Growth potential means navigating growing pains

08/19/2014 4:25 PM

08/19/2014 4:27 PM

In his remarks at the Garner Chamber of Commerce’s Connect conference, mayor Ronnie Williams invoked 1987, the year Garner High won the football state title. He said the town would remember 2014 in a similar vein, and he wasn’t referring to the highly-regarded 2014 Trojan football team.

“Great things are going to happen this year,” Williams said.

The 2014 Connect conference at the Grand Marquee Ballroom fixated on both Wake County’s and Garner’s growth, and drilled down into the causes and effects of various elements of that growth as well as the challenges it has created.

Speakers included current and former county managers, business recruitment experts, school board members, town leaders and the developer driving Garner’s massive commercial development at White Oak. Updates on Garner bond projects, recruitment to the former ConAgra site, White Oak development and the school bond looked back at what’s been going on in recent months. But much of the words directed at about 200 attendees looked forward.

While talk does not guarantee concrete results, concrete has been poured at White Oak and has at least effectively been bought to pour in downtown Garner, at a new police station, and on a new South Garner High School. While dramatic future growth remains hypothetical, the area’s trajectory suggests it may be inevitable.

Wake certainties: death, taxes and growth

Richard Stevens, Wake County manager for two decades starting in 1980 and a former state Senator, spoke of a meeting early in his tenure during which he was presented with big growth projections.

“We left the room saying, ‘No way, we can’t grow 50 percent in 20 years,’” Stevens said. “Do you know what the growth was in 2000 (from 1980)? It was 100 percent growth.”

He added: “It was great to see it. Growth is still the challenge in Wake County today.”

Since 2000, the population of the county has continued to rise from 628,000, and will crack 1 million this month. Garner has grown nearly as rapidly (from 19,000 to about 26,000), and, given its proximity to Raleigh and vast space in which to grow, town leaders expect even bigger changes down the pike.

“Garner’s uniqueness is its location. You’re close to downtown (Raleigh) but still have the feel of a small town. That’s a strength I think,” Stevens said.

Stevens attributed even faster development of towns like Cary, Holly Springs and Apex to their proximity to Research Triangle Park. But Cary and Morrisville have less room to grow, 540’s southern branch will provide a second link to RTP and a potential rail line could add a whole new dynamic. The developments at White Oak, Stevens said, will be huge, and a sign of things to come.

“You’ve got the infrastructure (in Garner),” Stevens said referring to road projects and potential for commuter rail.

Jim Hartmann, who has been county manager for four months, called commuter rail and other aspects of transit improvements “a matter of time.” Despite the just-passed state law that effectively prevents Wake County from a transit tax referendum before 2016, he said the county will continue with its aggressive schedule to study and plan transit expansion.

“We just need to be in a position where we have a good plan and a good vision for the future and a great understanding of how much things cost, so when the opportunity comes about we can go after it,” Hartman said.

A growing Core Development

Aside from announcing the new Carolina Ale House, Richard Barta said his development company Core Properties is currently engaged in seven active lease negotiations with retailers and restaurants as he fills out the northeast quadrant of the U.S. 70 and White Oak/Jones Sausage intersection.

“I know everyone wants to hear more names,” Barta said. “We want to be careful not to make announcements until we are at the finish line.”

He said there are also negotiations for some properties on the northwest quadrant. He showed images showing overhead views of the two quadrants, which have been cleared of trees. Foundations for North Carolina’s first Cabela’s sporting goods store have begun to be laid on property that will also host a seven-story Drury Inn.

The Cabela’s, he noted, will take a shopping center with a trade area of about 400,000 to one of 3.6 million, largely because of the distances people drive to get to the chain’s mega-stores.

Education’s role

As commercial and residential growth feed into each other, educational resources become strained along with transit. The issue becomes doubly important when the quality of those schools factor into individuals and businesses locating to the Triangle.

School board chairwoman Christine Kushner noted that at one point she had been told that Rex Hospital was delivering a kindergarten class every day. She also noted that the county mostly stopped building schools during the recession.

According to Wake County school board projections, there will need to be 40 new schools built by 2020. A recent bond measure funds 16 of them, including a high school and an elementary school in Garner. The $810 million bond will also fund renovations at Garner Magnet High School and Vandora Springs Elementary, among other schools in the county.

Kushner also said there is no timetable on either Drew Cook’s movement from Garner Magnet High School principal to his new job with the district’s central office nor the naming of his replacement.

“If I could clone Drew Cook I would do that for you,” Kushner told the crowd.

Garner has agitated for a middle school rather than an elementary school. Kushner noted plans for a middle school and the fact that the county could only fund about half the schools it needed. A middle school costs about twice as much as an elementary school.

Kushner and fellow school board member Bill Fletcher spoke about student assignment, citing stability, proximity, student achievement and operational efficiency as primary concerns.

Former school board member and Garner resident Amy White noted the importance of high-performing schools in attracting commercial development and offered the board members a plea.

“Please be cognizant about student assignment when building those schools,” White said. “Please don’t overwhelm those schools with students that bring academic challenges into the school base.”

Fletcher said the goal is to have a competitive school in every neighborhood.

“We’re not there, but that’s our goal. Your comment is on target. The target’s on my back, but your comment is on target,” he said.

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