Exit interview: What did Nancy McFarlane love and hate as Raleigh mayor?

The cause may have been something other than the weight of leadership, but Nancy McFarlane is wrapping up eight years as Raleigh’s mayor with a sore back.

Back surgeries kept her out of action for some the past year, but now she’s back on her feet and ready to walk away with both a feeling of relief and a sense of accomplishment.

“I love the job, hate the politics,” McFarlane told me as she looked back on her tenure during a recent interview in her City Hall office.

A pharmacist by trade, McFarlane, 63, made a fortune by building and then selling a pharmaceutical supply company she founded with her husband, Ron. She didn’t have to take on the long hours and criticism that comes with being mayor. But when former Mayor Charles Meeker urged her to succeed him in 2011, McFarlane, then a two-term City Council member, couldn’t say no. She was committed to building up the city’s arts community and she liked working with businesses and communities.

McFarlane was not a high-profile mayor, but she accomplished high-profile things, the greatest of which was the city’s purchase from the state of the 308-acre Dix Hospital property to create Dix Park.

Republicans in the General Assembly nullified a lease of the property signed by outgoing Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue and it looked liked the park would be lost. But McFarlane, an independent, deftly defused the partisan resistance and persuaded legislators to sell the land outright. Dix will be one of the nation’s great urban parks and McFarlane’s enduring legacy.

The mayor also helped revive the city’s Warehouse District with new construction, most notably Raleigh Union Station. She admits, though, that she didn’t realize one of her early goals for the region: “I’m still a little broken-hearted we don’t have a light rail system throughout the Triangle.”

During the last two years the mayor endured, along with her back problems, a metaphorical pain in the neck — a divided and ineffective City Council. She said the council was “very into minutia” regarding neighborhood zoning, but she thought it was “just as important to be talking about what’s five and 25 years down the road, that helps form the decisions we’re making now, too. And I think people were ready for that.”

Yes they were. Three members of the eight-member council lost their bids for re-election in October. The losses, along with McFarlane and council member Dickie Thompson deciding not to run, mean the city will have a mostly new council under Mayor-elect Mary-Ann Baldwin.. The new council will be sworn in on Dec. 2.

The outgoing mayor said the new leaders will deal with constants and with change.: “Fundamentally there are a lot of things about Raleigh that aren’t going to change. People love their trees. Don’t cut down trees in this town. No matter who’s coming in they’re going to understand that.

“It’s a beautiful city. When you drive around this city that is the one thing people say. We love good design, we love aesthetics, we value our history, but we also are very into the future and I think that’s what this council is going to be grappling with. We’ve got a lot of people moving here and how are you going to accommodate them and keep the parts of the city everybody loves?”

Even though she will no longer be mayor, McFarlane intends to stay involved. She’ll work on the development of Dix Park and she’s on a state commission that’s considering new ways to pay for transportation infrastructure as gas tax revenues decline.

After four terms as mayor and two terms on the City Council, McFarlane is ready for a change, but the years of service were rich experience.

“It’s a great city. I’m incredibly proud of it. I think it’s beautiful. The people here are the nicest people in the world,” she said. “For the most part it was fun, except when it wasn’t.”

But, I asked, was it mostly fun? She didn’t hesitate: “It was mostly fun.”

And, for Raleigh, more than mostly good.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnet@newsobserver.com