The entry-level city

by Brian Clarey

When I moved to Greensboro in 2000, I was unemployed. I suppose I had a few prospects — I was an experienced journalist with 10 years of New Orleans bartending under my belt — but the plan was for me to stay home with the new baby, just two weeks old, while my wife went to work.

We locked down a simple apartment in a big complex, with a pool and a gym and tennis courts and access to a big county park. We had one car:

a Jeep Wrangler that we eventually traded in for more sensible Saturn four-door sedan; the memory of the Jeep sometimes makes my wife well up with tears.

We brought a few items of furniture, most of which still sits somewhere in the house we bought three years later, and wardrobes that seemed perfectly normal in New Orleans, but less so here. And I had a few grand holed up after an extremely lucrative week of Jazz Fest shifts.

I can say now that I did almost no research about the place I was moving to. There was a kid who worked at the bars named Jerry who said he grew up here and advised me to check out the Blind Tiger and Tate Street. One of my customers had spent some time here in the military. He told me there were a lot of trees.

In that first six months, my wife and my child and I lived on about $10,000. It was tight — I remember bringing a calculator to the grocery store to stay within the weekly $75 budget — but gas was cheap, we had no social life and we could feed everyone at the Mexican restaurant near the house for like 15 bucks.

I didn’t put a name to it then, but what I was enjoying was the city’s affordability factor.

This is the most inexpensive place that I’ve ever lived. It’s the most inexpensive place any of my outside friends have ever heard of, within the continental United States that is. Rent is cheap. Parking is plentiful and free. You can still eat lunch for 5 bucks.

I was on the phone with my old college roommate the other day while I passed through the Cook Out drive-thru. He heard me order my lunch — steak style, huge, with no mayo, a large Cajun fries and a chocolate malt. And all the way from Manhattan he heard the cashier quote me the price, which was somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.

“Where the hell are you?” he asked me.

That same meal at Shake Shack, he assured me, would run upwards of $15.

Manhattan is a different story — this same friend will be paying more for his daughter’s kindergarten class than we did for a year of college. But Greensboro and the rest of the Triad stack up pretty well against what friends of mine say they pay for things like groceries, car repair and babysitters in places like New Jersey, Florida, California, Louisiana and Missouri.

And my friends in New York pay every month what I pay in property taxes every year.

So I call BS when politicians dither about Greensboro’s tax rate, which, indeed, is one of the highest in the state by fractions of a percentage point, though it is not as high as the cumulative tax rate in High Point. And if it costs me an extra $40 a year not to live in Liberty, I’ll gladly pay it.

Mayor Robbie Perkins, during an interview last week, said that in his 30 years of Guilford County politics, he has never heard of a company refusing to relocate here because of the tax rate. District 4 Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann, who as an executive is familiar with corporate relocations, told us that the tax rate is one of the last things considered in the calculation, if at all. Companies look at schools, she said, and amenities, crime rates and housing. The tax issue almost never comes up because, no matter where a company might be relocating from, Greensboro’s 1.4 percent tax rate looks pretty good.

I’m saying affordability is one of our greatest assets, one we should be plugging when we market ourselves to all these college students, the ones we’re trying to get to stick around after graduation.

This is a place where our mayor lives in a $900 apartment. How many other cities can say that?

This low overhead may be the key to success for Greensboro, and all the cities of the Triad. Virtually anyone can afford to live here. Let the Ivy League strivers have the Silicon Valley and the trust-funders take Manhattan. The rest should come to cities like this, where they can pay their rent in cash and there’s always a dollar beer available, somewhere.