Friday, March 1, 2024

Cary’s growth not just due to natural advantages

When you drive around downtown Cary, you see things happening, a lot of mixed-use projects with offices and retail and residential units.

You can see it on an interactive map that shows lots of green splotches, representing active and proposed projects in and around downtown.

The construction of the new downtown Cary Regional Library, the development of the downtown park, and street, sidewalk and parking improvements have helped encourage private development. 

One example of this development is the Rogers East and Rogers West project, two buildings connected by a three-story atrium-style lobby in the center. The project consists of 10,000 square feet of retail and 40,000 square feet of Class A office space, just some of the downtown work of  Cary developers George Jordan III and his nephew, Jordan Gussenhoven, as Northwood Associates and Chatham Street Commercial.

One of the biggest projects downtown is the new park, located next to the library and The Mayton hotel, and scheduled to open in November. I peeked through the construction fence to look at the $68 million, seven-acre park, and held my iPhone over my head to take some pictures. It looks impressive.

I talked about the park and downtown with Cary’s mayor, Harold Weinbrecht, who has a pretty good perspective on things because he has lived in and around the town since the late 1950s, when his family moved here from Georgia. His uncle, Fred Bond, was a highly regarded Cary mayor who came up here from Georgia in the early 1950s to work for the Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corp.

Harold Weinbrecht

The park looks like a pretty big swing. Seven acres is a lot of land in a downtown, and $68 million is a big investment in one project. But as with most things in Cary, it was discussed a lot, for years. Originally, says Weinbrecht, the thinking was that the town would buy around a dozen acres, build a smaller park and use the rest for economic development.

“Because at that time, at 5 o’clock, they rolled up the sidewalks. Everybody went home. There was nobody downtown. So that was the idea.”

In the early 2000s, the conversation shifted. “There started to be a discussion, debate, among council, that if you build it, they will come. ‘Let’s build a big park,’ and that’s where that began.

So, there’s been about 20 years of discussion and thought to get to where we are today.”

“And that was some sort of a risk to build a big park,” says Weinbrecht, “when you’re putting that much public investment in something and hoping it will bring economic development. But that was a good call, because condos across the street are going for $1.3 million, and downtown’s just exploding.”

He says town staff says “they’re beating our doors down trying to build in downtown.”

This is the kind of growth, the revitalization of an old downtown, that folks like Weinbrecht wanted to see.  Rapid growth outward into Western Wake County farmland, that characterized much of the last 50 years, eventually outgrew Cary’s roads and water system by the 1990s, which led to a slow-growth movement that put people like Weinbrecht on the Town Council.

In fact, Cary might have remained a small, rural town if it wasn’t for Gov. Luther Hodges and a handful of business leaders, who created Research Triangle Park a few miles up N.C. 54 in the late 1950s.

Two revolutions

But RTP was just the second big technology event that shaped Cary. 

The first was the railroad. Like many North Carolina small towns, Cary grew up around the railroad tracks beginning in the mid-19th century. The town incorporated in 1871, and its boundaries were one square mile around a railroad warehouse. The first mayor was businessman Allison Francis “Frank” Page, generally considered the town’s founder, who owned land along the tracks. He admired a leading temperance politician of the day, Samuel Fenton Cary of Ohio, and that’s how the town got its name. Cary, which would be home to thousands of northerners by the second half of the 20th century – hence, its nickname as a “Containment Area for Relocated Yankees” –  was named for a lawyer from Cincinnati. (And his middle name – Fenton – would be selected as the name of the massive new mixed-use project off Cary Towne Boulevard near I-40.)

The second big event came in January 1959, when Gov. Hodges and the new Research Triangle Foundation announced that a science and technology park would be built on thousands of acres of forests and farms just west of the airport. The new Research Triangle Park would be located in the middle of UNC Chapel Hill, Duke University and N.C. State. 

At the meeting at the Sir Walter Hotel in Raleigh with area business, academic and political leaders, a big map showed the shaded area of the ambitious, 4,200-acre project. And a few miles down NC 54, just southeast of the site, was little Cary, 2.7 square miles. It was clear what was going to happen if RTP took off, which it did when IBM announced it was coming in 1965. The science and technology revolution would transform the Raleigh-Durham area, and particularly, Cary. 

But it wasn’t just RTP. Like RTP, Cary was centrally located between the three research universities, and so it was a good place for tech companies to locate, basically a residential version of RTP. SAS, the software giant co-founded in 1976 by N.C. State statistician James Goodnight, moved from Raleigh to Cary in 1980, and has grown to 4,000 local employees. It is one of the world’s largest private software companies.

Cary is more than just SAS. Epic Games has 2,000 local employees, and was looking to build a new headquarters on the old Cary Towne Center site, although the fate of that project is uncertain. Over the years, Cary has attracted a pretty robust collection of blue-chip companies, including Siemens, Parker Lord, ABB, American Airlines, MetLife and Caterpillar.  

Intense growth

In the decades that followed the creation of RTP, the narrative of Cary was intense growth, both in population and in the expansion of the town to around 60 square miles, through annexation of new developments. A town that had around 3,300 residents in 1960, a year after the RTP announcement, had nearly 22,000 by 1980, as SAS was showing up. The population grew to nearly 95,000 by 2000, and then reached nearly 175,000 by 2020. Other western Wake County towns have grown rapidly – Apex, Holly Springs, Morrisville. But Cary grew its footprint bigger. There are northwest pockets of Cary that now practically touch the Wake County portion of RTP, where Apple is building its 3,000-employee East Coast campus. Cary now extends into Chatham County, on the east side of Jordan Lake.

And on the west side of Jordan Lake, near Pittsboro, the folks who developed much of Cary – Tim Smith and Bubba Rawl, backed financially by Goodnight – have created a very Cary-like community, Chatham Park, that may one day have 60,000 residents. Because there’s not nearly as much land left to develop in Cary as there was. 

Natural advantages

The 67-year-old Weinbrecht is a retired software engineer who worked for SAS for nearly three decades. He knows Cary pretty well, and he knows that the town has some natural advantages – being next to RTP, but also being mid-way between the mountains and the beaches. “There’s a lot of things going for us that we had no control over,” he acknowledges.

But he also knows that it is possible for lucky communities to squander those advantages. Growth can be great, until it isn’t. If you don’t get out of RTP by mid-afternoon weekdays, Interstate 40 through Morrisville and Cary is not your friend. 

In the ‘90s, concerned about Cary’s ability to handle growth, he got involved in local politics. He started a website called Citizens for Balanced Growth; he ran for council and got elected in 1999. He was defeated in 2003, but was elected mayor in 2007, ousting the incumbent. Weinbrecht has won re-election ever since, and is unopposed this fall.

“In the mid-90s through the late ‘90s, the growth at that time was outpacing some of the staff’s ability,” he recalled. The town faced water shortages.  “So they basically had to stop everything for a few months in the late ‘90s. That was an interesting time. There was a lot of growth without consideration for certain things, such as storm water. So there’s a lot of issues like that that we’ve learned from over the years.”

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