It’s hard to think about the future when the last year hardly feels like it happened at all.
Yet, here we are, at the very start of a not-quite palindromic 2022 teeming with uncertainties. If 2021 was defined by a feeling of limbo—dangling between the darkest days of the pandemic and a just-out-of-reach virus-free future without lonely holidays, mask mandates, and so much death—what issues are poised to transform and define the next 300-some tomorrows?
Prognostication is a dangerous hobby. Even the luckiest mystics run the chance of being wrong.
Still, some things about this year are certain: We will still be fighting the pandemic. The legal battle over gerrymandering will continue to play out in the courts. Taller, denser development will cause friction in communities. And there will be an election or two that will certainly cause a lot of drama.
Suffice it to say, we’ve done a little thinking about 2022 for you.
Here’s what we’ll be watching.
1. The third year of the pandemic
Last month, the CDC reported the first case of the Omicron variant on U.S. soil. Now, it’s everywhere in North Carolina and is accounting for the majority of new COVID-19 cases. Add to that the stagnating vaccination rates in adults and the last two weeks of holiday travel and gatherings, and we’ve got a recipe for this new year starting out with a surge in COVID-19 cases. The pandemic isn’t going anywhere, at least not yet. Our “new normal” is now just “normal.”
As you read this, the a three-judge panel in Wake County Superior Court is hearing lawsuits challenging heavily gerrymandered district maps for the U.S. Congress and N.C. legislature. Central to these cases is the question of whether GOP leaders erred in making the maps by ignoring racial data and in turn diluting Black votes. The judges plan to rule in the case by January 11, at which point the state Supreme Court, which leans Democratic, could take it up. Should the election move forward with the current maps, Republicans could capture 11 of 14 congressional seats and have the potential to regain a supermajority in the legislature. If the maps are thrown out, we could be looking at further delays to the election as litigation drags on.
3. Durham’s historic gun violence spike
The year 2021 was one of the deadliest in recent history in the Bull City, with a total of 47 homicides. Gun violence has been a mounting problem for Durham, and how to address it will be one of the biggest challenges leaders will face this year. Many of the shootings have been linked to gang violence and recruitment, which explains the involvement of younger teenagers in shootings. Last month, two teens were killed and four others wounded when the SUV they were traveling in was shot up. Some of the passengers were in middle school.
4. Restaurants revival
This year is poised to be a big one for the Triangle’s recovering restaurant scene, with a slew of hotly anticipated openings. Giorgios Bakatsias has four projects expected to launch in 2022, including a pizza bar, a French bistro, and a Spanish tapas joint, while former Top Chef star Katsuji Tanabe plans to open A’verde Cocina and Tequila Bar in Cary. Additionally, Raleigh chef Scott Crawford has a steak house in the works for Cary’s new Fenton development. The resurrection of restaurants won’t be without challenges, as the industry is still facing staffing shortages and financially recovering from forced closures earlier in the pandemic. How restaurateurs overcome those obstacles this year will shape the industry for years to come.
5. Commuter rail plans taking shape
Will the Triangle finally get commuter rail? The dream of workers avoiding a bumper-to-bumper morning drive on I-40 is starting to take shape, as GoTriangle plots a transit line connecting Durham to Raleigh and either Clayton or Garner. The project will cost up to $2 billion just to plan, and while federal funds will likely cover half the expense, taxpayers will shoulder the remaining cost. But if plans move forward, construction on a rail system could begin as early as 2025. This isn’t the Triangle’s first go-round on this track: planners spent more than a decade concocting another rail plan before abandoning it in 2006 when federal funding wasn’t made available. And we all remember what happened to Durham–Chapel Hill light rail plans in 2019.
6. The national fight to protect abortion rights
After the Supreme Court punted a Texas law banning nearly all abortions in the state back to lower courts, shaking the precedent set by landmark case Roe v. Wade, the nation is preparing to wage a state-by-state legal battle over abortion rights in the years to come. Should Roe v. Wade be overturned, we’ll likely see a flurry of conservative-led states enacting similar abortion bans. Unless the dynamic of the court shifts dramatically, women face the very real possibility of losing legal control over their own bodies. It’s a nightmare scenario. There’s not much more to say.
7. Chapel Hill’s new town council
After a slate of pro-growth candidates swept the election last year, the Chapel Hill Town Council looks very different in 2022. The local NIMBY advocacy group CHALT—the Chapel Hill Association for a Livable Town—is unlikely to remain a dominant voice in local politics any longer. When it comes to questions of development, the new council will likely prioritize denser, taller projects in the town’s core.
8. Raleigh’s parks bond
Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin wants to finish what she started in 2019, when voters overwhelmingly passed an $80 million affordable housing bond. Now, the Raleigh City Council is eyeing a hefty parks package to kickstart the Dix Park redevelopment and revamp the city’s greenways. The council decided to forgo the bond in 2020, facing the economic fallout from the pandemic. On a lengthy ballot, a bond potentially topping $100 million will be a big ask from voters, and it will be on the current council to sell it while also campaigning to hold on to their seats.
9. The primary
Campaign filing for the 2022 March primary had already begun when courts ruled to postpone the election until May. Meanwhile, a dense field of hotly contested races is already narrowing. Key races, including the Wake County district attorney’s race and a new congressional district encompassing Durham and Chapel Hill, will likely be determined in the primary. But whether the primary actually happens in May is up to the courts to decide as they weigh a new set of gerrymandering lawsuits challenging the legality of the recently redrawn district maps.
