Lost in Cary? Officials hope to show the way

Town putting up signs as part of downtown project

akenney@newsobserver.comNovember 26, 2012 

— Drivers here once had a rule of thumb: When in doubt, find Maynard Road, the downtown-circling loop that could take you most anywhere.

Today it’s not so simple. Cary has added tens of thousands of new residents, and with them miles upon miles of new roads.

The result is a phenomenon that can grip veteran Cary residents and first-time visitors alike as they wander the town’s ever-spreading network of streets.

“I literally still plug the GPS in for some places in Cary,” said Michelle Hillison, who figures she would know better after 15 years here.

Even those who contend that Cary is easy to navigate, like former planning director Glenda Toppe, acknowledge that it’s not hard to find the complaints.

“I don’t ever get lost in Cary, and ... my friends tell me it’s the hardest place to get around,” she said.

For Cary resident Kurt Hilton, it’s “not so much that I get lost. I just accidentally seem to take the longest possible driving routes,” he tweeted.

No matter who you ask, they’ve likely got an opinion on the “lost in Cary” theme. And now even the local government is trying to answer that ever-more-popular question: “Where in Cary am I?”

As part of its multi-million dollar downtown development project, the town is putting up about 100 signs that will help drivers find downtown from anywhere in Cary – and find something to do once they’re there.

“We used to hear a lot of people say that they didn’t know Cary had a downtown, they didn’t know where it was, particularly from people who said they didn’t live in Cary,” said Planning Manager Philip Smith.

So, the new signs won’t help every driver’s woes, but they’ll help address a common problem of Cary and its ilk: As towns get larger and wider, their central hubs become less prominent. The fact that some people can’t find downtown means they no longer use the once-unavoidable communal space.

“Do they even have to go downtown Cary to Town Hall to pay their water bills?” Glenda Toppe asked. “How many people in west Cary have been to downtown Cary?”

The town already has budgeted tens of millions of dollars to make its downtown a destination again, not just to west Cary but to the entire region.

The plan is to seed the old town heart with arts and cultural venues, a new reason to make a half-hour trip across Cary.

But before the town can hone that sense of community, it will have to sharpen residents’ sense of direction.

“We want to let people know that we do have a downtown, and get them down there,” Smith said.

The $313,000 sign project will finish installation early next year, with some of the signs placed as far out as the western edge of town.

Hillison said downtown Cary just doesn’t have the nightlife to attract her. But a few visual cues might convince her to turn off the GPS and explore.

“I do like getting lost,” she said. “As I find more neighborhoods and more people, I’ll go ahead and go down the road and see what’s there, and I’ll be amazed.”

Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary

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