The lack of a downtown has troubled Morrisville leaders for years, and the current Town Council has taken significant steps toward developing an area near Town Hall that could become a central gathering spot.
Last month, the town voted to spend $36,000 hiring the Development Finance Initiative (DFI), a group within the UNC School of Government, to consult on the project and find private investors.
That signaled a departure from previous plans to create a purely public space, with a park, library and other government-funded amenities but without residential or commercial space.
“We need to move forward on this,” Mayor Pro Tem Liz Johnson said before she motioned to hire DFI and move forward with a plan aimed at bringing in more private development.
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“I think it’s something that, for better or worse, what we’ve been trying hasn’t been very successful,” council member Kris Gardner said.
The council had several heated public debates last year, the culmination of a plan 10 years in the making. The town ultimately settled on using about 10 acres it already owns between Town Hall Drive and Church Street, just south of Jeremiah Street.
The decision was controversial, dividing the town council until the very end.
Residents, however, haven’t indicated much interest in the project. Few have attended public meetings to voice opinions about it.
Mayor Mark Stohlman said he thinks public interest will increase once plans start forming. Wake County could build a library on the site, for example, and Morrisville is considering moving its town aquatics and fitness center there as well.
The Western Wake Farmers Market and Morrisville Community Garden also plan to move to the town center site, although not for another several years.
“Once we start putting things on the map, people will get more interested,” Stohlman said.
A recent survey of Morrisville residents showed that the project isn’t a high priority. Residents were asked a series of questions about topics such as the downtown efforts; roads and transportation; public safety; and parks and recreation.
Survey respondents were evenly split on whether a downtown is important. When asked to choose one or more issues the town should prioritize in the short term, only 11 percent chose downtown.
“I was kind of disheartened to see that, honestly,” Gardner said at the meeting when the survey was announced. “I wish the numbers were a little different.”
Roads were the overwhelming priority, receiving more than twice as many votes as the next highest priority, parks and recreation.
“Obviously transportation is the number one thing,” Stohlman said in a recent interview. “We have to balance that with also trying to build this legacy kind of project.”
Town Manager Martha Paige recently presented an update of several plans for the project. She said the town will have months, or even years, to continue refining the plans.
“It’s not a short and quick timeline,” Paige said.
Michael Lemanski, director of the Development Finance Initiative, said it will probably take 12 to 18 months to find a private partner. If more than one investor shows interest, he said, the process could take longer as bidding gets under way.
Although the town center site has previously been criticized for its low traffic counts and questionable marketability, Lemanski said he has no doubt it will attract interest.
That’s because Morrisville as a whole is an “enviable market” with high income and lots of families, Lemanski said.
“We’re confident that once we take it through this process, the private development is going to be there,” he said.
Stohlman said one of his biggest concerns is figuring out whether the town can use a public-private partnership to rebuild the Morrisville Aquatics and Fitness Center in the town center as a prime attraction on the site.
Rebuilding will cost $16 million or more, but the town has less than a third of that set aside for such a project.
Lemanski said he isn’t sure yet whether partnership opportunities exist for the aquatics center, but added that Morrisville is onto something with the concept of putting it in the downtown center.
“Many communities spend public dollars to form an anchor tenant and attract future private dollars through things that form around the anchor,” he said.
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran