North Carolina has spawned a surprising variety of cities that match one another nicely--except for their contrary personalities.
There's Charlotte and Raleigh, the behemoths that drive the state's roaring growth but otherwise ignore each other. Durham and neighboring Chapel Hill mirror a focus on education and health care but are bitterly divided by basketball. Winston-Salem and nearby Greensboro share an airport and climate but don't specialize in cooperation.
Often overlooked are the siblings separated by 275 linear miles and 2,100 feet of elevation. Bohemian Asheville and salt-air Wilmington, the metro bookends of Interstate 40, have plenty in common.
Both have a certain charm that is not lavished on their far-flung cousins. Both managed to hold onto their historic districts that possess beguiling architecture. It was the 1980 census that recorded the last population dip in each city. Since then, they have grown steadily as the provincial capitals of their regions.
Both are magnets for tourism, with the industry accounting for about 15% of the employment in each city. Both attract wealthy retirees--drawn to civic amenities, health care centers and plentiful fairways. Both have state university system campuses. And both are expected to maintain their economic vitality.
They excel in another trait, too: A surprisingly high cost of living. Both rival Charlotte and Raleigh as the state's most expensive locales, according to the Arlington, Va.-based Council for Community and Economic Research. Paradise clearly doesn't come cheap. But on the flip side, your labor might. Private industry hourly wages in both cities are below statewide and national averages, according to the N.C. Division of Employment Security.
For Asheville, success has been particularly costly in terms of housing. Its median-home cost of about $280,000 tops that of Charlotte and Raleigh and is more than 20% greater than Wilmington, which is near the national average of $227,000. You can see it at rush hour. On weekdays, Asheville's population swells by 49% with workers commuting from neighboring...