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Raleigh: High Tech and High-Minded

Raleigh’s convention center opened its doors just 11 days before financial institutions around the world began collapsing and the crash of 2008 began.

But what could have been a financial disaster for North Carolina’s capital city, which had invested heavily in the huge downtown facility, sparked a rebirth instead.

In February, Forbes magazine declared Raleigh the second-fastest-growing city in the country. Last year, jobs grew at a rate of 2.44 percent, and the population, by 2.15 percent. Only Austin, Texas, forged ahead faster.

Home to eight colleges and universities, Raleigh has a casual, friendly flair. Even taxi drivers get training in how to make visitors feel welcome.

“They are often the first person someone meets when coming to Raleigh,” said J. R. Oliver, the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau’s director of sales.

An upbeat and walkable Southern city of 423,000, Raleigh is used to living on the edge. The Research Triangle it shares with Durham and Chapel Hill and their universities — North Carolina State, Duke and the University of North Carolina — has drawn forward-leaning businesses to the region for more than 50 years; 170 are now located there.

The city has embellished its high-tech reputation with museums, galleries, festivals and free outdoor Wi-Fi. More than 125 eateries and pubs offer foods of all flavors, although barbecue rules now and forever in North Carolina.

Free hybrid electric buses circulate throughout the city, making it easy to park your car in one of Raleigh’s reasonably priced garages and get where you want to go without driving.

“Raleigh is a place to meet in, sleep in and be entertained,” said Laurie Okun, the convention center’s director of sales.


Convention Center Campus

Much of the action takes place along historic Fayetteville Street, anchored at one end by the state Capitol and the other end by the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts.

A statue of Sir Walter Raleigh, the city’s namesake, is often dressed up for special occasions on what’s known as the Convention Center Campus.

The $221 million, four-tier Raleigh Convention Center is Silver LEED-certified with abundant natural light and vaulted space. Light flows into meeting rooms through vitrines, glass cases that display art and books.

The convention center has 500,000 square feet of event space. It includes a 32,000-square-foot ballroom with a 12,000-square-foot foyer, 20 meeting rooms seating 48 to 384 people and a massive 150,000-square-foot exhibition hall that can be divided in thirds.

It also has in-house catering, 12 truck bays and 4,000 parking spaces nearby. Wi-Fi, although not free, is robust.

“It’s so good that the World Wide Web Conference was held here in 2010,” Okun said.

The convention center’s outside back wall is adorned with a shimmer mural. Lighted at night, it features an oak tree, Raleigh’s symbol.

Beside it, on land that could be used for convention center expansion if warranted someday, is a 6,000-seat outdoor amphitheater where the city holds 25 to 30 concerts each summer.

Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, home to ballet, symphony, opera and theater, rounds out the campus. Its 80,000 square feet of versatile space includes a 2,300-seat auditorium, a 1,700-seat concert hall and two smaller theaters.


Adjacent Hotels

Two hotels alongside the convention center have 753 guest rooms and additional meeting space.

The 400-room Raleigh Marriott City Center, built at the same time as the convention center, is connected to it by escalator. This summer, the hotel will undergo an $8 million renovation of its lobby, restaurant and meeting space. Guest rooms will be redone in 2016 using a new palette of neutral colors.

The Marriott’s 15,000 square feet of meeting space includes a 9,000-square-foot ballroom that can be divided into six rooms, a smaller ballroom that can be divided into three rooms, four meeting rooms for 18 to 24 and a boardroom. A second boardroom will be added during this summer’s renovation.

Adjacent to the convention center, the Sheraton Raleigh Hotel has 353 guest rooms and 20,000 square feet of meeting space. The hotel renovated its lobby, restaurant and meeting space last year, opting for an arched grotto motif.

Two ballrooms, one 5,000 square feet and the other 4,500 square feet, have ample prefunction space and can be divided into smaller rooms. In addition, there are eight meeting rooms and a boardroom.

A Marriott Residence Inn will add 120 rooms to downtown Raleigh’s roster when it opens in 2015.