It’s 1 p.m. on a Thursday in downtown Apex, and a sunny 68 degrees.
People sit outside for lunch while others window shop, jog, push strollers and meander from store to store.
As the town is slated to welcome thousands of new homes on the outskirts of town in the next decade, some wonder how downtown may be affected when dozens of new restaurants, shops and offices settle in. Apex enjoys its small-town charm, but will big development and booming population growth change its character?
“Things are going to change,” said Tedi Newman, who owns Peak City Therapy, a counseling practice downtown. “You just have to figure out how to adapt and improve.”
Part of the change is large mixed-use developments on the horizon. The aim of mixed-use developments is to create a place where people can live, work, shop, go to a park, go out to eat or get drinks with friends without ever needing a car.
In Apex, a 165-acre mixed-use development called Sweetwater was approved last month for N.C. 64 next to the Abbington neighborhood. Directly across the highway, a 100-acre mixed-use development known as Westford has been in the works since 2013.
Costco is set to be built on N.C. 64 east of Laura Duncan Road, and between Costco and the existing car dealerships, a different developer wants to building a new shopping center on at least 38 acres, with room to expand.
And then there’s Veridea, which at about 1,000 acres, would be the biggest mixed-use development between Southpoint and North Hills if completed.
It would bring in 4,000 homes and millions of square feet of retail and office space, with a goal of becoming both a shopping destination and an extension of the Research Triangle Park, according to its website.
In many North Carolina towns the recession, or growth in the suburbs or highway bypasses, have led to boarded up downtowns. Apex could soon finish building its bypass, the Apex Peakway.
Yet the recession never hit this area as hard as it did in more rural areas. Downtown Apex has so far survived competition from new shopping centers in Cary and Holly Springs, as well as locally from Beaver Creek.
Shannon Flaherty, executive director of the Apex Chamber of Commerce, said people like that downtown has a quaint atmosphere but still offers plenty of options.
“People can come and have dinner and then go shop, and there’s places you can just go sit and meet a friend,” he said.
Public, private efforts
Several downtown business owners said while they’re aware of the growth – the town is on track to double in size to 90,000 residents by 2045 – they think Apex is unique enough to survive where others have not.
Kate Macdonell, a recent transplant to Apex with her husband and young children, said while growth is good, the town should protect the downtown area as much as possible.
“It’s not only part of the charm of Apex, but really the central charm of Apex,” she said.
And the town has taken some steps toward strengthening downtown. A $700,000 skate park will open near town hall this summer, in hopes of keeping teens from skating and rollerblading on the streets and sidewalks downtown.
The town council also voted to take control of Salem Street from the N.C. Department of Transportation. Apex will now have to pay for any road work on it, but business owners and festival organizers will have less red tape to cut through on parking, events, outside seating and other issues.
Others said downtown doesn’t need any help, since it already has built up a strong reputation.
Newman, the therapist, credited the Apex Downtown Business Association for putting on street fairs, festivals, charity walks and other events that bring large crowds to Salem Street and introduce new people to the area.
She said specialty shops such as All Booked Up, the downtown used-book store where she helps out, benefit from big community events.
“They bring the businesses to the people,” she said.
Downtown as a destination
Tina Yuhl, who owns Buttercream’s Bake Shop, said downtown seems to draw people from all over.
“The more people that come to Apex, the better, in my opinion,” Yuhle said. “Not a day goes by that we don’t have someone in here saying they’re looking in the area, and asking about neighborhoods and schools. Sometimes I feel more like an information center than a bakery.”
Like Yuhl, Flaherty said she fields daily visitors at the chamber’s downtown office who are thinking of moving to the area.
“It’s almost like a destination, and I feel like a lot of towns don’t have that vibrant downtown,” she said. “And we do.”
The pubs and restaurants are often crowded at night, with live music and flowing drinks. But during the day it’s catered more to families, or people looking for art classes or interior decorating.
Michelle Thomas, who lives in Cary near Apex, takes advantage of it all. She works from home and comes downtown for lunch, socializing and family bonding.
She often drives her 14-year-old son downtown on weekends to eat outside, chat and relax. But she also enjoys the night life.
“You think of Apex and Cary having a lot of retirees,” Thomas said. “But on the weekends and nights it gets so crowded.”
Flaherty said that’s what makes her think downtown’s in good shape, despite all the growth that is to come.
“There’s something for everybody,” she said. “I think that really helps.”
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran
Want to investigate Apex development further? The town maintains an interactive map of every property and development proposal online at http://arcg.is/1yKmB2C.