Wake County

Rolesville is full of pricey homes. Can it attract stores and restaurants, too?

The median home price in Rolesville is higher than that of Wake County.
The median home price in Rolesville is higher than that of Wake County. ebrown@newsobserver.com

North Carolina’s fastest-growing town wants to reinvent itself as more than a bedroom community, but it isn’t all watercolor mockups and new brunch spots for Rolesville. There are plenty of hurdles.

Rolesville, home to about 7,000 people in northeast Wake County, has bought much of the area along Main Street. Elected leaders hope to eventually see a restaurant and shopping district, but commercial developers seem wary of being the first to gamble on the town.

Mayor Frank Eagles said it would take one initial investor to prove how profitable businesses could be in Rolesville, about 15 miles from downtown Raleigh. Eagles said he is currently courting a businessman who wants to open a combination brewery-distillery-restaurant off of Main Street Park.

“You get somebody like that who’s going to be an anchor, and you work out a little incentive package for them,” Eagles said. “They’ll be what makes everything else expand.”

Rolesville’s population has ballooned from 1,000 residents at the turn of the century, driven by an influx of people who crave the comforts of suburban life but want proximity to job centers like Raleigh and Research Triangle Park.

But if Rolesville’s childhood was a boom of single-family homes and quiet cul-de-sacs, the town now finds itself in the awkward and gangly teenage years. It’s struggling to fill out after a major growth spurt.

Unlike some towns, including nearby Wake Forest, Rolesville doesn’t have the bones of a historic downtown to spruce up. “Old Rolesville,” the original intersection from the days of a one-horse town, now features a discount furniture store and an insurance agency.

The main drag has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pair of strip malls on either side of Main Street. Town hall and the police station are in the plazas, along with a dance studio and other small businesses. There’s a Food Lion grocery store, where shoppers smile at strangers.

An ambitious development plan envisions a bustling downtown area with shopping, dining and living components near Main Street Park, a lush green space with playgrounds and a mile of forested walking trails.

But Rolesville’s biggest draw is also its Achilles’ heel. The town is selling the American dream, and that doesn’t come cheap.

The median home price in Rolesville is $347,000, higher than the Wake County median of $300,000, according to realtor.com. A shortage of affordable housing makes it hard to recruit teachers for schools in town, Eagles said, and it would it be tough for retail and restaurant workers to live there.

“We’re adding a lot more roofs, but what we’re short on is affordable housing,” he said.

As Rolesville continues to expand, “the greatest challenge coming forth is the change we’ll have to make to our overall services and capacities,” said Town Manager Danny Johnson.

New water and sewer lines will be a particularly tough hurdle. More than half the town’s land is in the Little River Watershed, which feeds into the drinking water supply for most of Wake County.

In 2001, long before anyone could have anticipated Rolesville’s tremendous growth, the town struck a utility merger deal with Raleigh. Its terms prevent Rolesville from running water and sewer lines north of Young street, which makes that land nearly impossible to develop on a commercial scale.

As part of sweeping investments in its drinking water, Raleigh has proposed another more stringent level of protection for the Little River watershed. “It’s the most restrictive development classification you can have,” Johnson said. “You can only develop 12 percent of the site.”

For now, Rolesville continues to focus on what it already has on Main Street. Food Lion, a strip-mall landmark that has served Rolesville for decades, had a grand reopening in early February.

Firehouse Foods, a new restaurant that is the brainchild of Rolesville firefighter Lee Price, has found a faithful following in police officers and town hall employees – partly because it’s all in the same strip mall.