With the election cycle over and the apocalypse either assured or averted, depending on one’s view, people are thinking about the future. The Clayton Town Council spent two days late last month peering into its own crystal ball, trying to imagine what the town could be two or three decades from now.
Much of governing is mundane, crafting policies and budgets that shape and fund town services, ideally without meddling too much in people’s lives. But here and there comes a seminal moment in a town’s history, one where decisions made in the short term reverberate down the line, where generations to come can look back and point to a year or a time that shaped the present. Clayton looks to be in one of those times now, with existing and expected growth likely to transform the town into possibly the next significant Raleigh suburb, but one grappling to retain its small-town culture.
Millennials in mind
Etched in stone somewhere is the Latin for “Millennials shall inherit the earth.” Clayton is banking on young families staking their claim in the town, but the council is still unsure of how to cater to the 20-somethings of the Triangle.
“They’re different, that’s all I’m saying, they’re different,” Councilman Butch Lawter said.
A Clayton with millennials in mind means more apartments and more downtown and recreation options, the council said. Mayor Jody McLeod called the demographic the largest percentage of the town’s future market.
“In marketing to them and offering customer service to them, providing goods and services to them, we don’t necessarily know what ranks the highest with them, or how you totally and completely engage with them,” McLeod said. “Because they are such a huge part of our future market, we need to have a greater understanding of them.”
The Clayton of the future will be both younger and older, Town Manager Adam Lindsay said, citing population projections, and will be much more diverse. He said Asians are currently one of the fastest-growing population groups in town. Where everyone is coming from is less of a mystery: Wake County.
“Yes, we’re getting some people from up north and other parts of the state, but Wake County folks are relocating to Clayton more than any other group,” Lindsay said. “As we define ourselves and think about what we want to be, we need to honor that we don’t necessarily want to be a Raleigh; we can’t be. We’re providing an access to Raleigh for people, but they’re escaping from Raleigh here. So we need to think about that in terms of our identity and what we’re trying to create.”
A fault line is developing along Clayton’s eastern border, and more and more, the town seems to break away from Johnston County. The council and town manager plan to develop better relationships with the Wake County towns to the west, especially Garner.
“Clayton, geographically, we certainly are in Johnston County,” Lindsay said. “But in some aspects, our local economy and our way of life is sometimes more closely in line with Garner and Wake County.”
Defining Clayton’s eastern and western borders seems to be a priority for the council. On the east side of town, Clayton has had something of a turf war with Wilson’s Mills over sizable residential developments, but the council plans to meet with the town at some point in the near future and hammer out an agreement.
“As we’ve grown, particularly towards Wilson’s Mills, we’ve had some issues there,” Lawter said. “We’ll get that solved so we don’t have this come up every time there’s something out that way. ... In the long term, it goes back to, as (Councilman Art Holder) said, as we grow, we don’t leave doughnut holes.”
But the council made no secret about looking west, possibly extending planning control all the way to the Wake County line. When completed, Raleigh’s outer beltline, Interstate 540, will buzz by Clayton, making the town more accessible to Research Triangle Park, Cary, Holly Springs and Apex. While still at least a decade away, in I-540, the town expects even more residential and commercial projects taking root in Clayton.
“I think we need to look to going farther west in anticipation of where 540 will come out,” Councilman Michael Grannis said.
When one election cycle ends, the next one begins, and for Clayton, that means three town council seats up for grabs next year.
While some voters might see new directions and fresh ideas as a good thing, those on the council now, often voting with staggering consensus, hope to stick together. One thing is for sure, barring a citizen-demanded ballot item, town voting districts aren’t on the table. All Clayton council seats are at-large, always have been, and the last referendum on voting districts nearly a decade ago saw residents supporting town-wide representatives. Still, districts are on the minds of the councilmen, with each endorsing the status quo for years to come.
“I truly do not believe in districts in a small town,” Councilman Bob Satterfield said. “When you start getting districts, you’re thinking, ‘I’m going to fight for ever damn penny I can get.’ ”
Council members said voting districts make councils contentious: Instead of making one pie together, each councilman would be fighting for a larger slice of the pie.
“I can easily see someone in Riverwood saying, ‘Well, you have three council members living within a block of each other, you’re not representing Riverwood,’ ” Councilman Lawter said. “But when you go to districts, you go to, ‘This is my district; I’m fighting for my district,’ and the dynamic of the whole council (ends).”
The council blasted the General Assembly for perceived hardships leveled on local governments. Council members listed unfunded mandates and state interference in local policy as troubling, but they expressed little hope for change.
“At the state level, and I hate to say this because I voted most of them in, but those current folks have not helped out local government in pretty much anything they’ve done,” Lawter said. “If that continues, our financial situation may change, and we may need to increase taxes and fees.”
Most of Johnston County, including Clayton, will send new representatives to Raleigh next session, as two house members retire and a senator seeks higher office. Grannis suggested Clayton’s influence in Raleigh could drop dramatically, regardless of who wins the election.
“The representation we have now, with the exception of the state senator, we’ve always had their ear,” Grannis said. “It doesn’t mean they’ve been able to produce a lot of results for us, but they had stature in the legislature, and we’re going to go back to freshman legislators, as well as a freshman senator. I don’t think that’s going to bode very well for us, because whatever leverage may have been there, isn’t going to be there. Or at least I don’t think it will be.”
Clayton already has two major pharmaceutical operations in Novo Nordisk and Grifols, each in the midst of expansions projected to sustain the town’s growth into the next decade. The council figures small-town Clayton has already built a city-sized footprint in the industry, so what’s stopping it from taking it further?
“I want Clayton to be home to the largest pharmaceutical complex in the world,” Councilman Holder said.
The town is actually making progress toward such an ambitious goal with construction of a wastewater-pretreatment plant that will serve the pharma campuses on U.S. 70 Business. Building a pretreatment plant played an important role in landing the $1.8 billion Novo expansion, because without it, the byproducts from manufacturing couldn’t be adequately diluted and treated before going into the Neuse River.
Once the pretreatment plant is in place, the town hopes to be able to attract even more industry.
“We need to seriously look at pretreatment at a regional level of some sort,” Grannis said. “That’s being prompted by the pharmaceuticals and other potential industries. We are looking at that now, but we need that on the radar screen.”
Clayton is already considering a third fire station and will commission a facility-needs study to help determine where a new firehouse should go. Councilman Jason Thompson said growth could force the fire and police departments to each double in the next 10 years.
“Right now we don’t have a fire station on the west side,” Thompson said. “Five to 10 years ago, you could drive from one side of Clayton to the other quickly and didn’t have traffic issues. Now, think how long it would take to drive from (downtown) to the hospital.”
The town is also expecting to set more money aside for roads projects. Historically, the state or the developer builds the roads and either maintains them or hands them over to the town. With transportation budgets everywhere competitive down to the last nickel, Clayton thinks it will need to spend its own money to move projects forward.
“I don’t think there’s a reasonable expectation that DOT is going to solve our problems with roads,” Thompson said of the N.C. Department of Transportation.