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Charlotte officially falls off the map 

It was a bitch-slap of epic proportions.

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published the results of a panel study of where the next big youth-magnet cities, or those that attract the nation's most talented young professionals, are likely to be. This is a critical measure -- because cities that attract young professionals and retain them as they age and start families are most likely to grow and prosper.

It would have been bad enough if the panel of the nation's most esteemed demographers, including the vaunted Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, had merely left Charlotte off the list. But the Journal and the panel went out of their way, in a section on youth-magnet cities that had fallen off the radar, to explain that Charlotte no longer made the cut because the city had "lost some of its economic luster" to the financial crisis. According to the Journal, this had occurred in an atmosphere where "young people are more pragmatic, placing greater emphasis on where high-quality, high-paying jobs are created."

Charlotte has spent billions of dollars and much of the last 15 years trying to become the kind of tourist destination, youth-magnet city that was so hot in the late 1990s. Along the way, our local and state leadership put little emphasis on the job-creation part, figuring the banks had that covered. Instead, they jacked taxes through the roof to the point that we will now struggle to recruit the businesses that will create the jobs people want and need.

Which makes it all the more frustrating that Raleigh, a city that has largely followed the opposite strategy we have, made the Journal's list. No surprise there. When economics and job retention and creation are part of the criteria, Raleigh has been topping a lot of lists Charlotte has fallen off of in the last few years, dating back even before the recession, as I've documented in this space.

Here's what the Journal and the panel said about Raleigh:

"A relatively low cost of living and a highly educated population help make this Southern city appealing. The smallest city on our panelists' list, with fewer than 400,000 people, Raleigh has job opportunities in tech and research and a strong university presence. It offers outdoor recreation and a lively music scene. 'Raleigh's future is so bright that it ought to wear shades,' says one panelist. Downside: Raleigh has few critics; the worst panelists could say is that it wouldn't be seen as the hippest locale on the list."

Not the hippest? Outdoor recreation? What the heck is that? How is this possible?

Some will say that the universities in the area are driving the city's success, but Raleigh always had those, even back over the recent decades when we were killing them in population growth, jobs, median income and other indicators.

As blogger Jeff Taylor pointed out in July, it now appears that Raleigh has passed us as the jobs engine of the state. It had been nipping at our heels for years, but according to the May 2009 Employment Security Commission of North Carolina jobs and employment report, Wake County, home to Raleigh, now has an official employment of 409,642; Mecklenburg's is 406,298.

What has really set Raleigh apart are its leaders' organized efforts to capitalize on the universities and sell the area as a destination city for businesses, rather than tourists. Raleigh has one of the lowest costs of doing business in the nation and a determined, focused effort to sell itself that has led to an exploding life-sciences industry and a booming biotech hub. (And all this without being hip!)

Wake County Economic Development has a fine-tuned strategy for going after the county's four target industries: biotech, advanced medical technologies, advanced learning technologies and non-woven textiles. That strategy has paid off.

The Journal piece was actually the second bitch-slap the Queen City took last month.

The Brookings Institution's economic profile of the 100 largest urban metro areas, which was based on non-subjective measures of the local economy like jobs and housing, ranked Charlotte 63rd. Raleigh came in 30th.

Meanwhile, the big civic debate here is whether we should jack up the property tax rate again to pay for a $450 million streetcar that will generate $112 million in property taxes over 20 years. (No, the math on that doesn't make sense.) And should we spend millions more turning Eastland Mall into a tourist destination? Millions more for a baseball stadium?

Here's the question: Will any of these projects budge us any closer to Raleigh or Columbia's solid economic position on the Brookings list, and how will they do it? If not, they belong in the trash bin for now.

How about our mostly lip service plan to capture the green jobs every other city in America is also trying to attract? That's fine, but why not build off the unemployed and struggling financial service workforce we already have here before it dissipates?

Clearly we need to stop pretending it's 1995 and develop a new business recruitment strategy. I'd call it WWRD -- "What Would Raleigh Do?"

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