Downtown Raleigh is growing up. It’s got new shiny towers, fun bars, great restaurants, and a vibrant nightlife. Now, it’s got the disputes that come with the territory.

Right now, restaurant and bar owners are fighting over outdoor seating. It seems some people want to reserve sidewalk seating for dining, while others want to allow it for drinking. Some compromise will probably be reached but, in the end, it’s better to have these fights than not need to have them at all.

Back in the 1990s, people joked that the last person to leave downtown in the afternoon should turn out the lights. Back then, Raleigh was ruled by the anti-regulation, free-market crowd who had contempt for smart growth and sustainability principles. They believed in the power of the market to set the course. As a result, development followed cheap land, leading to urban sprawl and congestion while downtown languished.

When Mayor Charles Meeker took over the reins from the Tom Fetzer-Paul Coble crowd, he and his coalition adopted policies that encouraged density and discouraged cul-de-sacs that emptied entire neighborhoods onto major thoroughfares. They supported parks and open space. They encouraged public transportation and bike-friendly policies. In essence, they had a vision of what Raleigh could become and made it one of the most desirable places to live in America.

Government regulation, investment, and intervention made Raleigh a better place, not a worse one. Raleigh is a growing city with a booming economy and a wealth of innovators and entrepreneurs. Businesses didn’t run from high taxes; they embraced the dynamic environment. Investments by government spurred investments by the private sector. The free-market has certainly had a role in making modern Raleigh, but so has the government.

It’s a lesson the Republicans running the state could use. They’re convinced that the private sector does everything better than government and are constantly trying to impose free-market principles into places they don’t belong. They are less concerned about a vision for the future than they are to adhering to an ideology. If they had been in control of North Carolina 50 years ago, we wouldn’t have the Research Triangle Park. We wouldn’t have the university system we have today. Our coast would probably look more like New Jersey and our mountains would be marred by over developed ridge lines.

If Raleigh had these Republicans running the city, we would still be joking about turning out the lights. The story of Raleigh is not just a lesson for Republicans. It’s a warning to the rest of us.


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