When Leopoldo Brandt and his wife Nelly Aguilera started searching for a home in Wake County a little more than three years ago, they had three priorities on their list.
Brandt had just landed a job with HCL America Inc. in Cary, so one of their priorities was to live close to work. Being from Venezeula and having traveled a lot, the two also wanted to live near an airport in case family wanted to fly in.
And No. 1 on their list was to make sure their children went to a top notch public school in the county.
Aguilera said the family found that in a home on the Cary-Morrisville border in the Preston subdivision.
“When you have kids, if you’re thinking about going to public schools, that should be your priority, because going to the best schools in the area will open a lot doors (for your kids),” Aguilera said. Her children attend Green Hope High School in Cary.
While the southern and western parts of the county – Cary, Apex, Holly Springs, Fuquay-Varina and Morrisville – has seen single-family housing boom in recent years, Garner has struggled.
77 new residential permits were pulled in Garner from June 2014-May 2015. That is less than the number of permits pulled in Fuquay-Varina in May 2015 alone.
In May, Garner ranked among the bottom of all the municipalities in Wake County, in residential building permits pulled.
Garner had only seven permits pulled.
Only Angier had a lower number than Garner’s. The numbers were much the same from the past year. From June 2014 to May 2015, again only Angier had a lower number of residential building permits pulled.
The reason for that could be a number of things, including land prices and location, said Suzanne Harris, vice president of governmental affairs for Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County.
And where people desire to live has a direct correlation to where builders will build a subdivision.
The white elephant in the room is the test scores in (Garner) schools. If there is the perception out there, then people are going to make decisions based on that.”
Suzanne Harris, VP of governmental affairs for Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County.
But she thinks one of the biggest hindrances to Garner’s potential housing boom, is the negative perception Garner’s schools have.
“The white elephant in the room is the test scores in (Garner) schools,” Harris said. “If there is the perception out there, then people are going to make decisions based on that.”
When Aguilera was searching for a school for her child, she searched Great Schools website and saw that Green Hope High School had a rating of 9 out of 10. The 34 user submitted reviews of the school were mostly positive from parents.
Green Hope ranks No. 338 in Newsweek’s top 500 high schools in America in 2015.
Garner Magnet High School’s rating on greatschools.org was a 5 out of 10, which is considered an average score. The 21 reviews were mixed.
Shaking the perception
Drew Cook, said he had to battle the perception that Garner wasn’t a good school for many years, while he was principal there. Cook left in July 2014 after 17 years at the school and five as principal.
“As a principal at Garner, when somebody would ask me, where did I work and I would say Garner High School with a big smile on my face, it was 50-50 sometimes in the reaction I might get,” Cook said at a recent chamber of commerce event. “But the perception about our schools is not always a reality.”
Cook said in order to get rid of that perception, results all across the board must be improved. He said the school district must continue to identify the struggling students and provide them with the resources to make them successful.
“I have talked to many Realtors and many business people that reminded me as a principal in Garner, more times than not, that the name of the town is on the front of that school,” he said, “and like it or not economic development in this community is directly tied to that school and any school in our district.”
According to state test results, Garner schools on average have lower passing rates than schools in the rest of the Wake County Public School System. Most schools in Garner also have a higher percentage of students receiving subsidized lunches than the rest of the district.
For instance, only 45 percent of East Garner Middle School passed exams in the 2013-14 school year. New results for the 2014-15 school year will be released Sept. 2.
Council members differ on their opinions about why Garner has struggled attracting new home construction.
Council member Gra Singleton said Garner struggles because of its older housing stock. He said the homes in Garner tend to be cheaper than in areas like Apex, Cary, Holly Springs or Wake Forest, therefore the town does not attract more affluent home buyers.
But they all agree that Garner’s test scores haven’t helped the perception some have on the school.
“They may think erroneously, if the test scores are bad, then my child won’t perform well there,” council member Buck Kennedy said. “No, it’s up to the child and those parents in helping that child succeed in school.”
Although, the town cannot legally spend money on schools outright, Kennedy said, it can use the public forums at meetings and other events to let people know the school’s success stories.
Like many municipalities in the county, Garner is considered a “bedroom community.” The residents live in the town but work elsewhere.
Asa Fleming, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Advantage, said not only are schools a priority for most people he sells homes to, but accessibility is also important.
“Garner is struggling with (Interstate) 540,” Fleming said. “The southern tip of the county, people working at (RTP) are looking at it as a drive. And the traffic down there is atrocious.”
N.C. DOT is trying to figure out which route the highway will follow as it prepares to build the final leg of I-540, which includes the path past Garner.
Tim Minton, director of governmental affairs for the N.C. Home Builders Association, said the same. He said the uncertainty of where the final connector will go is giving some potential home buyers and developers pause.
When 540 opened up to Apex, you saw a surge. I could see the same for Garner.”
Tim Minton, director of governmental affairs for N.C. Home Builders Association.
Some of the proposed routes include one that goes through the heart of Garner and one that goes just south of Garner.
“When you have that uncertainty, if you’re a land owner or if you’re a perspective buyer, that is going to be a factor when looking for a home,” Minton said.
But both Fleming and Minton say once the 540-route opens, it will help Garner.
“When 540 opened up to Apex, you saw a surge,” Minton said. “I could see the same for Garner. The ability to get from one place to the next and where the jobs are, is one of the major factors in determining where people want to live.”
“People are only willing to drive so far to get to work,” he said in reference to those working in RTP.
Minton said as the western part of the county runs out of land, prices will go up, and land buyers will look for land in places like Garner to build.
Middle of everything
For Brandt and Aguilera, their home in Preston was perfect for them. On a Monday after work, they looked outside the window and pointed to the green golf course and woods.
“That was one thing I wanted,” Brandt said.
Brandt said he and Aguilera visited Garner during their initial search for a home. Brandt’s best friend lives in Garner. But when they looked three years ago, they said there weren’t enough amenities in the town. It also would have been a longer distance to get to work.
Brandt’s job is a 10-mile drive to Cary. And Aguilera, a former writer in her native Venezuela, expects to be offered a job in the area.
“Everything is about 20 minutes away,” Aguilera said, noting Durham and places in Raleigh. “It’s like we’re in the middle of everything.”
“We liked Garner,” Brandt added. “But we like Cary better.”
Residential permits pulled in May 2015 (Wake County)
Holly Springs: 74