Friday, October 30, 2009

Emerging from the Shadows – Credit for the Durham Metro

One of the things that has contributed greatly to improving Durham’s visibility and at the same time re-balanced the region, is the decision by the Census nine years ago to apply nationwide criteria to Durham that led to the official metro designation of the four-county metro area centered on this community.

The remainder of what had been a geographically massive, statistically unwieldy, and somewhat contrived designation with no dominant city at the center was established as a three-county metro centered on Raleigh-Cary further to the south and east.

DCVB provided some information to inform the decision and has certainly leveraged the heck out of the metro designation, but otherwise had little to do with creating the designation.

That credit goes to Greg Payne, then with the City of Durham Office of Economic Development and now in commercial real estate. But it wasn’t something special for Durham. The Census just finally applied the same criteria here as elsewhere.

Greg had fielded a call from John Hodges-Copple, the Regional Planning Director with the 7-county Triangle J Council of Governments. He noted that given the new Census criteria, and without Durham stepping up to establish its credentials, the entire super region, even though polycentric (no dominant “center”) would be folded under Raleigh’s identity.

As a planner, John knew that folding everything under “Raleigh” would distort the region and make it even harder to get really good, relevant and comparative data. I believe he grasped immediately that two communities in the Triangle qualified as metro areas and this would be good for the super-region. He probably also realized that collapsing it all under Raleigh, which truly wasn’t centric or dominant to the Triangle would be problematic, misleading and inequitable.

John also understood that the relatively few needs for combined data would still be accessible under a consolidated metro of metros so the Triangle would have the best of both worlds if both of its major cities qualified as a metro.

Greg gathered and submitted data from DCVB and from the Chamber and voilá!…Durham more than qualified to be a metro area on its own. The result has proven much more organic, a boon to much more valid, “apples to apples” benchmarking and at the same time gave Durham its due…without taking anything legitimate away from Raleigh.

It isn’t clear opponents grasped how one-sided the alternative was but at least one powerful Raleighite claims to have fought Durham’s designation tooth and nail and may have even recruited someone then at Duke to go along.

I can’t believe that either party realized the alternative was a win/lose with advantage only to Raleigh and making it all but impossible for Durham to get its due recognition or that to stay with the old, politically contrived designation was equally problematic.

Ironically, though I’m under no illusion the success of the Durham metro has changed anyone’s perspective who opposed the designation, but ironically, many who claim to have opposed it have financially or otherwise benefited from the new Durham metro designation.

And contrary to those who claimed the region would be torn apart should Durham get its due, the vast super-region we term the Research Triangle and named for three research universities, Duke in Durham, UNC in Chapel Hill and NC State in Raleigh, is as healthy and collaborative as ever. Durham and Raleigh have extremely different cultural identities and yet, without being attached at the hip, have still found innumerable ways to collaborate when mutually beneficial.

It helped that Raleigh didn’t lose anything from the new designations, other than the ability by some to obfuscate that Durham-based assets like Research Triangle Park and Duke are somehow based there. Raleigh’s into “big”, and standing on its own as a metro it can pursue being big with gusto while Durham and Chapel Hill to the west can pursue other values.

And news media fears of losing the ability to charge more for advertising reach were a smokescreen. The vastly distended 22-county, three state designated media area termed Raleigh-Durham (Fayetteville) remains intact, much to the disadvantage of advertisers and consumers. Hopefully in the future, this too will be made more realistic.

Having a super-region with two very different, and often comparably ranked, metro areas has actually added a little panache. But the real boon is that analysts now have much better, clearer, and infinitely more accurate statistical information from which to make decisions. Visitors, newcomers and relocating businesses get better statistical information with which to make decisions.

The separate metros also give analysts and officials much better information from which to identify strengths and to focus on areas for improvement.

The more organic approach has been a win/win/win all the way around.

Without a good regional planner like John who gave Greg a heads up, and without Greg, who stepped up to gather and forward factual information for consideration by the Census, the obfuscations and injustices of the past would have been perpetuated if not amplified… and Durham’s identity along with the rest of the Triangle would have been buried under Raleigh’s.

If we had had region-wide planners like John, a Raleigh developer wouldn’t have been able to, following WWII, go behind Durham’s back and hood-wink the War Department into flip-flopping the identity of the jointly-owned airport from Durham-Raleigh to Raleigh-Durham, making it the only designation not in alpha order and giving Raleigh a huge advantage in identity.

So, here’s to John and to Greg! Now let’s hope the Census Bureau continues to use good, solid criteria for establishing metros that actually mean something and avoids getting politicized for any reason.

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