07/12/11 — City Flight Part III - What's a city to do?

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City Flight Part III - What's a city to do?

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on July 12, 2011 1:46 PM

With statistics showing the city's tax base has shrunk by more than 4,000 residents in the past 20 years, there is an expectation placed upon city officials to bring in more residents to avoid tax increases in the next decade.

But, contrary to what most Phase 11 residents might think, the city is not counting on annexation to increase its numbers.

"Annexation is not the answer," Mayor Al King said. "We've got to get people who want to move into the city."

That said, he sees annexation playing a role in the city's tax base growth, albeit voluntary. He said he anticipates that housing developments in the area will bring in more citizens, even if they are not within the city limits because complexes and neighborhoods are applying for voluntary annexation even before striking ground.

"New housing developments, before they even build, are asking to be annexed," King said. "They know they need sewer."

King said investments into the city's infrastructure will bring residents in, especially projects like the city's streetscape renovation plan, which will widen sidewalks and reconfigure downtown's main streets.

"We're not hanging our hat on annexing people," King said.

And as older residents voice concerns about the improvements in the works in Goldsboro's master plan, the mayor says those who are already settled in elsewhere aren't the new residents he is trying to attract downtown.

"The younger generation is going to change. People are beginning now to move from the big houses with the big lawns. They're moving to smaller homes," King said.

"They also want to walk and bike, and we're concentrating now on sidewalks, bike paths and walking paths to encourage people to move back to the city of Goldsboro. We want to give them the type of atmosphere that they want that will encourage them to move back into the city."

King points out that this trend didn't begin overnight, but has been a long time coming. He said Goldsboro and other cities, including Raleigh, are trying to be ahead of the curve in their city planning by anticipating the population shift, which is forecast to bring younger, one-person households into municipal areas.

"I think it's reached a point and it's tipping people to come back to the area where the action is and the tax base tells me that. We have about 75 percent of the tax base in Goldsboro so what we're doing is making it more convenient for them. We want to be prepared to accommodate the changes that are going to occur in the future."

King cited a presentation by Raleigh's city planner Mitchell Silver that indicated the next generation of homebuyers would want smaller homes closer to where "the action is."

"Most experts are saying the future of our economy is in cities," Silver said, saying that's where the most knowledgeable workers are and where public transportation exists. "As we move into the 21st century, the younger generation will move back into the cities."

"In general the Millenials and Generation Y have different aspirations for the places they want to live. They don't aspire to have home ownership. It's just not something they pursue. They would rather find the cities that offer them those experiences."

And that "experience" is what any city losing its population needs to survive he said, adding that it's more important to create an identity for a city than to simply perform renovations. Silver said the streetscape project is a step in the right direction, noting that city officials will have to decide whether its downtown will be for dining, weekend trips, entertainment or shopping. He also said residential spaces above ground floor commercial locations would need to be implemented.

But the true future of Goldsboro, Silver said, lies with the Union Station renovation. If a commuter rail line can be implemented, it would connect the city to major metropolitan cities, making the area a trendy, affordable place for young professionals to live while working in Greensboro or Raleigh. He said the city needs to establish itself as a city with viable living options for younger homebuyers.

"If you could live there and be a half-hour commute to downtown Raleigh, Goldsboro could be one of those cool, smaller cities," he said.

But without the transit connection, the only avenue to growth lies in innovative job creation.

"Without that connection, you have to look at the economy of Goldsboro and how they will create jobs that young people will be attracted to," he said.

And that's because flight back into cities and municipalities will not be a sure thing. Silver said the trend of 20-somethings moving to cities is not universal and will impact the largest cities first. In cities where schools fail and racial and ethnic differences clash, he said, the trend is quite the opposite. Citydwellers in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are still moving toward more rural surroundings, mostly because of racial issues and poor public school systems. Those reasons, along with taxes and quality of life lackings, are almost always the reasons for a city to lose population because people simply do not want to live somewhere that they do not feel comfortable or safe.

That trend, he said, can't be shaken without serious recalculations about each city's identity, both economically and within its infrastructure.

"Those cities haven't reached that point where their economic engines are such that they attract new jobs and new housing," he said.

As Goldsboro's population ages -- the median age has risen from 34.3 to 36.1 since 2000 -- and moves away from the Wayne County seat, city officials will need to assess where the city is heading in the years to come and confront its demons.

With city government workers, Realtors and school administrators concerned about race relations, housing, infrastructure and school performance, and trends on a national scale showing those issues are exactly what lead to citizens' flight toward rural areas, it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what approach is needed for Goldsboro's growth. What is certain, however, is that the changes made in the next decade should be eyed carefully as the city approaches the 2020 census, as statistics will show whether the city has righted the ship or continued its shrinking trends.