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City grudge match

Will Raleigh surpass Charlotte?

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We've got nine Fortune 500 companies. They've only got one. We've got a smokin' airport that broke top 10 ranks in the country last year for passengers, placing it in the company of the Atlanta, Chicago-O'Hare and Los Angeles airports. In comparison, they have a glorified landing strip.

We've got Lowe's Motor Speedway, the Wachovia Championship and two professional sports teams. They have the Carolina Hurricanes. We couldn't stand that they hosted the CIAA basketball tournament, so we out-maneuvered them and stole it.

So why is Raleigh and the surrounding metro area so damned hot? Why is Raleigh basking in all the national love and attention Charlotte used to get?

National "best city" list rankers just can't get enough of Raleigh lately, while Charlotte has become something of an afterthought, or worse. You wouldn't know this if you read The Charlotte Observer, which has said nary a word about it, but Raleigh's News & Observer has naturally been all over the story. For the second year 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. Charlotte, meanwhile, has been gradually moving down the Forbes list, which ranks cities' business climates by cost of doing business, crime rate, educational attainment, culture and leisure amenities, income growth, job growth and net migration.

In 2007 Charlotte ranked 21st. This year we fell to 37th. That's not shabby from a national perspective, considering these are the top 200 cities in the nation that we are competing against, but to be pummeled by Raleigh? Yet it keeps happening when these surveys rank us side by side on economic and quality of life statistics. Now it seems that it is Raleigh, not Charlotte, that is sharing top rankings on these lists with trendy places like Austin, Texas, and Denver, Colo.

Meanwhile, Charlotte's national rankings page grows stale, with most of our big trophies dating circa 2002. That was the year, for instance, that Charlotte won a spot on Money Magazine's Top 10 Places to Live list, another highly coveted ranking. Raleigh won a fourth place ranking in 2006, around the time this funny business with Raleigh beating out Charlotte in rankings began. The Queen City hasn't made the top 10 list, which rates cities on family income, taxes, congestion, crime, job growth and education, in recent years.

Charlotte's biggest catch lately, in fact, was its ninth place ranking on the Forbes Misery Measure. The city's scores on crime, commute times, taxes and employment ultimately won it that accolade. These are the measures that keep knocking us out of the top contention. Take the Forbes' list, for instance. Charlotte came in 188 out of 200 cities for its crime rates, while Raleigh's much lower crime rates ranked it at 55.

Where a city places on ranking lists is hardly a make or break statement. Charlotte is still ahead nationally in the measure that matters most -- the number of people moving to the region.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Charlotte and the surrounding metro area was the nation's seventh fastest-growing last year, gaining 66,724 people, many of them in Union County. But as The News & Observer recently pointed out, Charlotte better watch out in that department as well. The Raleigh metro region ranked the third fastest growing.

And Wake County, where Raleigh is located, beat out Mecklenburg County in growth this year, gaining 38,841 newcomers while Mecklenburg pulled in 31,739. While Mecklenburg is still No. 1 in population in the state, the county is now growing at a slower rate than Wake.

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

What's driving Raleigh's success? One of the lowest costs of doing business in the nation -- Raleigh ranked 16 among the top 200 on the Forbes best cities for business and careers list, Charlotte ranked 57 -- and one of the country's most educated work forces. Raleigh's thriving science and tech sector, which is attracting national attention, is driving its booming growth.

According to a study by the Milken Institute, the 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.

The tech boom is attracting young professionals, which is why the Raleigh area has started landing in the top 10 on lists that track great place for singles. And Wake County's higher school test scores and much higher median family income -- $78,369 for Wake versus $64,185 for Mecklenburg -- make Raleigh a great place for those singles to stick around and start a family. Raleigh's far superior road and loop network have kept it off high-congestion lists. And the area's soon-to-come six-lane parkway, which will be funded by tolls, promises to ease Triangle-area commutes even more while Charlotte commuters choke in traffic.

All of which means that going forward, Charlotte's biggest competitor for businesses, jobs and young professionals may no longer be Seattle, Austin or Denver, but Raleigh, which offers all the same climate and regional advantages Charlotte does -- and much more.

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