What Would Amazon Mean For Raleigh?

By Brent Woodcox

This story from the News & Observer about what Amazon selecting Raleigh for its HQ2 project is really about what growth and change will mean for Raleigh over the next 10 and 20 years. The reality is whether or not Amazon chooses to expand to Raleigh new companies are choosing to locate or expand here everyday. Over the next 10 and 20 years, we can expect far more than 50,000 new employees will be heading to our city. It might even be that one of the many startups that were born here will grow into a company the size of Amazon. It might turn out that company hasn't even been started yet.

Regardless, this city is changing from the sleepy, Southern capital it once was. It's becoming something different, something more. How we react to that change will have a substantial impact on quality of life in this city. Will we embrace a bold, forward-thinking visions based on what Raleigh can become or will we myopically try to defend our preferences that are based in misplaced nostalgia for an era that has ended? Will we meet the challenges that we face when it comes to affordable housing, density, transit and economic development or will we pursue a timid and tepid, reactionary response to what we know is coming? Will we redouble our efforts to make Raleigh not only a great city but an inclusive one where everyone can find opportunity? Because that's why they have arrived at our doorstep. These folks are looking for something better than what they left behind. We can either start working together to truly welcome our new neighbors or we can try to hoard and protect what we have for ourselves.

But we can't do both.

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?

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. ...

“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.” ...

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.”
— Anna Johnson - N&O
Brent Woodcox