HOLLY SPRINGS — With a cheer and a surge, the crowd of eager shoppers pushed out of the dreary evening and into the white light of Holly Springs’ newest suburban-chic status symbol: a Target store, open for business as of Tuesday.
“It’s really kind of the fruition of everything we’ve worked for,” said Holly Springs Councilman Chet VanFossen, the first cabana hats and patio grills rolling across the checkouts behind him.
He has reason to crow: The 134,000-square-foot anchor is one of just 19 Target stores that will open in the United States this year. And the store’s home, the new Holly Springs Towne Center, is one of the first major retail projects to open in the Triangle since the recession decimated consumers’ budgets and slowed the region’s rapid growth.
Now, with the housing market in full recovery – and builders once again constructing the rooftops that drive new retail development – developers are dusting off long-stalled projects and proposing new ones.
The talk around Holly Springs is that it’s going to be a boom year, one that will put an exclamation point on the town’s remarkable journey from near extinction to the town of choice for many new arrivals in the Triangle.
Buoyed by its first regional-level shopping center and its two dozen stores and restaurants, Holly Springs has issued 70 commercial permits this fiscal year, a threefold increase over last year. Cary, its largest neighbor, is on track for five times the nonresidential construction it saw last year.
Thousands of people are flocking to Wake County for tech jobs at companies like MetLife, which announced Thursday it would employ 1,300 people in Cary within three years.
Holly Springs’ new highway connection to Research Triangle Park will draw some of those new residents – and so will a growing list of amenities, including $20 million in planned park projects. The town is financing such projects with a tax increase and the tax revenue that comes from commercial projects such as Holly Springs Towne Center.
“I saw Target on the way in, and that’s all I was really concerned with,” half-joked John Weinch, who was house hunting this week in Holly Springs. He’ll move his family of six from Virginia for a job with Cisco Systems in the coming months, and he sees a new Target as a sign that some very crafty investors believe in Holly Springs.
The local government will try to sustain that growth by diversifying its tax base and its offerings, according to town staff and elected officials. Almost unanimously, they say they want to bring more small businesses downtown and put more goods and services providers in its business park.
“That’s the next step,” VanFossen said. “You live here, you shop here, you work here.”
On the brink of dissolving
This barrage of commercial development is something new for Holly Springs. The town was a tiny and impoverished outpost in southwestern Wake County into the 1980s, but over the last several decades has positioned itself for the next stage of affluent suburban growth.
In fact, Holly Springs’ transformation has come so quickly that it can leave longtime residents disoriented.
Belinda Smith, 49, came home two weeks ago to see the new Target, which replaced her family’s ranch house.
“Well, it’s weird,” the bus driver recalled. “You can’t believe it’s been developed. So much was taken over.”
She grew up, like much of old Holly Springs, without a lot extra. Food, but no money, no streetlights, no city sewer or water. Abandoned by agriculture, Holly Springs was a “pocket of poverty in wealthy Wake,” as the Raleigh Times once put it, according to former mayor Gerald Holleman.
By 1983, the town faced a heavy choice. A month after he took office, Holleman joined a panel of locals at the old Town Hall. On the agenda: the dissolution of the local government, then staffed by two part-time employees, he said.
“We sat around a table, trying to decide whether to keep it going,” said Holleman, now 76. “The other option was to merge with Apex, Fuquay or Cary.”
That’s where the town’s modern chapter began – the cement-block building where a few men and women decided to make a go of it.
Stores follow rooftops, but rooftops follow infrastructure. If Holly Springs Towne Center and Target are the local definition of success, then it was those early years of investment in roads, sewer and water that set the stage.
Town politicians practically had to beg for the most basic municipal services in the early years of redevelopment. As Holleman tells it, he had the state declare a local health hazard in order to win bond funding for a sewer system. A television report about the multitude of local outhouses helped, he said.
For the next decade, local representatives campaigned through the statehouse and Washington, D.C., sketching a new town line by line. With a police station, a school, and a supermarket falling into place by 1996, Holly Springs finally was ready to play its trump card: location.
Seeking its identity
Modern Holly Springs has for two decades scooped overflow population growth from Cary and Raleigh. The new residents first came for relatively cheap land, but for years they found little else. For years, the town found itself fighting the idea that it was both a cultural and geographical backwater.
“The first and biggest challenge was the perception that Holly Springs was an hour away from Raleigh,” said Jenny Mizelle, the town’s economic development director. Commercial developers “would invariably get here thirty minutes before their appointment. Every single one of them would say, ‘Wow, we didn’t realize how close we were.’ ”
But decades of residential construction transformed Holly Springs into a more lucrative market. The town’s population tripled to more than 25,000 in the last 13 years as land prices continued to rise in Cary and other larger neighbors.
By the time the recession hit, the town nearly had critical mass for its next stage: jobs and retail. Walmart came to town in 2008, while Novartis’ billion-dollar vaccine plant was the last major project to complete construction after the recession.
All that froze with the crash. The town issued only seven commercial permits in 2010, and one of the town’s largest new neighborhoods, 12 Oaks, hung partially completed.
Talks for the new Holly Springs Towne Center continued through the recession, but town officials worried that Target could bail out as it scaled back its nationwide expansion plans.
“It was a pretty hard fight that we fought, to convince Target that Holly Springs would be a good market for them,” Mizelle said.
They had the numbers on their side. The town’s median household income jumped from an inflation-adjusted $34,000 in 1980 to almost $90,000 today – far more affluent, even, than Target’s demographic. And its location could be strategic to the untapped Harnett County market, staff argued.
By the end of 2011, better economic numbers were dangling – and Target bit.
On paper, Holly Springs seems to have each of suburban America’s wants: housing, shopping and local jobs. Yet, inevitably, a town so new has to search for its identity. Longtime residents of the historically black town have asked how they can again make their voice heard in local politics, while many of the town’s new residents are searching for local connections and institutions.
Downtown has emerged as a new priority for town leaders. While the town’s milestone shopping center is filled with chain stores, planners see downtown as a home for a new wave of independent restaurants and businesses. A local investor is ready to build a sizeable project on Main Street, and several restaurateurs and brewers plan to call the town home. But it’s unclear just how fast Holly Springs will gain an independent spirit.
In the meantime, elected officials hope to move the town forward with another public spending push. While the first round laid the essentials that made modern life possible here, town leaders argue that a slate of new parks, including a baseball stadium, could bring Holly Springs into its own.
Voters stamped their approval of the plan in 2011, passing the town’s largest-ever bond referendum by a wide margin. Locals’ enthusiasm for recreation leagues and public parks isn’t surprising: Holly Springs has the highest proportion of young children in Wake County.
Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary