Cary is the best place to live in North Carolina, according to Money magazine’s most recent rankings of cities.
The western Wake town not only was named the top place to live in the state but it also ranked No. 37 of the best cities to live in the country in the magazine’s annual report.
“Cary offers a solid school system, safe streets, healthy job opportunities – plus 39 greenway trails and a massive nature preserve,” the magazine wrote Monday.
This isn’t the first time Money has named Cary as one of the country’s best places to live. The town was ranked No. 1 in 2004 and has been on the list five times since then.
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“I think the atmosphere that people find in Cary is the reason why they like calling it home,” Cary councilwoman Jennifer Robinson said. “It’s a very friendly community. It has a great quality of life, and I think this rating reflects that.”
Other Triangle towns have topped the list or have ranked in the Top 10 in the past decade, including Apex, which was the No. 1 place to live among smaller towns last year. That list looked at towns with 10,000 to 50,000 people.
This year, Raleigh was the only other North Carolina municipality to be recognized by the magazine. It was named the best big city to live in the Southeast and ranked No. 10 on the list of the “best places to be rich and single.”
The magazine ranked its list of cities – with populations of 50,000 to 300,000 – on 60 traits, including affordable housing, schools, taxes and job opportunities. Economic factors were weighed heavily, according to the magazine. Reporters spent time in each town to check them out and to interview residents.
Cary’s accolade comes shortly after the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Atlantic Coast Conference canceled 17 championship tournaments across the state, including several that were to be held in Cary this academic year, because of House Bill 2.
The designation was welcome news to many area leaders, who are worried about the impact HB2 could continue to have on the region.
“That’s had an impact on business, but (the Money recognition) helps combat that negativity,” Mayor Harold Weinbrecht said. “I’m glad to have that. It’s good timing.”
A bedroom community?
In Money’s description of Cary, the magazine refers to Cary as a “bedroom community with easy access to the shops, sports and entertainment of a bigger city.”
While some area leaders thought this was an accurate, or mostly accurate, portrayal of Cary, others debated whether the town of almost 160,000 people should still be considered a bedroom community.
“More people come into Cary to work every day than leave it, so we are hardly a bedroom community anymore,” said Barry Mitsch, chairman of the Cary Chamber of Commerce board of directors. “That’s just the impression people have.”
Money cited several of Cary’s major employers, including SAS, Fidelity and Verizon. Other major companies continue to add their name to the list of Cary businesses, including MetLife, and others are expanding their existing operations, like Relias Learning. In July, the online training company for health care professionals announced it would hire at least 450 people over five years as part of a $4.5 million expansion.
“(The recognition) is affirmation that we are on the right track, that we are doing the right things in our community,” Robinson said. “It’s certainly something we can hold up when we are talking to companies who are looking to bring their workforces here.”
Money expects that Cary’s job market will “skyrocket in the next five years, at a rate of 11.3 percent,” and local officials agree.
“I actually think that’s a conservative rate,” Weinbrecht said. “We have so much in the pipeline. If we can keep the negative stuff away, I think we can do very well.”
Earlier this year, Deutsche Bank said it would freeze plans to create 250 high-paying jobs in Cary, citing House Bill 2.
Robinson said she thinks the controversial law is an “anomaly” in terms of what the state has done to bring new jobs and companies to the area.
“I think by and large, in spite of HB2, the state has been doing excellent work to build the economy to attract companies to come here to make it a hospitable place for companies to do business,” Robinson said.
The town has made significant investments, particularly in revitalizing downtown. Cary spent $6 million to open The Cary theater; $225,000 to renovate the space next door, where Pharmacy Bottle and Beverage opened its craft beer bar and shop; and millions of dollars to update Academy Street and construct the first phase of Downtown Park.
“The downtown is really taking off, and we think, economically, Cary is on the right track,” Mitsch said.
Cary also is undergoing significant growth planning for its next 25 years. This includes the town’s eastern gateway area, home to Cary Towne Center and WakeMed Soccer Park. Wegmans grocery store may also build its first North Carolina location in that part of town.
“(The designation) is obviously a thrill, but it’s also a true testament in a challenging time,” said Keith Bliss, whose Bliss Real Estate Group office is downtown. “What I mean by that is Cary has to stay very, very competitive within the landscape of attracting employers and employment to our area.”
Recognitions like Money magazine’s tend to attract more people to the community, Weinbrecht said, adding that he has met people who moved to Cary solely because the town was listed in a previous Money ranking.
This leads to new residents, increased property values and more developer interest.
“What it does is it further fuels the desire of developers and builders to invest in our area and contribute to the infrastructure that we need for our future residents,” Bliss said.
He said businesses, including national retailers like Publix and Wegmans, also are drawn to Cary for its mix of families, athletes, foodies, beer lovers and more.
“Cary continues to be that perfect demographic storm for businesses and for retail to come to our area,” he said.
Money also praised Cary’s cultural arts festivals and events. The town has expanded its offerings over the years with one of its most recent additions being the Chinese Lantern Festival, which attracted 52,000 people and generated $675,000 in revenue.
Koka Booth Amphitheatre also saw its largest attendance ever this year in terms of national acts, with three shows having sold-out crowds.
“I think the kudos and awards that Cary gets are due in large part to the people that came before us with vision and heart and soul that continue to give Cary its hometown feel,” councilwoman Lori Bush said. “But keeping that spirit alive is our responsibility, and town staff and the citizens are really what makes this an amazing place to live.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608: @KTrogdon
Who is No. 1?
Money magazine has ranked several Triangle towns on their annual “Best Places to Live” list in recent years. The magazine alternates between ranking small towns and big cities.
2016: Raleigh, No. 1 in the Southeast; Cary, No. 37, and best place to live in the state
2015: Apex, No. 1
2014: Cary, No. 19; Chapel Hill, No. 36
2013: Apex, No. 9
2012: Chapel Hill, No. 10; Cary, No. 56
2010: Cary, No. 23; Chapel Hill, No. 40
2008: Cary, No. 16; Chapel Hill, No. 65
2007: Apex, No. 14; Holly Springs, No. 22
2006: Raleigh, No. 4 (big cities); Cary, No. 5
2004: Cary, No. 1
1994: Raleigh, No. 1