On the subject of growth, Four Oaks Mayor Linwood Parker once observed, “Any mayor who says he doesn’t want his town to grow isn’t telling the truth.”
But that doesn’t mean growth is easy to attract or to pay for once it arrives.
Consider the towns of Benson and Clayton.
Though nestled in the crossroads of interstates 95 and 40, Benson remains a small town; it has about 3,500 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Clayton, meanwhile, is Johnston County’s largest and fastest-growing town. In 1990, Clayton had 4,740 residents. By 2013, according to the Census Bureau, the town’s population had ballooned to 17,694, an increase of 273 percent in 23 years.
Benson leaders are very much interested in attracting the growth that Clayton is enjoying. The topic was on the agenda when the Benson Board of Commissioners held a retreat this past week.
In a way, growth was also on the agenda when Clayton leaders held a retreat late last month. But Clayton leaders were less concerned about attracting growth than trying to discern what services the town’s newcomers want and, after that, how to pay for those services.
We’re not sure which town we envy less.
No town can snap its fingers and have growth materialize. In that sense, Benson has a harder row to hoe than Clayton. Clayton began growing when Interstate 40 made it easier for people to work in Raleigh and Research Triangle Park and live in lower-cost Johnston County. While Benson is at the junction of two interstates, it’s not close to a growing city like Raleigh, though we suspect the Raleigh growth spiral reshaping Clayton, Cleveland and McGee’s Crossroads will one day reach Benson. In the meantime, Benson can prepare for growth, making sure it has adequate water and sewer capacity, for example, while laying out the welcome mat. (By the way, the welcome mat sometimes works; Benson made it known that it wanted a hotel to attract interstate travelers, and one came calling.)
But paying for growth is only marginally easier than attracting it. Sure, a town can set its property-tax rate and many fees at whatever levels it chooses. But higher fees and taxes have practical and political consequences. Clayton, for example, wants children and adults to avail themselves of the town’s many parks and recreation services. But the more something costs, the less people use it, so Clayton has to be careful not to price itself out of the parks and recreation market. On property taxes, meanwhile, Clayton leaders have to be careful not to price themselves out of office.
Growing towns also face competing demands for what can be scare resources. Clayton, for example, might want to build more parks for its newcomers, but it might also need to fix potholes for the newcomers’ cars. The choice is to set priorities for services or raise taxes to grant every service wish. Again, those decisions have practical and political consequences.
The good news is that Benson is talking about attracting growth and Clayton is talking about how to pay for it. Those are always conversations worth having, even if the work proves hard.