A Trifling Place
3:50 pm
Wed November 13, 2013

A Trifling Place, Episode 14: Charlotte vs. Raleigh

The relationship between Charlotte and Raleigh is like one of two squabbling siblings.
The relationship between Charlotte and Raleigh is like one of two squabbling siblings.
Credit Tasnim Shamma / Photos by James Willamor/NCDOT (Flickr)

Welcome to A Trifling Place, a podcast dedicated to exploring the ins-and-outs of Charlotte.

Credit Tasnim Shamma

Charlotte has a lot of nicknames. Some of them are flattering and others … not so much. One of them is "The Great State of Mecklenburg." Much of this has to do with how Raleigh perceives Charlotte and vice versa.

"If you've lived here long enough, you know about the bitter feud between Raleigh and Charlotte," Morgan Fogarty says on Fox News Edge in 2008. "They hate us. We don't care." 

Some Charlotteans I spoke to in uptown referred to Raleigh as a small town. But it's not one anymore. The technology/research/education capital of our state has been catching up to us in the last few decades. While Raleigh's population is just a little more than half the size of Charlotte's with 395,000 people, Wake county's population of roughly 950,000 is about the same as Mecklenburg county.

Here's the Raleigh-based bluegrass band, Kicking Grass, lamenting the death of their small town:

Now that solid rock Baptist Church has a roadside pew
There are six lanes for traveling and there used to be two
They're putting in a Walmart next to John & Jimmy's store
But the backroads ain't the backroads anymore

They're putting in the blacktop and selling out the farms
Running up the miles and running out of charm
I wondered to myself how this drive became a chore
I guess the backroads ain't the backroads anymore

Leaving Charlotte for Raleigh

Ruffin Hall, a former Charlotte assistant city manager, will start his new job as the city manager in Raleigh on November 18. That's right, he's leaving Charlotte … for Raleigh. 

In fact, Ruffin Hall took a playful jab at Charlotte at his first press conference.

Ruffin Hall in his office in Charlotte on one of his last days as assistant city manager. He starts his new job as city manager of Raleigh on November 18.
Ruffin Hall in his office in Charlotte on one of his last days as assistant city manager. He starts his new job as city manager of Raleigh on November 18.
Credit Tasnim Shamma

"I'm really excited to come back to a town that knows that barbeque sauce should be made with a vinegar base and not ketchup," Hall says. "I mean these are the things that are really important."

And now he's a sweet talker when it comes to Raleigh:

"Progressive. Entrepreneurial. Technology. Higher Education. Family-Oriented," Hall says.
"There's a lot of really interesting and up-scale things that are going on with the city."

He says his new position is an opportunity to strengthen the relationship between the two cities.

"I know Ron Carlee, the city manager in Charlotte,  certainly feels the same way. If there's a rivalry, I'm not involved, so I just want to get things done for the citizens."   

He says the "rivalry" is mainly one that takes place inside the pages of newspapers. He has a point.

The Rivalry

Jack Betts, retired associate editor of The Charlotte Observer was based in Raleigh. At times, he was also a cultural ambassador of sorts.

"One of my jobs was to take note of what was going in Raleigh and try to explain it to readers in Charlotte," Betts says. 

The keyword here is try. We never really know what folks in Raleigh are thinking. But that's also because when people refer to Raleigh, people think of the city and they also think of the state legislature. Betts has written at least half a dozen columns comparing Raleigh to Charlotte. In most cases, he uses Raleigh to mean the state's lawmakers.

In 2011, he wrote a column titled, "Charlotte vs. Raleigh, again." It was shortly after the merger between Duke and Progress Energy was announced. Of course, Betts wrote, the new company would be based in Charlotte. 

"Mindful of what happened back in my boyhood days, I grew up in Greensboro," Betts says. "And when Security National Bank merged with another bank, I remember the newspaper said there would be dual headquarters, sure enough within a year that Greensboro headquarters ceased to exist. It struck me that when Duke-Progress were planning a headquarters that one city would win out big time."

Charlotte Dominates

And Betts says Charlotte's competitiveness is why it is derisively called "The Great State of Mecklenburg."

"I have mostly heard it around the legislative building," Betts says. "I've cautioned people over the years not to make too much of that expression. It's made mostly, I think, in jest.  Because Charlotte is seen in Raleigh as a big city with a lot of voters and a lot of clout and a whole lot of money. There's this image in Raleigh of the extremely wealthy and ambitious and aggressive county of Mecklenburg and Charlotte with the sense of entitlement – I'm talking about perception here – not the reality. And sometimes you would hear back-slapping exchanges, mostly good-natured, about 'What does the great state of Mecklenburg want now?"

Mecklenburg is among the state's wealthiest counties, but …

"You could also point out that Mecklenburg probably has a higher population of people living in poverty (more than 121,000 compared to 86,000 in Wake County according to Census data) or without health care (18 percent compared to Wake County's 15 percent). And North Carolina is a state – while it has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades -- is still a state of small communities," Betts says.

He says many lawmakers are from places where "they never have any hope of seeing an area or an art museum or a publicly-funded amenity."

"So there's some suspicion that Charlotte has its design on getting something that money could pave every major road need in some rural county," Betts says. 

Betts has now retired into neutral territory: the Blue Ridge Mountains, but he looks back fondly on how both cities became the two big boys of North Carolina. 

HOW CHARLOTTE GREW:  "I guess it was something of a golden era when Hugh McColl was running what became NationBank and Ed Crutchfield was running First Union, which later merged and is now part of Wells Fargo. With other business leaders who were very active in civic affairs, these folks worked with Charlotte mayors and members of the city council and with other leaders locally to get things done. Jerry Richardson doesn't simply have the money to get a pro-football team, for example. It requires a lot of cooperation from local leaders from politics, from business, from academia, from government to do that and Charlotte seemed to me to be better at pulling that off than any other city in North Carolina." 

HOW RALEIGH GREW: "Raleigh has thrived for very different reasons. First of all, it was the capital city, but into the '70s, it was not a large and rapidly growing place that it is now. But I think the cooperation between state government, back in the mid-1950s and cooperation with local businessmen to create the Research Triangle Park and capitalize on those major universities of Duke University and NC State University  and UNC-Chapel Hill were the driving forces that produced the aggressive growth that Raleigh and Wake County enjoyed in the last quarter of the 20th century."