By Bryan Mims
Wake County’s Apex is high on a roster of North Carolina place names with lofty connotations. In recent years, it has certainly earned its motto as “The Peak of Good Living.”
In 2007, it popped up on Money magazine’s “Best Places to Live” list, working its way from 14th to ninth to the top of the chart in 2015. The swelling suburb southwest of Raleigh was deemed better than 3,625 other towns with populations between 10,000 and 50,000. Naturally, such a superlative is a super selling point worthy of gracing most every roadside welcome sign in Apex.
Other national outlets have also put Apex on a pedestal. In 2009, Forbes named it the third-best place in America to move to. In 2017, Realtor.com ranked it No. 10 on its list of suburban hot spots. Last year, the same group recognized Apex as the fastest-growing suburb in the country with a population soaring from 5,500 in 1990 to 42,000 in 2015 to an estimated 59,827 in 2019.
“The surprising thing to me was how many people moved to Apex without a job, just on trust,” says Lance Olive, who’s retiring after four years as mayor. Retired Apex police Capt. Jacques Gilbert was elected in November. “They said, ‘This is where I want to raise my family, so I’m going to go ahead and move there and then I’ll find a job,’” Olive says.
And jobs abound in the Triangle — jobs in high-tech, research and biosciences that demand brainpower and supply handsome paychecks. Research Triangle Park is less than 20 miles away, an easy drive along the tolled Triangle Expressway. RTP has 200-plus companies employing more than 50,000 people. While Durham’s slice of RTP has long been the mother ship for the Triangle’s tech economy, many tech companies operate outside the park’s boundaries. Software firms such as SAS Institute Inc., Red Hat Inc. and “Fortnite” video game creator Epic Games Inc. are all minutes away from Apex. The town’s biggest private-sector employers are Apex Tool Group LLC, Dell Inc. and ATI Industrial Automation Inc., according to the local chamber. “This is just a strong employment community,” Olive says. “People come here to find work and make work. There’s a lot of entrepreneurial support around.”
Apex, once known as a shipping point for lumber, tar and turpentine centered around the Chatham Railroad depot, now boasts a booming historic downtown. Boutiques, antiques, pubs, a bakery, a home-video studio, a spa, a beer emporium, a coffee shop, and a handful of gift shops line Salem Street in century-old buildings with spiffy brick facades and awnings. The words “rustic” and “homey” leap to mind at The Rusty Bucket. Here, you can mosey among custom-made, country-style furnishings and grab a bottle of bourbon-and-beer barbecue sauce, while listening to the best of B.B. King.
Pam and Mack Thorpe opened the place in 2004. Despite living in a region renowned for tech jobs and having spent careers at defunct telecommunications-equipment manufacturer Nortel, they fancy themselves as “technology rejects.” Pam says she “pretty much had it” with the corporate realm and decided to indulge her passion: old-timey crafts, furniture and decorative signs. Back when they opened, she says, downtown Apex still had some boarded-up buildings and lacked the no-vacancy vibrancy of today.
“We saw potential,” she says. “We knew the area was growing. It was just someplace I wanted to go and put down roots.” Fifteen years later, she figures 30% of customers are visiting the area from out of state. Some days, she says, the percentage is much higher. “And they’re either looking to move, looking to retire, or visiting someone that has,” she says.
The 2015 billing as the best place in the nation to live, work and play has kindled plenty of curiosity. Money magazine enthused, “Apex has all the things you’d expect in the No. 1 place to live: a charming downtown, top-notch schools, and the kind of community spirit that draws 15,000 people to the annual PeakFest street fair.”
The family-friendly public event takes place every May on Salem Street, packing more than 15,000 people. Hardly a month goes by without some big party in the street that draws a phalanx of vendors. For barbecue buffs, there’s the Peak City Pig Fest on Father’s Day weekend. Then there’s the Apex Latino Arts Festival, also in June. For traditionalists, there’s the Olde Fashioned Fourth of July and Christmas on Salem, a three-day celebration in early December.
The Money article goes on to extol the virtues of Apex schools, among the highest-performing in North Carolina, and points out how much more affordable it is to live here compared with California’s Silicon Valley. Pam Thorpe says in the last couple of years, she’s encountered more people from the West Coast in her store. She muses, “Why here? Why not just move over one state? Why come all the way across the country?”
These visitors from afar sum it up to her this way: “You still have technology similar to Silicon Valley. You’re close to the mountains, you still have a beach.” Moreover, the influx of people from other places, namely liberal-leaning Northeastern and West Coast states, has cast shades of blue in the political stripes of Wake County, the state’s second most-populous county with more than a million people. Wake has voted Democratic in the last three presidential elections — including 57% in 2016.
“I say it’s more purple now, which is nice,” says Jan White, an Apex resident who’s out walking her two dogs along Salem Street on a brisk morning. Her assessment of Apex is that it’s ethnically and politically diverse, noting that “purple is good.” Her husband works at SAS Institute, an analytics-software company headquartered in adjoining Cary. She’s a self-described stay-at-home mom and an artist who sells paintings. “We just feel very safe here,” she says. “We know all of our neighbors.”
Amid its growth, the town brims with quaintness. Look inside DownTown Knits, and you’re likely to see four or five women seated around a small table, knitting and bonding over needle and thread and coffee talk. The shop’s proprietor says the favored topics of conversation are politics and business — without the needle-sharp barbs. “Knitters are very nice, welcoming, tolerant, inclusive,” says Carole Swain, who comes in several times a week.
DownTown Knits is owned by Rhode Island native Michele Riggs, who moved to the Triangle for a job at IBM and put in 27 years. She settled in Apex 11 years ago because she was so beguiled by the Rockwellian air of downtown. “This has always been the place where we’d come and just think, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful to live here?’” she says. In 2010, she opened this knitting nook, offering classes in sewing and crochet and selling stacks of yarns and fabrics. She lives downtown, “820 steps away” from her store.
Most days, downtown is full of people dining at sidewalk tables, pushing strollers, walking dogs, and plumbing the depths of ice-cream cones. Salem Street Pub, with its gourmet burgers, regional beers and North Carolina-themed digs, is usually standing-room-only at lunch and dinner. Across the street, The Beer Dispensary is stocked with more than 900 labels of craft beer. Tim and Dawn Overcash opened the store in 2010, attracted to Apex because “the downtown area was conducive to the vision of the place,” he says.
Meredith Williams is sitting outside Fresh, a spot for locally sourced ice cream. At times, the line stretches out the door. She’s spooning into a few scoops with her daughters Macy, 13, and Ashlyn, 9. She grew up in Apex — “Yep, I’m a native” — and her daughters are enrolled in the same schools she attended. “I like that it’s close to a big city, but it kind of still has a small-town feel,” she says. “But with more people moving in, it’s kind of getting away from that feel.” Still, she says, with great schools, terrific parks and kid-rich neighborhoods, it’s the ideal place to raise a family.
Traffic is a burdensome byproduct of such accelerated growth, and Olive says he “would love for the NCDOT to come and address some of the state-maintained roads.” But longtime locals, newcomers and visitors clearly like the scenery beyond the windshield. “For not being a tourist area, it’s amazing how many people we have that come in from out of state,” says Pam Thorpe. Apex is clearly a beacon for professionals, families and retirees looking to stretch their horizons. For an old railroad town on a hill, the founders about had it right: Apex is a wonderfully fitting name in the 21st century.