Should Cary call itself a city or a town? Does it even matter?

Cary is a town by name, but with more than 162,000 people, it looks a lot like a city.
Cary is a town by name, but with more than 162,000 people, it looks a lot like a city. N&O file photo

It was largely an academic exercise but on a topic that can prompt animated debate in this town of 162,025 people.

Or is that city of 162,025 people?

Cary is searching for a branding firm, and as part of that search, it asked the two finalists to research this hypothesis: Being known as a "town" negatively impacts achieving the goals of the Imagine Cary Community Plan. "City" offers advantages over "town" when it comes to realizing the Imagine Cary Community Plan.

It's an interesting hypothesis but not one Cary is in a hurry to test, said town spokeswoman Susan Moran.

"In the years I've worked here, it has come up from time to time but usually because people don't understand how it works in N.C.," she said in an email Monday.

In North Carolina, a municipality's name is whatever it has registered with the state, and population has nothing to do with it. With its 162,000 people, Cary is a town. The smaller municipalities of Asheville and Wilmington are cities.

"Given that background, Town Manager Sean Stegall thought it might be an interesting concept to have the finalists explore," Moran said. "Coming to Cary less than two years ago from the Chicagoland area, Sean's found this to be a fascinating discussion.

"And so our interest was as much about seeing how the two firms would approach a research topic and results reporting."

Still, research by the branding firms, Bigfish of Scottsdale, Ariz., and North Star of Nashville, Tenn., gives fuel to the debate about whether Cary should market itself as a city or town.

North Star's study of the Phoenix area — the city and its many suburbs — found that people viewed towns as more affordable than cities, cleaner, more charming, safer and better to retire to. Cities won out when it came to health care services, educational resources, shopping, dining, transportation services, employment opportunities, housing options, public services, and ethnic and racial diversity.

More broadly, people in the greater Phoenix area found it more preferable to live in a town but to do business in a city.

Video: Ted Boyd, Downtown Development Manager for the Town of Cary, talks about the changes to the core of downtown. From wider sidewalks and more dining options to new vertical development and how those changes will affect redevelopment throughou

Both North Star and Bigfish looked specifically at Gilbert, Ariz., a "town" with some 237,000 people. Bigfish looked also at Chandler, Ariz., a "city" with about 247,000 people.

Patrick Banger is the town manager in Gilbert. He told Bigfish: "When the town attends trade shows and meets with out-of-state corporations, town officials will often leave out the word 'town' and just say 'Gilbert,' so they don't confuse interested business prospects. When I saw 'city manager of Chandler' and 'town manager of Gilbert,' it left me with two separate impressions in regards to the community. It (town) certainly conjured up images of a smaller community, a smaller organization, a smaller challenge."

But Banger might read more into "town" and "city" than average folks do.

North Star asked this question: Would learning that Gilbert is a “town” rather than a “city” cause you to think about it more positively, more negatively, or have no impact at all?

Many of the responses were positive:

"I like the idea that Gilbert retains the idea of a town but has more amenities of a city," one respondent said.

"Makes it sound not as crazy busy and more for families," said another.

Some were negative:

"I like the feel of a city," one respondent said.

"Makes it appear small," said another.

Chandler, on the other hand, is a populous city that doesn't much act like one.

Kim Moyers is that city's downtown redevelopment manager. "Today, growth has not cost the community its charm, and you won't see a chain store in sight," Moyers said. "We like it this way."

Ultimately, what Cary chooses to call itself is irrelevant, Bigfish said. "The question isn’t town vs. city," the firm said. "It’s how to ensure Cary residents are on board with Cary’s plans for the future."

"It is possible," the firm added, "to brand Cary as the perfect combination of town and city, which in many respects represents facts on the ground: Cary wants to preserve its small-town history and strengthen its suburban character while developing its nascent urban character. "

Scott Bolejack: 919-829-4629, @ScottBolejack