If the landscape around this town looks different than it did when 2015 was about to begin, well, there’s a reason.
Wendell began its entry into the technology age in 2015, residential construction made a comeback led by the biggest real estate project in the town’s history and lots of faces changed in the seats of power.
Here’s a look, more or less in chronological order, of some of the most important headlines involving Wendell over the past 12 months.
In March, East Wake’s small school experiment officially ended as the Wake County Board of Education agreed to reunite the four schools and reassign all four principals at the head of those schools.
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School board officials were concerned about a number of issues within the small school project including worries that test scores were lower than they would have been if the school had remained as a single institution.
Later that month, Stacy Alston, a school administrator in Guilford County, took the position as principal of the reunified East Wake High School. He spent much of the spring planning the reorganization and when school opened in the fall, he told teachers, the new East Wake High School remained a work in progress, promising to bring order to the campus and insisting that teachers would support new rules and procedures designed to keep the focus on teaching.
In July, the town of Wendell started accessing public WiFi signals for the first time. After months of research, cost-measuring and engineering, the town installed equipment around downtown that allows people to access public WiFi on their cellular telephones, avoiding the use of costly data and improving user’s signals in a part of town that had historically poor cellular service.
The equipment installed by the town is somewhat mobile, allowing town officials to move the equipment in the event there are large events at other venues in town, such as Wendell Park. Town staff continued to monitor the reception of the new WiFi system throughout 2015, tweaking positions of some of the transmitters and improving the reception for users.
One of the most anticipated moments in years came in April, when Newland Communities held an open house to mark the unofficial beginning of the Wendell Falls development. At the time, some of the 4,000-home development’s public amenities, such as the swimming pool and the Grounds Cafe were opened and a handful of model homes were opened to visitors. Following the celebratory event, construction kicked in in earnest, with builders constructing dozens of new homes and the neighborhood’s first residents moving into their homes.
Build out for the project is expected to take 12 to 15 years, but for some, opening in 2015 wiped away one of the worst memories of the 2008 recession, when the bank called in the note on the project and foreclosed on the original developers just as they were about to begin building new homes.
In late August, residents watched a verbal spat erupt between the town’s mayor and the leaders of the Wendell Chamber of Commerce, when Mayor Tim Hinnant questioned the chamber’s spending practices. Hinnant was angered that the chamber had used money from a tip jar at the Harvest Festival to help pay for a celebratory dinner for Harvest Festival volunteers after the event. He also questioned the chamber’s management of funds from the Wendell Farmer’s Market, which originally began as a chamber function and was later spun off into its own entity.
Chamber officials denied any wrongdoing and said the mayor’s concerns were not at the core of their decision to stop sponsoring the town’s Christmas celebration.
In October, Wake County opened one of its newest open space projects, with a ribbon cutting at Robertson Millpond. The historic wetland area will largely be left undisturbed and residents will be able to put small boats in the water and see some rare fauna, including bald cypress. The open space project is one of three major passive recreation areas Wake County is working to develop in eastern Wake County as it continues to buy land in large chunks to preserve open space as development continues to overtake much of the rest of the county.
While one historic site was opening, another was announcing its closing. The Knuckley family, third-generation owners of Kannon’s Department Store announced it would move it’s Women’s Department to Raleigh, joining the Men’s clothing operation, which moved to Cameron Village a few years ago.
The move ends a near-100 year run. Family members say the decision was a difficult one, but their hopes to see the business persist for future generations of the family required the move to an area with greater foot traffic.
Not long after the Kannon’s announcement, voters issued some changes of their own, electing commissioner Ginna Gray to the mayor’s post to succeed the departing Hinnant, who chose not to run for re-election. Gray won handily over fellow commissioner James Parham and became just the second woman in Wendell’s history to serve as mayor. While Gray is not a new face to Wendell politics, voters chose a pair of newcomers to fill seats on the town board, electing Ben Carroll and David Myrick to seats on the board.
The pair wasted no time adding a third new face to the town board, appointing Jason Joyner, who, like Myrick had never actually voted in a Wendell municipal election to the open seat vacated by Gray when she became Mayor. Gray, broke a tie among the four sitting board members to seat Joyner over outgoing commissioner Sam Laughery, whose name had also been placed into nomination. The moves leave the town with just two commissioners with legislative experience. Those two, John Boyette and Jon Lutz, are halfway through their first four-year term in office.
Among the new board’s first actions was to approve a communication plan to let residents know about an effort by the town to develop a new transportation plan for the town. The new board was asked to settle the issue because the town’s first attempt to adopt the plan failed when residents complained en masse at a Sept. hearing that they disliked the plan first created by town staff. Many of those who complained about the plan, told town leaders that they had not been aware the town was even working on the project.
Perhaps the best news the town recieved in 2015 came on Halloween, when town officials learned they had been awarded a state grant for $250,000 to make improvements at Wendell Park. Many of those projects are expected to be completed in 2016.