10. Infrastructure funding
Although President Joe BIden’s Build Back Better bill has faced pushback from Republican leaders (and a certain Democrat or two), his recently passed $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package means significant federal funding will trickle down to the local level for much needed improvements. In North Carolina, that means money for transit, bridges, and broadband. Hopefully, local leaders will put that cash to good use.
11. The housing bubble
The Triangle’s housing scene was already red hot when the pandemic descended and more folks decided North Carolina was the place to be. Now, it’s pretty much nuclear, with homes under $300,000 flying off the market as soon as they’re listed—or, somehow, even snapped up before. In the last year, housing prices have shot up thanks to an influx of out-of-state buyers and limited supply. Unless the economy completely collapses, expect that trend to continue this year.
12. The drama at UNC–Chapel Hill
Between the university’s botched hiring of renowned journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and continued questions about the political influence of the conservative-leaning Board of Governors on the university’s academic agenda, 2021 was a tumultuous year for UNC–Chapel Hill. A recent report revealed that nine of the school’s top academic leaders have left the university since May, and squabbles over Chris Clemens’s appointment as the new provost—a “strong conservative voice,” it’s been noted—likely won’t help matters. Unless concessions are made, and business is conducted a bit more transparently, 2022 could see more controversy and turnover at the university as tensions continue to flare.
13. Downtown South
With a rezoning granted, plans for John Kane’s ambitious Downtown South in Raleigh are expected to move forward next year, albeit without a soccer stadium as originally planned. The new commercial and residential hub could revitalize the former industrial area south of the city center, but opponents believe it will also fuel gentrification in the area, home to some of the last remaining affordable neighborhoods in Raleigh.
14. Mayor Elaine O’Neal
In the fall, Durham voters elected the city’s first Black woman mayor, Elaine O’Neal. She entered office as the city faces an uptick in gun violence, and she has vowed to put an end to it through programs aiming to mentor young people and provide living-wage employment. But it remains to be seen if such programs will be enough to curb the violence or whether current trends will continue to haunt the Bull City in 2022.
15. Schools continuing to adapt
Another year with COVID will mean another year of headaches for local school boards caught between a rock and hard place when it comes to balancing education and public safety. With children age five and older now eligible for vaccination, we hopefully won’t see a return to remote learning, but schools will need to continue to innovate around the pandemic while facing scrutiny from parents on both sides of the debate.
16. The Greene Tract in Chapel Hill
One of the most heated battles in Orange County has been the debate over this jointly owned parcel of land that was used as a landfill for four decades before it was shut down in 2013. Recently, local leaders voted to preserve 60 acres with a permanent conservation easement, with another 100 acres potentially available for future development and affordable housing.
No doubt future development plans will face vehement opposition from a certain subset of conservation and neighborhood advocates that fared poorly in the last election.
17. Separated bus lanes in Raleigh
While commuter rail may still very much be a dream, separated bus lanes in Raleigh are getting closer to becoming a reality. Infrastructure improvements and exclusive lanes for bus rapid transit are in the works for the New Bern Avenue corridor connecting WakeMed hospital to downtown, a key commuting route that could significantly boost ridership and get more cars off the road.
18. The midterm election
Two years into President Joe Biden’s term and with post-census redistricting in play, the 2022 midterms will have massive implications for state and local politics. Midterm elections typically don’t go well for the party controlling the White House, and the threat of a red wave bringing back a Republican legislative supermajority in North Carolina, plus a majority in the U.S. House and Senate, and all the mayhem that entails is very real. If Democrats lose the legal battle over gerrymandering, they’ll need a substantial voter drive to stave off Republican gains and hold on to what little power they have, in North Carolina and in Washington.
19. Criminal justice reforms
During the first half of her term as Durham district attorney, Satana Deberry made big strides in reforming the city’s justice system, including ending the cash bail system and expunging millions in unpaid traffic fines and other charges. We hope Deberry persists with her progressive agenda in 2022, and with Wake County district attorney Lorrin Freeman facing a formidable challenger in the Democratic primary, it will be interesting to see if some reforms trickle down to Wake County as well.
20. Staggering Raleigh elections, lengthening terms, and paying the mayor and council members more
Leading up to the municipal election this fall, the debates over whether to restructure the Raleigh City Council’s term limits, increase pay, or stagger elections are likely to be among #ralpol’s hottest issues. The current council’s detractors will frame any change as a blatant power grab, but it’s more complicated than that. Increasing pay could open the doors to more diverse representation, something Raleigh has needed desperately for some time.
21. Working from home
This year, companies that pushed employees to return to the workplace en masse faced backlash from workers now accustomed to the benefits of working from home. How industries grapple with managing the balance between productivity and presence will reshape work as we know it, and the companies that are most successful will find creative ways to foster a positive workplace culture outside of endless Zoom meetings and break-room Ping-Pong tables. That said, remote work is still very much a luxury in a labor market dominated by low-paying service jobs, a dynamic unlikely to shift much in 2022.
22. Tech scene growth
If there’s one industry that wasn’t crippled by the pandemic, it’s the local tech scene. Raleigh-based voice over IP monopoly Bandwidth has already begun construction on a massive half-million-square-foot complex off of Reedy Creek Road, and it feels like every day a new company moves into RTP. While companies like Citrix have experienced layoffs, and there are rumblings of a sale of the Raleigh software company in the works, trends are mostly looking positive for the industry, setting the stage for 2022 to be another year of innovation and growth.
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Follow Senior Staff Writer Leigh Tauss on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com.