An explosion devastated Garner a decade ago. Now Amazon is coming, and so are new families.

Assembly lines rolled along as usual that day, cutting and packaging Slim Jims that would be shipped to grocery stores and gas stations around the world.

But things went terribly wrong at the ConAgra manufacturing plant in Garner the morning of June 9, 2009. An explosion sparked by natural gas rocked the sprawling facility, sending workers rushing toward the exits and toppling part of the building onto cars parked outside.

Four people died and dozens more were injured, some with severe burns.

The blast seemed to further unite this small, blue-collar Wake County town, where meat snacks were produced off Jones Sausage Road for four decades and neighbors gathered for high school football games on Friday nights.

Local restaurants provided meals for hundreds of ConAgra workers affected by the explosion, and community members visited injured workers in the hospital.

“It pretty much defined Garner, I think,” said longtime Mayor Ronnie Williams. “It brought out the best in people.”

In the 10 years since the blast, Garner has done a lot of growing up. That was especially apparent last summer, when Amazon announced its plans to build a distribution center at the former ConAgra site. The facility, which is expected to employ 1,500 people, is set to open this fall.

But even before Amazon, Garner saw change.

Cabela’s, the popular outdoor recreation store, opened in 2015 in the White Oak shopping center, prompting more restaurants and stores to open near Interstate 40 and U.S. 70.

Garner High School, long known for its outdated buildings where air conditioners failed and water leaked through roofs, underwent a major renovation. A second high school — South Garner — opened to new students last fall to help relieve overcrowding.

The squat and dark town hall was replaced by a two-story brick building with big windows. A long-hoped-for recreation center is set to open soon downtown.

And who can forget Scotty McCreery, Garner’s favorite son? McCreery was still in high school when he won “American Idol” in 2011, bringing national attention to the town and his beloved Trojan baseball team.

But perhaps most telling is that new families, finally, are moving here.

More affordable homes

Garner and other eastern Wake towns have not seen the explosive growth over the years that has come to Cary and the rest of the western side of the county. But Garner grew 6 percent last year and now has a population of about 30,500. It was the 13th fastest-growing town in North Carolina in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As home prices in the Triangle have soared, more buyers have looked to towns like Garner for more affordable options, said Stacey Anfindsen, a real estate market analyst for Triangle Multiple Listing Service.

The average closing price of homes in Wake County over the past year was about $354,000, Anfindsen said. That compares to $260,000 in Garner.

Garner over the past decade 2009Most recent
Population25,29930,502 (2018)
Median income$66,856 (in 2017 dollars, adjusted for inflation) $60,697 (2017)
Median home value$151,237$158,009 (2018)
No. of families6,7147,277 (2017)

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau and Wake County Revenue Department

Josh and Tabitha Cooke, both 30, said they moved to a new subdivision in Garner after a year of searching for a Wake County home they could afford.

“Everything else was kind of junky,” Josh Cooke said of other homes in their price range.

The couple has two young children, and they like that their neighbors also have kids. Their commutes are about 15 minutes — she attends Campbell Law School in downtown Raleigh, and he works as a physical therapist in Raleigh’s Cameron Village.

“There’s character here, but then you’re so close to downtown,” Tabitha Cooke said.

Kyle Hodges, 23, moved to Garner last August and works at Full Bloom Coffee Roasters on Main Street. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Hodges said this is the first time he’s lived in a small town.

Hodges said he likes to go to restaurants in downtown Raleigh, but he also enjoys the down-home southern cooking at Angie’s Restaurant and Toot-N-Tell in Garner.

“Once you find the hidden gems of the area, it can really be a nice place to live,” Hodges said of the town.

At Toot-N-Tell, just down the road from Full Bloom, 83-year-old customer Betty Heath said she didn’t realize Garner “could get this big.”

But Heath, who has spent most of her life in Garner, said progress was inevitable.

“I’ve always liked the people and the smallness of the town,” Heath said. “I don’t like a big town. I don’t like the activity.”

Amazon on the way

Garner has clearly come a long way, but there are still obstacles to overcome.

Schools in eastern Wake have historically lagged behind other Wake County schools when it comes to test scores. In Garner, five of the town’s 11 schools failed to meet academic growth standards during the 2017-18 school year.

When ConAgra left Garner two years after the explosion, the city lost a company that had once employed 900 people and brought in $50 million of tax revenue.

ConAgra gave the fire-scarred site off I-40 to the town, and Garner leaders wanted to recruit bio-pharmaceutical companies to the property. They figured high-paying jobs would lure developers to build more-expensive homes.

But biotech didn’t bite. The economy was still recovering from the recession, and the site had some environmental issues, said Joe Stallings, Garner’s economic development director.

“When Amazon came along,” he said, “it actually checked a lot of boxes.”

Some welcome news came last fall, when Amazon said it was raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour. That means most of the new jobs in Garner will pay more than $30,000 a year.

And while some town leaders might not have envisioned a distribution company at the site, Stallings said Amazon will create more jobs and tax revenue than ConAgra did.

Since Amazon announced its plans, the town has heard from other interested developers and businesses — “everything from manufacturing to more distribution,” Stallings said.

The N.C. Department of Transportation wants to extend the Triangle Expressway through Garner and eastern Wake, which would inevitably bring more growth as commuters would have an easier route to Research Triangle Park.

And Raleigh has plans to spruce up South Saunders Street, which connects the city’s downtown to Garner.

What does it all mean? Probably more jobs, officials say, and more young families like the Cookes.

Tabitha Cooke said she and her husband realized Garner was the right place for them. That small-town feel might not last forever, though.

“I think other people are starting to figure it out,” she said.

Staff writer David Raynor contributed to this report.