Raleigh has been poised for years to pass Charlotte as the South’s new “it” city. It has been gaining on Charlotte in the competition to be the biggest growth engine in the state in terms of economics, something unthinkable a decade ago

Raleigh: The New NC Jobs Engine and "It" Southern City?

This is why Raleigh now often bypasses Charlotte in national city ranking surveys. It internals are just better in a lot of categories, like those that measure things like cost of living and income and job growth. And now this.  Raleigh, WTVD reports, is showing growth despite the recession, especially downtown. And this:

According to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, the capital city has 5,000 more residents within a two mile radius of the downtown area than Charlotte does.

According to local thinking, this shouldn’t be possible. Raleigh lacks light rail (they keep studying it) and doesn’t have a trolley. It has no major professional sports teams and just one Fortune 500 company to our nine. Unlike Charlotte, it has an unimpressive airport of little national import, and it is definitely not a tourist destination.

So how has Raleigh been doing this? Actual targeted business development, the kind Charlotte has talked about for years but that Raleigh has actually practiced for years. Raleigh has the natural advantage of a university system it can use to attract business while Charlotte has always counted on the continued growth of the financial services industry. But what is making a difference is that Raleigh has aggressively sold the area as a destination for business, while Charlotte has aggressively sold itself as a destination for tourism. I explained this in 2009 in Creative Loafing:

Raleigh is ringed with three prominent universities, which have led to the area having one of the country’s most educated work forces. The universities have been part of the fabric of the area for years, though. What’s really setting Raleigh apart are its leaders’ organized efforts to capitalize on the schools and sell the area as a destination city for businesses, rather than tourists. Raleigh has one of the lowest costs of doing business in the nation and a determined, focused effort to sell itself that has led to an exploding life-sciences industry and a booming biotech hub.

Wake County Economic Development has a fine-tuned strategy for going after the county’s four target industries: biotech, advanced medical technologies, advanced learning technologies and non-woven textiles. That strategy has paid off.

As I reported last year, a Milken Institute survey found that Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area has the nation’s fastest growing work force in the life-sciences industries and the best success rate for bringing biotechnology research ideas to market. (Can you even name the four industries Charlotte is aggressively focused on targeting? I can’t either.)

And that is the problem. Since Mayor Pat McCrory, local leaders have been mumbling about growing a green energy sector — like the leaders of most of the rest of the major cities in this country. That became hot after Obama started throwing around billions in green job money. But there was never a serious effort to build the sector.

That’s what Charlotte needs right now. A highly targeted plan to recruit very specific industries it can sell its strengths to. I think local leaders are keenly aware of this behind closed doors, which is why they are belatedly pouring millions into the development of the university system and colleges here.

Charlotte needs to do more than hope for green jobs money from Obama. It needs a plan and a capable group of people to execute it.