White Oak a sign of Garner catching up

08/26/2014 4:01 PM

08/26/2014 4:11 PM

On Google Maps, the land north of U.S. 70 near Jones Sausage Road appears to be covered in trees.

Google Maps is wrong.

After about 15 years of waiting patiently, the developer of White Oak Crossing has made its second major move near the confluence of U.S. 70 and I-40. The shopping center expansion – and in particular the retail giant that the developer landed to anchor it – could spur a transformation in a town playing economic catchup to other rapidly-growing Raleigh suburbs.

Experts in the region have taken note of a coordinated effort by the town to capitalize on its assets and participate in the region’s economic growth more than ever before after delays brought about by recession and regional competition.

“Garner is on the map now in a way that it has not been in the past,” said Wake County Economic Development executive director Adrienne Cole. “Garner will certainly benefit from the growth of Wake County as a whole, but they’re also positioning themselves to capture some of that growth.”

The first Cabela’s in the state, for example, represents more than just catch-up. Richard Barta, owner of Core Properties, which is developing the site, said White Oak currently draws from an area of about 400,000 people. The main draws – Best Buy, Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods and other retail and restaurant outlets – generally can be found throughout the Triangle.

But the outdoors mega-store at White Oak – expected to open in April – puts 3.6 million people in White Oak’s potential market, given the lengths people will drive to the chain. Cole cited similar numbers, and Garner economic development director Tony Beasley said the retail coup exceeded the town’s expectations and has intensified the interest of other businesses looking at White Oak.

A Drury Inn Hotel and a Carolina Ale House have been announced and seven ongoing lease negotiations would fill the northeast quadrant of the U.S. 70 and Jones Sausage Road intersection. Core Properties is also negotiating on some northwest quadrant properites. Planned investment in the two tracts is estimated at $80 million, expanding Garner’s tax base and drawing retail and restaurant jobs.

Core Properties also intends to eventually develop an even larger tract of land, about 300 acres, across White Oak Road from the current shopping center south of U.S. 70.

The investment reflects existing residential growth and heralds more to come for a town situated closer to downtown Raleigh than much of north Raleigh.

Town leaders have worked to market that proximity, major thoroughfares and abundant competitively-priced land, along with all of the education, workforce, technology and climate assets of the Triangle as a whole. And investors are looking at a town working to shake its reputation as a bland, working-class bedroom community with limited amenities.

Retail and residential additions are cropping up on the southern side of White Oak too. Staples is newly opened and Burlington will come shortly.

Play nice, better toys

At Garner Chamber of Commerce’s Connect conference, Research Triangle Regional Partnership executive vice president Lee Anne Nance commented on relationships in Wake County.

“We have built communities that play well together,” Nance said. “People who play well together get better toys.”

Barta spoke later in the conference and riffed off that line.

“Garner’s going to get better toys,” Barta said.

The town has made other moves to set itself up. A $5 million road project linking White Oak Crossing to I-40 and widening U.S. 70 was viewed as crucial to facilitate the development. The Timber Drive extension from N.C. 50 to White Oak Road – finished in 2011 – completed sorely-needed connectivity in the southern part of town.

A $35.7 million bond, passed in 2013, will build a new police station, town hall, and multi-gym recreation center along with other infrastructure improvements. Garner is also marketing the 100-acre former ConAgra site as a campus for high tech industry, with sights on tens of millions in investment and hundreds of high paying jobs. Bill Bullock, who heads industrial recruiting for the N.C. Biotechnology Center, calls success in those efforts “a matter of time.”

Aside from getting town-spearheaded investments through, Garner’s leaders have generated a reputation of being agile and easy to work with. Cole said the town has worked hard building relationships with various regional organizations and credited leaders like Beasley and town manager Hardin Watkins as well as the town council. Developers have called Garner’s leaders responsive and town planners accessible and straightforward.

Those more interested in residential growth also have read the tea leaves in Garner. Wake County has funding to build a new high school and elementary school in south Garner, and eventually plans to add a middle school. A 336-unit apartment complex is under construction across the street from the Target at White Oak Crossing, and another 236 unit complex has been approved less than a mile east on U.S. 70 from White Oak. Sutton Springs homes have resumed construction in southeast Garner. Others could follow.

Eventually, there’s an upper limit to growth both locally and regionally. But as far as Garner goes, most involved seem to believe the area is growing in such a way that everyone can benefit, and that this current burst is as much about meeting existing market needs as projecting for future growth.

“It’s not eating a pie, the pie is going to grow,” Barta said of competition with other retail centers. “Unless people stop moving here, then we’ll have to reassess. But with the vital signs of Raleigh, we’re really confident that this will complement those other areas.”

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