Orage Quarles III recalls hitting the rubber-chicken circuit of dinners at community and business groups in 2000, when he came to Raleigh from California to become publisher of The News & Observer. Publishers of dailies often attend meet-and-greets of this sort, but Quarles arrived with something of an unusual message for the community's leading lights.
"Raleigh so far has been a pleasant surprise, but the downtown sucks," he told the people he met. "Never in my wildest dreams did I expect that the downtown of a capital city would be so barren."
In his new role as interim director of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, Quarles, sixty-six, is inheriting guardianship of the vital downtown blocks that have attracted increasing numbers of visitors, residents, and tourists since Fayetteville Street was reopened in 2006. Filling in at the departure of David Diaz, the ten-year leader of the DRA, Quarles is tasked with creating a strategic plan on which the nonprofit will base its choice of a permanent leader, which Quarles says will not be him.
Quarles's arrival at DRA coincided with Mayor Nancy McFarlane's announcement that she'll seek a fourth term. Quarles and McFarlane, a principal in arranging the lease for state land that will become Dix Park, have been closely involved in planning what proponents believe will become a destination attraction for the city.
Downtown's—and the DRA's—biggest challenge remains the balancing act between the sometimes conflicting desires of businesspeople, residents, and visitors, Quarles says: between new development and the remnants of old Raleigh, between rising prices and affordable housing, between the entertainment district and condo dwellers. Such problems consumed city council members for more than a year, with images of Raleigh streets populated by inebriated partiers figuring prominently even in the 2015 city elections.
"We don't want to be known as DrunkTown anymore," Quarles says.
At the Wilmington Street office where he started work March 1, there's plenty of ongoing business to address, says Quarles, who left the N&O last year. (The DRA is moving in September to the Capital Bank Building on Fayetteville Street.) Affordable housing is a major issue. So too is catching up on mass transit, he says, making the case that community leaders should have gotten the process started at the turn of the century, when it was clear that traffic was piling up around Research Triangle Park.
"We're behind the eight ball, and the price we're going to have to pay is a whole lot more," he says.
Downtown, though, continues to attract new residents and queries from outside businesses, to the point where the heart of Raleigh could be entering a second phase of development: another wave of rapid growth. The N&O reported last May that the mobile app company WalkMe plans to hire several hundred people for a new downtown Raleigh office, although the company experienced internal dissension about the move because of HB 2. The software giant Citrix, with a large presence on the western edge of downtown, plans to hire four hundred additional people in Raleigh, state economic development officials have said. Already, Quarles says, downtown needs more retail and health care practices to meet the demands of current residents and workers.
In an interview, McFarlane says there's something to the idea of a second, even more intense wave of downtown growth. Much of the first wave involved taking empty spaces and turning them into successful businesses. In addition, Union Station, with a first phase projected to open late this year, and Dix Park could contribute to another step forward for the city, McFarlane says.
Quarles heads the nominating committee for the Dix Park Conservancy's board of directors, which is hammering out a plan for the 308-acre tract. With the hiring of CEO Sean Malone and the signing of architect Michael Van Valkenburgh for the Dix project, Quarles says, he had time to entertain the DRA's offer.
He says that Dix Park would keep in touch with its history, both memorializing the role of its site in providing care to North Carolinians with mental illness and preserving reminders that the property was originally part of a plantation.
Both he and McFarlane say they're interested in a range of possible approaches to Dix. "How do you design that park so that people not only want to visit Dix Park, but also to visit downtown? If you want to spend a lot of money, you can build an elevated tramway," Quarles suggests.
As Quarles ponders the array of possibilities for downtown, he takes a minute to reflect on the newspaper where he worked for sixteen years, a span in which the publication shrank dramatically in staff and pages. Leaving at age sixty-five was his choice, he says, but the N&O remains close to his heart.
"I love the place," Quarles says. "I miss the employees. They know I miss them. But I was ready to go. You give so much; it takes a lot out of you. It's exciting that I get do to something different for the first time in my life."
Editor's note: Quarles was publisher of The News & Observer during staff writer Thomas Goldsmith's tenure at the newspaper from 2003–16.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Next Wave"