Role tide

 In 2015-11

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Above the din of noontime conversation at the crowded Rolesville Diner, a pair of posters on facing walls articulate what’s on many minds in this once-sleepy farming community 20 miles northeast of Raleigh. One poster features a field of sunflowers and the word, “Growth,” the other a beautiful hardwood tree on a hill with the word, “Change.” Both dynamics have more than casual significance in this Wake County town that grew 24% in 2014 alone, the fastest pace in the state.

“Yeah, I heard about that,” says Samuel Green, waiting by the diner’s front door to pick up an order of chicken and dumplings for his wife. “I guess they finished the bypass not a minute too soon, with so many people wanting to move here nowadays.” Green, who moved to town a decade ago after retiring from his job as a postal worker in Paterson, N.J., mentions the newcomers he’s encountered of late from New England and the Midwest. Most commute to Raleigh from vast new neighborhoods that stretch in all directions over fields that not long ago produced tobacco and cotton. “They’re all nice folks and seem happy to be here,” Green adds. “Some came to get away from the bad weather up north. Others say it’s because this place is still kinda slow-paced — at least for the moment. That’s my theory, anyway.”

Depending on who you ask,  Rolesville’s explosive growth is either a blessing or a curse. “There’s an upside and a downside,” says fellow diner Ashley Price, a student at Wake Tech Community College who is enjoying lunch with her father, Connie. “True, I can go to college just down the road, but if we get all these city folks moving here, next thing the town may do is say, ‘no farm animals allowed in city limits,’ like they do down in Raleigh.” She grew up around horses and plans to open her own grooming and training facility. “If that day ever comes,” she adds with a feisty grin, “I’ll be saddlin’ up, ridin’ out of town fast.”

Price’s father laughs, sipping his iced tea. A former farmer who ran Rolesville’s only auto-repair shop for years, he hails from one of the town’s older families. Today, he has a job maintaining State Highway Patrol vehicles. “This life don’t stand still,” he adds with a shake of the head. “But some of us still wish it was kind of like it was in Rolesville before Raleigh discovered us.”

That discovery happened in the early 1990s when Raleigh annexed parts of town that stretched six miles south to the Neuse River, according to Rolesville Mayor Frank Eagles and Town Manager Bryan Hicks. It was a controversial decision pushed through by a former mayor, who wanted permanent water and sewer lines. “Before that, everyone here was on wells and septic systems,” Eagles says. “Having city water and sewer was nice, but some folks thought that the river was a natural boundary line, keeping Raleigh on the south side of the river.”

Rolesville — the second oldest municipality in Wake County behind the capital city — traded land in exchange for improved utilities. Wake Forest, which is five miles west, joined with Raleigh, followed in short order by Rolesville and Knightdale. The resulting comprehensive water and sewer system opened northeast Wake County to waves of residential development.

“When I came here in the mid-1980s, there were just about 500 people and one stoplight in town. You knew everybody,” Eagles says. “This was true farm country out here. That all began to change as Raleigh outgrew its britches in the 90s, then really exploded in the 2000s.” By 2004, when Bryan Hicks arrived as the town’s  planning director, the population had doubled and housing developments were taking over local fields like kudzu on an abandoned barn. “We started growing houses instead of tobacco,” the mayor says.

By July 2014, the population increased to about 5,800 residents, including 1,200 who came during the previous year. The most recent census shows Rolesville with 2,100 houses and median household income of $73,156. About 75% of citizens are white and 18% are black.

Long before its population exploded, Rolesville had a fascinating, albeit dark history. Eloise Averette Freeman’s History of Greater Rolesville, published in 1976, reveals how the son of a Revolutionary War soldier established the town in 1837. William Roles “rode into town with bags of money” and set up an inn and general store to serve the stagecoach line between Richmond and Raleigh. He also created a cotton-buying firm that inspired a thriving slave market operating on the town square. “During the many years the slave trading post existed before the Civil War, thousands of slaves were auctioned off here,” Freeman wrote. “It was second in size only to the slave market at New Orleans …. (attracting) slave merchants from North and South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky to buy slaves which were then taken throughout the South and sold at high profits.” (Rolesville had a big slave market, though it’s not clear it was the second largest in the U.S., says Omar Ali, a UNC Greensboro history professor who studies slavery.)

The town’s first act after Confederate hero Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Va. in 1865 was to dismantle the wooden platform where the slaves were auctioned at the center of town, closing the darkest period in Rolesville’s history.

Today, upward of 27,000 cars pass through Main Street on any given day, prompting traffic headaches that have been somewhat alleviated by the 6-mile U.S. 401 bypass completed last summer. The growth has enabled Rolesville to establish a beautiful town park with handsome ballfields and athletic complexes next to attractive subdivisions. Rolesville High School is such an impressive four-winged affair that some locals thought it might be a hospital when it opened in 2013. The school serves more than 2,200 students.

Facing an onslaught of newcomers that shows no sign of slowing, town leaders are challenged to stretch a $6 million operating budget over police, fire and public works departments. Like many fast-growing suburban towns, Rolesville has an uneven source of funds, with 80% of revenue coming from residents and 20% from commercial enterprises. “Our most pressing need is new businesses of all sizes to help expand the tax base,” Mayor Eagles says. Unlike Wake Forest and other neighboring towns, he says, “we’ve still got lots of farm land and room to grow.”

Rolesville Fire Chief Rodney Privette grew up in the town when there was one fire truck; he now heads a 12-person fire and emergency-services department with a combined nine vehicles. “Our goal is to try and keep the small-town feel, whatever comes up the road from Raleigh.”

Emblematic of Rolesville’s prosperity is a handsome town hall campus planned on land recently acquired near the center of town. It’s
at the rural crossroads junction where, once upon a time, human beings were sold to the highest bidder, a past that is being slowly paved over. “Things aren’t moving as slowly as they once did,” Privette says. “But the spirit and friendliness of this town remain genuine. We may be on a roll, but we remember where we came from.


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