Cary leaders push for downtown growth

aspecht@newsobserver.comJanuary 19, 2014 

Ruben Gonzales, a business administrator for Winston-Salem, points out some of the city’s public-private partnerships to Cary leaders during a tour of the city on Friday. Cary is focusing on its own downtown to boost economic development.

PAUL A. SPECHT — aspecht@newsobserver.com

— Cary leaders say they want to cultivate small businesses and develop a downtown business park to generate economic development.

The Town Council discussed ideas at a planning retreat in Winston-Salem on Friday.

Town leaders tackle big-picture issues at their annual retreat, and economic development was front and center this year.

Discussions about how to bring more businesses to town also led to talks about walkable communities, a popular topic in the Imagine Cary planning initiative that could shape how the town grows for decades.

Cary lacks a thriving downtown, which is a problem because businesses want to move to areas where their employees can get out and walk, said Sandy Jordan, vice president of economic development for the Cary Chamber of Commerce.

“They want their people to be able to walk out and go to 50 restaurants at lunch … or they desire public transportation,” Jordan said. “We are hearing a great deal about it.”

Young home buyers also want to live in an area where they can walk or easily take public transportation to work, restaurants and entertainment venues, said Ted Abernathy, director of the Southern Growth Policies Board, a nonpartisan public policy think tank based in Research Triangle Park.

That generation, known as millennials, can’t be ignored because it makes up a third of the national workforce, he said.

“If the only thing you’re offering is a great place to raise kids …that marketplace is narrowing,” Abernathy told Cary leaders.

It’s unclear how an emphasis on small businesses and building a downtown office park would shape the town’s budget or policies.

Cary has no plans to stop nurturing a quiet, rural environment, said town spokeswoman Susan Moran. But town leaders acknowledged that Cary should rearrange its seven

economic development strategies:

• Supporting existing business and industry

• Recruiting businesses

• Encouraging small business development

• Developing downtown

• Developing sports attractions

• Developing travel and tourism

• Developing business parks.

Cary’s top priority has been supporting existing business. But Jordan said existing businesses don’t need or want as much help as the chamber expected.

“If they don’t have a problem, they’d just as soon you leave them alone,” he said.

When it comes to travel and tourism, Jordan said, Cary won big: A Bass Pro Shops store will open next month in Harrison Square Shopping Center.

Jordan said the store is “the No. 1 destination stop in North Carolina.”

Mayor Harold Weinbrecht said building business parks should be top priority, although he said the town shouldn’t take resources away from one economic-development strategy in order to emphasize another.

Councilman Jack Smith agreed.

“We do well with hitting home runs, with the MetLifes of the world,” Smith said, referring to the insurance giant’s announcement last year that it will move more than 1,000 jobs to Cary.

‘Something we should rally around’

Downtown, Cary is already investing millions in public-private partnerships such as The Cary theater and the Jones House cafe, which are set to open this year.

“We’ve been talking about using part of downtown as a business park,” Councilwoman Jennifer Robinson said. “I think that’s something we should rally around.”

Abernathy said if the town decides to focus on walkability, the shift likely won’t come without tension.

“Everything’s gotta be closer,” he said. “But the people you currently have don’t want things to be closer.”

He encouraged a push for walkable communities this way: “You’re riding the raft down the river. You can’t pretend it doesn’t have a current.”

Specht: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @AndySpecht

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