Nov 23, 2022 - News

The benefits of merging the Raleigh and Durham metros

Illustration of two location pins forming a heart above a map.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Refer to the Triangle as "Raleigh-Durham" among locals and you will get a quick correction or maybe even dozens of replies on social media.

  • Only the airport is officially called Raleigh-Durham, a fact that has been confusing outsiders for decades and why many believe it's actually a city name.

Yes, but: Leaning into the close connection many people have with the Raleigh and Durham communities could benefit the Research Triangle region on the national stage.

Driving the news: The Triangle recently made headlines as the fourth fastest-growing economy in the country, according to an analysis by the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, a business policy think tank.

  • But it might not have placed on the list, if the analysis hadn't merged the two cities' data.

Context: Thanks to how the U.S. government defines metro areas — and thus much of the framework for how corporations, events and sports leagues often judge cities — the Triangle is not one large metro but rather two different smaller ones: Durham-Chapel Hill and Raleigh-Cary.

  • It's enough of an annoyance that economic development officials often talk about petitioning the government to change the official statistical area to be Raleigh-Durham.

Of note: Gerald Cohen, chief economist at the Chapel Hill-based Kenan Institute, told Axios most researchers treat Raleigh and Durham separately, despite their linked nature.

  • "I think if we were in Charlotte" or somewhere else, Cohen said, "we probably would not have made that decision" to intentionally combine Raleigh and Durham.

Why it matters: Leveraging the strengths of the two communities could benefit the entire region's national brand rather than having them compete against each other.

Be smart: The Triangle moniker dates back to the 1950s when the state created Research Triangle Park as a research park in between Duke University in Durham, UNC in Chapel Hill and N.C. State in Raleigh.

  • Those three cities were the largest at the time. Cary, which had a population of less than 4,000 when RTP was founded in 1959, is now the third-largest city in the region, with nearly 180,000 residents, replacing Chapel Hill.

The Triangle is getting better at cooperation — whether it is simply Raleigh and Durham-based organizations coming together to create jobs boards for the entire region or more ambitious efforts like a commuter train route going from Clayton to Durham.

  • Officials in the area will tell you they learned a lot when they came together as a region to recruit Amazon's HQ2, showcasing locations from the downtowns to Research Triangle Park, which is split between Durham and Wake counties.
  • The lessons from Amazon helped when it came to wooing Apple to Research Triangle Park just a few years later.

The bigger picture: The greater Triangle, of course, is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country despite the confusion our two metro areas might create.

  • For those who think growth is running too hot — you may very well prefer the country think Raleigh and Durham are separate and small.
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