Ralph Ashworth is one of the few who can name the occupants of Academy Street, past and present.
Ashworth, who moved to Cary in 1957 and owns Ashworth Drugs, remembers the doctor who used to live and work out of the white house at the corner of Academy and East Park Street. He knew the folks who used to live in the purple house that’s now a bridal shop.
Ashworth knows nearly every business owner in downtown Cary. The area has a rich history and some good things to offer, he said, but he’s looking forward to an even brighter future.
That’s why Ashworth and his wife, Daphne, were some of the dozens of people who walked down Cary’s most iconic thoroughfare Thursday as part of a town event that aimed to celebrate its past and future.
The town launched a $6 million project to transform Academy Street with a two-hour groundbreaking “Celebrate the Street” event that featured live music, food trucks, ping pong tables and street art. Construction is expected to start Monday, June 1.
Over the next year, construction crews will widen the sidewalks and install new benches, trees and public art on South Academy – all as part of the town’s ongoing effort to bring new life and development to downtown Cary.
“Once we get the ball rolling, I think it’s gonna roll,” Ralph Ashworth said after taking a photo in the middle of the street with his wife. “I’m hoping it will encourage a developer to come and create some density downtown.”
As part of the event, a large empty frame stood in the middle of the historic avenue with “Downtown Cary 2015” on it. Residents could take their photo with the tree-lined street and the iconic Cary Arts Center behind it.
A marching band led town officials and a large crowd of residents down Academy toward Dry Avenue, where a large jackhammer awaited.
“We’re going to have a beautiful streetscape that you can all be proud of,” Councilman Jack Smith said before taking the jackhammer controls and digging up some pavement.
The street has long been home to Ashworth Drugs, the Cary Arts Center, a library, two churches and the post office. But the town has invested hundreds of thousands on Academy Street – with The Mayton Inn and the Belle restaurant – as well as Chatham Street to bring more folks downtown.
The Academy Street project is funded from a bond sale that voters approved in 2012.
In front of the Cary Library, people could sign a poster with their names and memories of Cary. Many who did added the year they moved to Cary or a comment about their love for the town. Some of the dates go back to the ’50s with one woman saying she had lived here since 1936. “Cary the place to be – home!” she wrote.
Carl Griffith, who moved to Cary in 1984, said he has visited and enjoyed nearly every one of the ventures the town has invested in.
“The council’s doing a fine job of spending our tax dollars,” Griffith said, signing the commemorative banner. “The memories are starting now.”
Keith Bliss, a local real estate broker and community activist, thinks the streetscape will act as an economic catalyst.
“It’s absolutely amazing that we’re finally kicking this off,” Bliss said, standing outside the Parlez-Vous Crepe food truck. “It’s like getting a new artery for your heart.”
The town is renovating South Academy Street from Chatham Street in the north to the intersection of Walnut Street and Kildaire Farm Road just south of Academy.
The two-lane road will be reduced to one lane for most of the year-long construction period. The town plans to shut down the northbound lane for the first few months before opening it and closing the southbound lane for the last few months of construction.
The town has suggested detours around Academy on its website. East of Academy, the town is encouraging commuters to travel between Chatham and Kildaire Farm Road using Byrum and Walker streets. To the west of Academy, the town wants commuters to use Harrison Avenue.
The westbound lane on Dry Avenue and the intersection of Kildaire Farm Road and Walnut Street also will be closed.
Go to www.townofcary.org and search “Academy Street Improvements” for a detour map and to keep up with construction.