Eastern Wake News

Wendell wants to bridge divide

Commissioners hope more attractions and businesses in downtown, like the annual Harvest Festival, will draw Wendell Falls residents closer to the town's existing business centers.
Commissioners hope more attractions and businesses in downtown, like the annual Harvest Festival, will draw Wendell Falls residents closer to the town's existing business centers. newsobserver.com

Wendell commissioners aired their concerns last Saturday about Wendell Falls, a 4,000-home mixed-use community development project that was recently restarted and could more than double the town’s population.

At their annual retreat, commissioners began discussing the socioeconomic divide that they are worried will come between Wendell Falls and the current downtown area once the planned community is built.

“We want (Wendell Falls residents) to feel connected to the town,” commissioner Ginna Gray said.

Wendell Falls, with more than 100 acres of retail space, is closer to Knightdale than it is to Wendell’s downtown area, prompting the board to question which town will really benefit from the project.

Commissioners have concerns that both factors would mean future Falls residents would stay within the high-end community or head to Knightdale, which already has a large retail hub at Midway Plantation, anchored by stores such as Target, Best Buy and Kohl’s.

Wendell, however, has been working to revitalize its downtown district to make sure residents want to come into townto spend money.

Mayor Pro Tempore James Parham said it would be hard to lure Falls residents back to Wendell if they become used to shopping in Knightdale.

“Old habits die hard,” Parham said.

Town Manager Teresa Piner said Falls residents will still increase Wendell’s population and its property-tax base regardless of where Wendell Falls residents they want to spend recreational money.

“The revenue and taxes are in Wendell,” she said. “It will only improve our downtown.”

In 2008, the town looked for an economic boost from Wendell Falls, Wachovia Bank (now Wells Fargo) foreclosed on the property. The lenders put the project on hold until a new development company asked to pick up where Mercury Development, the original developers, left off.

At that time, Piner was the town’s planning director and helped plan the first Wendell Falls effort.

According to Piner, there are efforts to connect Wendell Falls and downtown Wendell as much as possible, hence the use of the town’s name for the development and uniform landscaping in the three miles between downtown and the new neighborhood.

Avoiding “ the wrong side of the tracks”

Current commissioners however, weren’t just concerned with the location of Wendell Falls, which will feature higher-end homes and a 7,000-square-foot clubhouse. Some said they were worried the new community may create two distinct areas: a ‘rich’ Wendell with high-end housing and high-income residents and a lower-income, older Wendell situated near downtown.

According to Mayor Tim Hinnant, the low-end homes in Wendell Falls will cost roughtly what high-end homes sell for in downtown Wendell, according to proposals.

Data from the U.S. Census shows that the median price of a home in Wendell is $132,600. Between 2008-2012, there were less than 200 housing units worth $200,000 and $499,000 in the town, the proposed price range for Wendell Falls’ homes.

Newland Communities, the development company handling Wendell Falls, has not formally announced any price ranges but the company has been using many of the development’s original plans, with homes from $240,000 to $1 million.

“The demographics are going to be so split, people are going to leave (downtown) if it’s perceived to be worse,” Hinnant said.

“You don’t want to feel like you’re in competition with a neighborhood coming to your community.”

But that feeling of competition is the reason commissioner Sam Laughery said the board needed to focus efforts on revitalizing downtown with new business and events for residents.

He suggested more Parks and Recreation activities, but the Board reserved specifics for later meetings.

Hinnant cautioned commissioners about another obstacle for the small town: They need to be realistic about what can be done with the town’s small budget.

“Wendell Falls can put all their money toward amenities,” Hinnant said of the privately funded venture. “We’re not going to be able to keep up with them.” He encouraged commissioners to think about ways to create public-private partnerships for the town.

Commissioners like Gray seemed to favor the idea of increasing Parks and Rec events and services throughout the town to keep residents around downtown Wendell.

“I don’t want (that) side of Wendell to turn into the wrong side of the tracks,” she said.