Economic experts and local business bigwigs shared a mutual prognosis for the town when they assembled at East Wake Academy to talk all things economics on Thursday.
Simply put, several said, Zebulon is primed for more growth – and perhaps sooner than some may think. Supporting that belief, N.C. State University economics professor Dr. Mike Walden told the crowd of nearly 100 at East Wake Academy that the Triangle is expected to double in population by 2050.
“What that means, specifically for Zebulon, is that normally growth moves the population base outward,” Walden said. “So I would expect over the next several decades to see more growth coming to the outer fringes of Wake County.
“We’re blocked in the north due to Falls Lake, and, of course, already we’ve seen growth out to the west. So I think a prime area for growth and development is going to be here, in the east.”
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Walden also made a prediction, but no promises, that Zebulon could soon benefit from people, namely millennials, who are repelled by the high costs associated with living in the inner-city.
“What it will take, of course, will be the kinds of businesses and amenities ... as well as residential development that will attract millennials,” Walden said.
The economist was one of about a dozen speakers at the Zebulon Chamber of Commerce’s first edition of the Zebulon Next Economic Growth Conference.
The event offered an economic outlook from the state level down, also featuring Jim Simpson with N.C. Chamber of Commerce, Harry Swendsen with the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina and Adrienne Cole with Wake County Economic Development. But all of the speakers found time to comment on the opportunities Zebulon has on its doorstep.
“You’re growing like crazy,” Cole said, referring to Zebulon. “(Eleven and a half) percent population growth since 2010 and 2.03 percent anticipated (growth) per year through 2021. You’ve got great infrastructure around you, and you’re planning for the future in an amazing way.”
Tax base diversity
In a Q&A session near the end of the breakfast event, Denise Nowell, the executive director of the Zebulon Chamber, asked the guest speakers what other towns have done to grow that Zebulon could put into place.
Cole’s response was that Zebulon is well off for having a strong commercial base, but also for thinking about protecting the residential side and leveraging what resources it has to achieve its growth goals.
Residential growth, Town Manager Joe Moore said, is critical for the town where the industrial and commercial component makes up 70-75 percent of the total property tax base.
“One of the downsides of having the super majority of your tax base in commercial or industrial properties is commercial and industrial properties follow that business cycle,” Moore said. “As a town manager, that’s problematic to providing services like police and fire if you’re getting funding base upon the business cycle. “We have got to diversify our tax base.”
Moore gave examples of ways the town is working to encourage that happening. Among those were a new sewer line on the east side of town; developer agreements for greenways; facade grants and the streetscape match program the town is implementing; and forming a Unified Development Ordinance to steer different types of growth to the appropriate points in town.
The sewer line, he said, going in on the east side of town, will open up the ability to develop at least 4,000 single-family homes.
“That’s about 10,000 people, minimum,” Moore said. “That’s more than double the size of Zebulon – that’s another Zebulon.”
Getting the growth to town
Moore said things have changed since a decade ago, when he lived in the western part of the county.
He recalled a pre-Knightdale bypass version of eastern Wake County.
“We came out to a couple Mudcats games – I love baseball – but by the time I had finished getting through Knightdale and all the stop-and-go traffic, I was done,” Moore said. “Now, I’ve been (in Zebulon) little over a year, and my perspectives could not have been more wrong.”
TME Investments President and founder Mark Andrews said that outdated distance perception is something Zebulon must continue to work to dispel.
He said he had to show brokers how much quicker the commute now is from Raleigh to Zebulon to build interest for the recent commercial space he helped develop in the rebranded Triangle East Business Park.
“From (Six Forks Road) to here, 20-25 minutes at the most, right?” Andrews asked the crowd. “They (the brokers) were surprised. The perception is not yet there that Zebulon is close. Anything we can do as a community to get people to understand how close we are and embrace those brokers – they’re running around with tenants all day long, right now, that they won’t bring out, so I’m trying to do my part to convince them to come to town.”
Plans began in 2013 for the speculative commercial space along Zebulon’s Industrial Drive. Within six months of having it built, Andrews said, it was 100 percent leased.
Having available inventory in place was another of Andrews’ driving points. He said GTI Spindle, the first tenant of the multi-unit space, could have chosen any other Triangle community.
“But they chose Zebulon, because they had a new building that was ready for them to customize the way they wanted it,” Andrews said.