Town leaders say a three-day retreat to Charlotte offered them a chance to consider new strategies for governing infill and building infrastructure in a more timely manner.
The town reports spending $14,320 for 29 officials – six council members and 23 staff members – to ride an Amtrak train to Charlotte on Jan. 29 to stay two nights at the Omni hotel. The group returned to Cary by train late on Jan. 31.
“Charlotte’s vision for their future, and the scale of many of their projects is not what we likely will see in Cary, but how they are accomplishing their vision is important because of their successes,” Ben Shivar, Cary’s town manager, wrote in an email about traveling to the state’s most populous city.
Town officials have been holding out-of-town retreats for years. They say leaving Cary allows them to focus on long-term issues facing the town and to glean planning ideas from other municipalities.
Last year, Cary spent $12,044 for the same number of officials to stay two nights in Winston-Salem. There, they took tours of the city, re-prioritized their economic development strategies and tweaked their stated goals for planning the community.
This year, the council spent the majority of its trip touring Charlotte. The council talked about specific town issues, such as capital projects and the budget, during a four-hour mini-retreat in October at WakeMed Soccer Park.
In Charlotte, Cary leaders said they were interested to hear from city officials and local business leaders on their redevelopment projects. The group took a bus tour of downtown and visited The Metropolitan, a redevelopment mixed-use project, the afternoon they arrived.
“There’s always something you can learn from someone else, if you’re willing to listen,” Councilwoman Lori Bush said. “And that’s what we were doing. We were listening and asking questions.”
Council members learned that redevelopment projects turn out best when developers and city planners communicate well with each other and share the same vision, Councilman Jack Smith said.
Town leaders likely will take that lesson into consideration as more infill requests come up, particularly in downtown Cary, he said. The town is currently reviewing its building standards for commercial and multi-family developments, but Cary leaders haven’t decided whether to allow greater flexibility in building materials.
Smith said it was good to hear from developers – not just town planners – during a tour of Charlotte’s South End district on Jan. 30.
“No matter what you try to do in design standards and zoning, you really have to grow partnerships with the development community,” Smith said.
Infrastructure also was on the minds of Cary council members because of the lack of schools and major roads through western Cary. As part of the retreat, Charlotte leaders explained a tax system they use to expedite the construction of roads and greenways.
Following the retreat, councilwoman Jennifer Robinson described the system as one where developers build the needed infrastructure, and the city reimburses the developer over several years by using property taxes generated from associated development projects.
“That way, citizens don’t have to front money,” Robinson said. “It’s a different way to engage the private sector and ... build the infrastructure that we want developments to have and get it in a timely manner.”
Overall, the trip “was a sobering realization of how little land we have left for development and how it needs to be developed carefully,” she added. “That’s something I really want us to acknowledge to a greater extent as we go toward development proposals.”