Raleigh Journal: Downtown Renaissance Increases Tourism & Business in “City of Oaks”

Raleigh, North Carolina, continues to surprise many economists with steady job growth, low business and housing costs, and a vibrant downtown even as other cities show signs of slowing down.

By Ron Bernthal

This year the city was ranked #1 by Forbes as the “Best American City for Business and Careers,” and a recent Wall Street Journal story named Raleigh as one of just a few U.S. cities whose real estate bubble has not gone flat. Raleigh is fortunate enough to be part of the prosperous Research Triangle Park region, and together with nearby Durham and Chapel Hill, all three cities are investing heavily in tourism, business, and education expansion.

Until January of 2007 Raleigh did not have an ultra deluxe hotel, but now it does. Located in the nearby suburb of Cary, The Umstead Hotel and Spa (www.theumstead.com), named after a former North Carolina governor who was an advocate of environmental conservation, the hotel is a godsend for the city’s upscale tourist and business travelers. The six-story, 150-room hotel and two-story spa is constructed of native Texas rough-cut limestone, aluminum metal panels, and bronze-colored glass. Conceived by Ann Goodnight, the wife of multi-billionaire Jim Goodnight, the hotel sits on 12 acres adjacent to the semi-rural campus of SAS, the world’s largest privately owned computer software company, which just happens to be owned by Mr. Goodnight. It is estimated that construction and interior design costs were close to $75 million, and in this case anyway, money and good taste do make a spectacular hotel property.

The stunning porte-cochere welcomes visitors to The Umstead Hotel & Spa, Raleigh's first deluxe hotel, located just ten minutes from downtown, seven minutes from Raleigh/Durham Airport. (photo: Courtesy The Umstead Hotel)

The hotel’s exterior blends into the environment like a Frank Lloyd Wright, and the indoor spaces, which include a lovely Dale Chihuly glass sculpture in the lobby, has the look and feel of a Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton hotel. Obviously, no expense was spared filling up the hotel, and its 142 bedrooms and eight suites, with high-end furnishings, thick carpets, and dozens of original paintings and pottery pieces, many by North Carolinian artists.

Room amenities include flat-screen plasma 42-inch TVs, a large work desk, Rivolta Italian linens, and a view of the outdoor heated pool and three acre lake. With room rates beginning at $349, it is certainly the most expensive hotel in Raleigh, but with a target market of upscale leisure travelers, and expense-account business visitors used to the staggering prices at urban hotels these days, the Umstead’s rates may not seem so high.

The 14,000-square-foot spa and fitness center is located next to the hotel, and its exterior glass design allows light-filled treatment rooms with balconies. There are ten treatment rooms and a fitness studio with a full range of Cybex training equipment.

The property has not yet been rated by tourist guides, but Mobil will probably put them into the prestigious 5-star category, and other plum awards will certainly be forthcoming when word gets out. Cond� Nast Traveler has already listed the Umstead’s fine dining restaurant, Herons, as one of the “hottest” new restaurants in the country. Herons’ Executive Chef, Phil Evans, left Aspen’s St. Regis Hotel to live in Raleigh, and work at the Umstead, so that may tell you something about Raleigh’s urban renaissance and the quality of this new hotel.

Downtown Raleigh is also blossoming with additional new hotels, historic buildings that are being converted to residential apartments, and a new 500,000-square-foot, $222 million dollar Raleigh Convention Center (www.raleighconvention.com), with an attached 400-room Marriott Hotel, is under construction and scheduled to open in 2008. The new Convention Center is getting an iconic outdoor art installation thanks to Cree, Inc., a large Durham-based manufacturer of semiconductors. The company’s $1 million gift will fund the creation of a 9,284-square-foot ‘shimmer wall’ on the center’s western side, adding to the eclectic, jazzy new look of downtown. Comprised of 79,464 four-inch aluminum pixels, the Cree Shimmer Wall will measure 211-feet by 44-feet. To aid nighttime “shimmering,” 56 LED fixtures will backlight the wall, which will rise up over some of the city’s most highly trafficked streets.

The new Raleigh Convention Center's "shimmer wall" will cover the center's western wall when the building opens to the public next year. (Illustration: Courtesy Cree/Greater Raleigh CVB)

Other Raleigh developments include the 33-story RBC Plaza, which will be the city’s tallest building when it opens in 2008, and several 14 to21-story hotel and condo towers, including the Renaissance North Hills and a Westin property. Next year, a firm called Empire Properties will open three new restaurants: The Raleigh Times Bar, a bar and restaurant, the adjoining Morning Times, which will serve breakfast and lunch, and a restaurant and outdoor courtyard featuring Southern soul food. And, as the piece de resistance Empire will open Raleigh’s first boutique hotel in 2008 with 80 luxuriously appointed rooms, a spa, and Chef Ashley Christensen’s signature restaurant. For this project, they’ve selected Architect Stephen B. Jacobs and Interior Designer Andi Pepper, the team also responsible for the Library Hotel, Hotel Giraffe, and most recently, The Gansevoort Hotel, all in New York City.

Raleigh's downtown skyline, as depicted in this illustration, will look dramatically different when construction is completed on several development projects. (Illustration: Courtesy of Greater Raleigh CVB)

As downtown Raleigh goes vertical, the rest of the city has not been left behind. The North Carolina Museum of Art (www.ncartmuseum.org), just outside of downtown, is undergoing a $75 million expansion as well. A new museum complex is being developed on a 164-acre campus that will feature bike trails, art installations, walking paths, and the existing museum’s outdoor amphitheater. A specially designed connection will link the new museum building to the current facility. The Raleigh/Durham Airport (www.rdu.com) is also growing, due to large increases in flight and passenger traffic. The $600 million redevelopment plans include a new terminal building, which will become RDU’s primary terminal, and Phase I of the expansion is expected to occur in early 2008. Airlines scheduled to use the new terminal include: Air Canada , American, American Eagle, United (now in Terminal C) and Continental, Delta, Northwest, US Airways, America West (moving from Terminal A).

The population of the Raleigh area is increasing as American and overseas corporations keep relocating to the Triangle area, and employees and their families follow. In a scenario similar to what has been happening in Las Vegas for a decade, new housing construction leads to new shopping centers, schools, parks, and lots of small businesses to supply the growing population. Close to a one million people are now in the Raleigh metropolitan area, the result of a incredible growth rate of 24.8 % since 2000, the eighth fastest growing metro region in the country. With the student population of Wake County doubling since 1985, and another 130,000 students expected by 2025, Raleigh is building a new school almost every month. The city is certainly undergoing a renaissance in every area and, like Las Vegas, the growth cycle has no end in sight.

The cornerstone of Raleigh's present state capitol (above), was constructed on the site of the former State House in 1833, it was completed in 1840, and has been fully restored to its original appearance in the Greek Revival style. (Photo: Courtesy of Greater Raleigh CVB)

Contact Information:
Greater Raleigh Convention & Visitors Bureau (800-849-8499; www.visitraleigh.com)

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