell phones, it is less important to have all state agencies concentrated in one physical place.

DMV is particularly well suited for being moved out of Raleigh, because it already has more than 160 offices dispersed across the state. DMV has already taken steps to decentralize. To relieve overcrowding in 2006, DMV moved more than 80 call center jobs to a new office in an industrial park near Elizabethtown in Bladen County.

As my colleague Richard Stradling has reported, state officials have been pondering for years what to do with the circa-1957 headquarters building. There have been proposals in recent decades to build a new DMV headquarters on Blue Ridge Road, on Garner Road, and off Poole Road on the edge of town.

In 2011, state officials determined that it would cost $12.8 million to bring DMV’s aging building up to code, and then it would still be functionally obsolete. So it would make more sense to replace it.

Instead of thinking about a new headquarters on the edge of Raleigh, why not move the DMV headquarters to a more rural area? In the long run, fast-growing Raleigh will not suffer, and it could help some other community.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532; @oldpolhack
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