Editor’s note: Adrienne Cole is the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive officer. This blog is the first she wrote about the Chamber’s recent visit to Seattle – the home of Amazon – and lessons to be learned from its incredible growth. The Triangle is among the 20 finalists for the Amazon HQ2 project which includes the promise of 50,000 jobs.

Adrienne Cole

RALEIGH – Anyone buying or selling a home in the Raleigh area knows how hot the real estate market is. People want to call Wake County home. Businesses are moving here. The county’s population is growing by 67 people a day or about 470 per week. While affordable when benchmarked against other markets, we have seen house and rent prices on the rise. The average home price in Wake County is about $261,000.

Now picture yourself living in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle and King County also are seeing tremendous growth.

From 2011 – 2016, Seattle’s population has increased by more than 300,000 people, approximately 1,000 per week. Fueled by a thriving tech sector, natural beauty, and an innovative culture that has grown technology superstars like Microsoft, Amazon, and Tableau, Seattle has a lot to offer.

Yet, if you want to call this community home, Seattle’s median home price is $819,000. Issues around density, affordability, zoning, and the squeezing of the middle class all threaten Seattle’s economic well-being.

Seattle is a city built on a culture of innovation and disruption with a strong focus in technology, aviation/aerospace, and logistics with aspirations to grow in the areas of life sciences, clean tech, and advanced manufacturing, areas in which we are already strong.

We can learn a lot from Seattle and that’s why we selected the city as our destination for this year’s Inter-City Visit and Leadership Conference. More than 150 business leaders and elected officials from our community joined me in Seattle on April 22 – 25 to see what ideas and lessons we could bring back to our community. This is the first in a series of posts I am writing to share my key takeaways from our trip.

What do we want to look like?

Our visit to Seattle reemphasized to us the importance of leadership. Leadership is always the key to a city’s success. The decisions we make today impact the future of our community. To stay ahead of the growth that is expected in Raleigh and the region will require bold leadership and strong partnerships with business, government, and the nonprofit sectors.

We need to decide now what we want to look like in the future. We learned in Seattle and from previous inter-city visits to other locations, including Austin and Boston, that delaying important investments and decisions only put those cities behind the eight-ball.  Limiting density, transit-oriented development, and various housing options, and not investing in road infrastructure did not slow the growth. Playing catch up and spending more money to accommodate the growth was inevitable. For Raleigh, the consequences of inaction are too great.

Raleigh and the Research Triangle region are growing and will continue to do so.  We have a talented workforce, world-class universities, high quality of life, reasonable cost of doing business, and an innovative culture, along with strong tech, life science, and advanced manufacturing sectors. There is too much going for our region for us not to grow. We will continue to attract companies and people from around the world. That’s a good thing! A collaborative approach to plan for the growth and to make the tough decisions needed to grow in the right way will be essential.

Raleigh Chamber photo

A Chamber briefing in Seattle.

State of housing

Let’s continue to talk about housing. Seattle is in a crisis because zoning laws have not kept up with the rapid growth of the region. To add more residential density, mixed-use buildings, or transit-oriented development would require zoning changes. After seeing Seattle and talking with its community leaders, we came away with the impression that the necessary changes are much harder to implement now than they would have been decades ago. What can we learn from this—we need to act now, make decisions earlier, and plan for future expansion.

The time to address density and affordability in Wake County is now. Both of which factor into Seattle’s large homeless population. We do not want a situation where it costs too much to own a home in Raleigh or the region. Raleigh and Wake County both have proposed plans and funding to address affordable housing needs in our community and working with the business community will be essential. One clear takeaway from Seattle was that you need many different affordable housing options to meet the needs. We need to continue on the path toward ensuring that affordable housing and workforce housing are viable options for the people who want to live here in the years to come.

A growing population also means a growing need for efficient transportation and transit infrastructure. I’ll explore what we learned in Seattle about that in my next post.