It didn't seem controversial: a two-year study, led by a diverse N.C. State University team, "to identify strategies to further enhance the unique character of the South West Raleigh area and explore opportunities for future private economic development." The price was modest: $150,000, with NCSU adding $40,000—from donated funds, lest the General Assembly become alarmed. The money was previously authorized in the budget. Raleigh City Councilor Thomas Crowder, whose District D spans Southwest Raleigh, was asking for approval.
What bothered two other City Council members, however, when the question of actually spending the money came before the Budget and Economic Development Committee Tuesday, was that the study might result in the "branding" of Southwest Raleigh as the city's "Creative District."
First, Councilor Nancy McFarlane poked at it. "People take a little offense at this," McFarlane said, not naming any such people. They don't like the implication, she continued, that if they don't live in the right place, they're not creative. McFarlane, who represents District A in North Raleigh, suggested that the committee approve half the plan—with half the money—and decide in a year whether to continue.
If her plans go well, McFarlane will be the mayor of Raleigh in a year. Thus far, she's the only official announced mayoral candidate in the Oct. 11 elections. (Seth Keel, 16, is a second announced candidate, but he's not old enough to hold the office.)
If McFarlane poked, however, Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin unloaded. Elected to an at-large seat, Baldwin accused Crowder of "pitting district against district."
The $150,000 study, she said, might produce some long-term results, but the money should be spent to help struggling businesses now. Why should Southwest Raleigh get a brand, Baldwin added, when the city itself has no brand? "Creativity?" Baldwin said. "Why can't that be more of a city brand?"
Crowder denied pitting districts against one another. With his support, the council has funded economic development in Southeast Raleigh for 12 years through the Southeast Raleigh Assembly. The annual amounts have been $250,000 or more. "Economic development in any part of the city," Crowder said, "benefits the entire city."
The idea that Southwest Raleigh needs a cool name is traceable to the branding of the revitalized North Hills area as Midtown a few years ago. It built on Downtown Raleigh's improving fortunes and the cachet of Glenwood South. Some in Crowder's district tried to rebrand West Raleigh as Uptown, but it didn't catch on. Neighborhood leaders in Crowder's district have posted a website, SouthwestRaleigh.com, to "stake our claim as the Capital City's Creative District," wrote Jason Hibbets, the chairperson of the Southwest Citizens Advisory Council, who also works for Red Hat.
"Southwest Raleigh is unique in that it can claim an unequaled inventory of art galleries, museums, theaters, universities, companies, restaurants, parks, recreational opportunities, history, neighborhoods, and active citizens," said Hibbetts. "This isn't to say that other parts of Raleigh are not creative."
It's more than a cool name that's needed from the study, though. Marvin Malecha, dean of the NCSU College of Design, said that while many parts of Southwest Raleigh are thriving (he named three: NCSU's Centennial Campus, Hillsborough Street and the Warehouse District), each is developing separately, without enough connections. The parts aren't adding up to a prosperous whole.
Former Raleigh Planning Director George Chapman agreed. "There's a clear understanding in the community that all is not well," Chapman said. "Go into some of the neighborhoods today. You'll immediately see decline."
Economic development studies include an inventory of community assets and attitudes, said Celen Pasalar, assistant dean for research and extension at NCSU, and they try to get feedback from civic leaders in addressing problems. From there, they "conceptualize a big vision" and try to bring it down to earth with four or five specific, major projects.
Such projects, Malecha said, answering Baldwin's question, may ultimately include new transit offerings to unite the disparate parts of the district, or programs to calm the "housing volatility" caused by the plethora of student housing in the neighborhoods around NCSU.
With Crowder, McFarlane and Mayor Charles Meeker voting yes, the study moved ahead by a 3-1 vote and will be on the council agenda on June 21.