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Grudge match: Raleigh smacks Charlotte 

It's new. It's hot. It's Raleigh.

For the last few years, I've been tracking and predicting Raleigh's meteoric rise in this space. The new Southern "it" city, Raleigh has begun bypassing Charlotte in some national surveys that measure things like cost of living and income and job growth. And now this.

Last week, the Raleigh metro area officially became the fastest growing in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Raleigh-Cary area grew at a 4.3-percent rate from July 2007 to July 2008. The Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord region, which now ranks sixth in growth, grew at a 3.4-percent rate.

What that means depends on how you measure it. In real numbers, the Charlotte metro area actually added more people (55,368) than the Raleigh-Cary area (44,804) did. The Raleigh area grew at a faster rate because it had fewer people to start with than we did.

But Wake County, which added 36,381 people, was a hotter destination than Mecklenburg County, which added 26,714. Population-wise, Wake (866,410) is nipping at Mecklenburg's (890,515) heels. The same thing happened the year before, when Wake, which is home to Raleigh, added 7,000 more people than Mecklenburg did.

"Some years down the road, if trends hold, Wake takes over the top spot," the Raleigh News & Observer editorial board bragged in an editorial last year. "Remarkable."

Raleigh lacks light rail (they keep studying it) and doesn't have a trolley. It has no major professional sports teams and just one Fortune 500 company to our nine. Unlike Charlotte, it has an unimpressive airport of little national import, and it is definitely not a tourist destination.

So what's driving Raleigh's success? Raleigh is ringed with three prominent universities, which have led to the area having one of the country's most educated work forces. The universities have been part of the fabric of the area for years, though. What's really setting Raleigh apart are its leaders' organized efforts to capitalize on the schools 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.

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.

As I reported last year, a Milken Institute survey found that Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area has the nation's fastest growing work force in the life-sciences industries and the best success rate for bringing biotechnology research ideas to market. (Can you even name the four industries Charlotte is aggressively focused on targeting? I can't either.)

Last year, for the second time running, Raleigh won the first-place spot in the highly coveted Forbes annual ranking of the nation's best cities for business and careers, beating out 199 other top-ranked cities for the honor. In 2007, Charlotte ranked 21st. Last year we fell to 37th.

Not bad, but is it enough to remain a boomtown?

Going forward, Charlotte's biggest competitor for businesses, jobs and young professionals may no longer be Seattle, Austin or Denver, but Raleigh -- which offers the same climate and regional advantages as Charlotte.

While Charlotte's leaders assumed we had the business thing down and devoted their time to becoming a tourist destination and a hot night spot (things many believed necessary to attract young, hip overachievers), Raleigh was concentrating on the one thing guaranteed to attract them and keep them: business recruitment and jobs. It's a formula that is clearly working.

And there is another element to boomtown growth that Charlotte has forgotten entirely -- keeping those young professionals happy as they age and form young families.

In the last decade or so, Charlotte's leaders developed a disdain for spending and planning outside the center city and the neighborhood districts immediately around it. It's a dangerous trend that in Charlotte has led to the beginning of the degradation of the three things innovative 30- and 40-somethings value most: lifestyle, good schools and reasonable commutes.

Joel Kotkin, author of The City: A Global History, warned that striving to attract young, upwardly mobile college grads was great, but that the picture needed to be bigger -- that cities that solely embraced this strategy like Baltimore, Newark and Cincinnati are languishing. Even gay couples, Kotkin says, tend to abandon center cities as they age.

The question now is whether Charlotte will remain a boomtown or languish into comfortable mediocrity -- a nice place to live, but not a headline grabber.

Charlotte should be a relatively easy city to sell to businesses. What we need now is a highly targeted effort to do it, aggressive action and that hunger we used to have, which now resides in Raleigh.

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