As part of Imagine Cary, town sifts through reams of comments

akenney@newsobserver.comJuly 12, 2013 

— Imagine Cary has inspired plenty of big talk about the town’s future, and more than a few ideological debates. Now the town will begin to narrow its sweeping planning process, extracting specific ideas and goals from reams of public comment.

That process began Thursday as Cary’s elected officials and town staff reviewed the responses gathered at a huge kick-off summit and five smaller “area conversations.”

While that first stage of Imagine Cary has drawn massive interest and some criticism, this next step may be more important: It’s the first of several steps in translating broad community sentiments into specific choices about the future of Cary.

“There’s a lot to digest,” said Leigh Anne King, a consultant with a firm hired by the town. “And we’re not just going to be digesting it and coming up with values and visions. We’re going to be testing it with the community: Did we get it right?”

To begin, town staff and consultants will create a database of the written and conversational comments recorded at the public discussion events. The town collected 3,386 comments from 322 attendees of recent events.

Topics of discussion

Residents were asked what they liked about Cary, what they disliked and what they would change. Land use, infrastructure and transportation systems were the most popular topic, cumulatively drawing 43 percent of all “inputs.”

In a sample projected by town staff, attendees complimented the town’s website, its elected officials, its access to transportation and universities, its suburban nature, its variety of activities and its cleanliness, among other topics.

The downside included several complaints about poor “walkability,” a lack of low-income housing and transportation, a proliferation of cul-de-sacs and the separation of the town by land use and demographics. Someone also pointed out that the town felt “contrived” and “not Bohemian enough.”

To fix the town’s problems, sample comments suggested changes to the planning process, increased or decreased focus on downtown and easier access to town information, among other suggestions.

The challenge now is to synthesize a “community vision,” or a distillation of the ideas received at the community events, and at smaller meetings such as a roundtable for business CEOs and online surveys.

Bias correction

At Thursday’s meeting, council members debated how the town would incorporate all the voices while eliminating potential biases.

While the town has tried to attract attention through word of mouth, online campaigns and printed materials, participants ultimately have selected themselves, and thus might not be a true statistical representation of Cary.

“Any time you do these events, it’s really a challenge that you’re getting the representative sample,” said Councilman Jack Smith.

Jamie Greene, the town’s lead consultant, has acknowledged that the data gathered in these early conversations can’t be seen as a scientific survey.

“We wanted to make sure that getting involved was a choice. You can’t make people come to these meetings,” he said.

The town has, however, reached out to demographics that have been underrepresented in early conversations, including Cary’s Asian population. Scientific surveys will have a place later in the process too.

The town also will have many fact checkers as it works through the next stages. As summer ends, Cary will ask residents to proofread the broad “themes” and “community vision” it has extracted from the thousands of comments so far, opening up its draft.

Once those broad ideas are settled, the town will move on to the hard stuff: choices.

Kenney: 919-460-2608 ; Twitter: @KenneyOnCary

Cary News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service