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Cary chose smart growth and
culture over sprawl and still
doubled its population every
decade since 1960
By Allan Maurer
Fireworks explode over the
Koka Booth Amphitheater in Regency Park.
Becoming a major force
in amateur sports
in downtown Cary for a freshly-squeezed orangeade and a chicken salad
sandwich at the Ashworth Drug Store’s soda fountain, and you’ll feel
transported to another time. Outside, 300-year-old trees line the streets,
a variety of traditional and abstract public art beckons the eye, and
homes and businesses remain on a charmingly human scale with nary a
highrise to be seen. You might never guess that Cary is North Carolina’s
seventh largest city with 107,000 residents and 6,000 businesses.
When Cary won Money
Magazine’s 2004 designation as the “best place to live on the East Coast,”
the chamber asked Ellen McGrit, the author of the piece, how it happened.
“I wish I could take credit for discovering Cary,” she told them, “But it
was the numbers and demographic gods who decided to point their fingers at
Cary’s demographics are indeed impressive. Money Magazine sought towns
with above average home prices and residents with above average income and
education. It certainly found them in Cary: a whopping 67 percent of
Cary’s adult residents earned college degrees and 23 percent have graduate
degrees. Its population is among the most technologically connected in the
nation, with 90 percent having Internet access at home or work, twice the
The median household income in 2003 topped $75,000 (highest in Wake
County) and more than 70 percent of its households earn above $50,000 a
year. The median price of homes is $200,000, with 36,800 units located
within Cary’s 48 square miles.
But what distinguishes Cary most as a place is that it merges the
pleasures of small town life with the amenities of a city. Despite a
swelling population that doubled every decade since the 1960s, Cary
regularly makes a list of the top ten safest places to live in America and
is deemed safest in the Southeast. It’s located just off busy I-40, yet
has been named the “bike friendliest community” in the Triangle. Pollstar
magazine recently listed the 7,000-seat, $12.5 million Koka Booth outdoor
amphitheatre located among 20 acres on Symphony Lake as among the nation’s
best. Yet the town remains justly proud of the award-winning hometown Cary
High School band.
Adjacent to Research Triangle Park on its northwest border and Raleigh to
the east, Cary is only minutes from Raleigh Durham International Airport
and three world-class research universities. Its ideal location helped
attract major industries from SAS to John Deere, Cotton Inc, MCI, and
Oxford University publishing, with new companies moving in regularly. R.H.
Donnelley, one of the largest publishers of Yellow Pages directories,
moved its headquarters from Kansas to Cary in December. Qualcomm also
opened a Cary office late in 2004 to design chips for its mobile phones.
Aqua America recently announced it would open a call center in Cary, and
startup Opticality, which makes 3D display screens that don’t require
special glasses, said it would move its headquarters from New York here.
While, as Mayor Ernie McAlister notes, “the economic development efforts
that have gone into bringing jobs into Cary are legendary,” the town pays
equal attention to protecting its quality of life. It boasts 20
first-class parks, numerous greenways, and large sports facilities for
tennis, baseball, and soccer. It so tree friendly that it recently won its
20th Tree City award. Cary has such a variety of public art that McAlister
says “I don’t have any trouble standing in front of a different art work
every time I do a TV interview.”
for Quality Growth
Below: The SAS atrium on its 200-acre
is the largest in North Carolina
Cary did not have to win all those awards for its leaders and residents to
know it’s a great place to live, work and raise a family. They planned it
that way. Jeff Ulma, Cary director of planning, says the process of
looking ahead to ensure quality development in Cary “is ingrained in our
culture. The community is really involved. Expectations were established
years ago when we said we wanted to be different, to be concerned about
aesthetics and ensuring a high quality of life. We’re building on the
foresight of town leaders when Cary was small.” Howard Johnson, president
of the Cary Chamber agrees. “We’re reaping the benefits of infrastructure
and planning going back to the 1960s,” he says.
Cary’s growth really gained momentum when RTP evolved in the 1950s,
attracting IBM and other industries. “RTP is the goose that laid the
golden egg,” says Johnson. The Cary Chamber, which shut down during the
Great Depression, reformed in 1962, making Jordan Hall, Cary’s first
community center, it’s initial project. It promoted Cary with the slogan,
“Where better living begins,” which remains apt today. In 1977, the town
launched its balanced growth strategy.
Cary rolled out an industrial red carpet in the 1980s, altering its zoning
regulations to give developers flexibility in choosing sites for new
businesses and industries. It created industrial performance districts,
now called planned unit developments or PUDs, to manage growth. They made
more land available to industry but imposed strict rules on generous
setbacks and buffers. The PUDs require mixed use development that includes
residential, commercial, shopping and community projects.
That led to the development of wooded, spacious office, residential and
industrial parks. MacGregor was the first of many developments constructed
during the following decades, followed by Kildaire Farms, Weston, Preston,
Regency, Lochmere, and Crossroads. The now mostly-full 400-acre office and
industrial MacGregor Park includes the MacGregor Village Shopping Center
and industries such as Merisel, Borg Warner, Lord Corp., and Siemens
The 237,000-square-foot Weston One arrived in 1988 with IBM as an anchor
tenant and a 1,000-acre award-winning park. Now Weston’s more than 100
tenants include five of Wake County’s largest employers. They include MCI
WorldCom, Intel, Hewlett Packard, Cotton Inc., Verizon Wireless, the North
Carolina Bar Association and Keebler. They occupy 3 million-square-feet
and employ 7,000 people. About 141,000 square feet of space is still
available in two existing Weston buildings and three more proposed
buildings would add 284,800 square feet of additional space.
The 700-acre office and residential Regency Park borders Symphony Lake,
Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve and the Koka Booth Amphitheatre.
Preston includes Prestonwood Country Club with its 45-hole championship
golf course, residential neighborhoods, and Preston Corners, a 44-acre
shopping and service center. One local official quips that “It’s our Wall
Street,” because of a confluence of bank branches at the High House Road
and Cary Parkway intersection.
At the Intersection of U.S. 64 and I-440, the 265-acre Crossroads
Corporate Park, which has no residential, is home to a shopping center and
about 25 tenants, including EDS, Piedmont Natural Gas, and the Wake County
School System, which occupies 75,000 square feet. Jimmy Barnes, president
of NAI Carolantic Realty, which manages and leases Crossroads, says the
Park is about 75 percent leased, but has land available for an additional
500,000 square feet of office space, with prices at about $250,000 an
acre. “There’s still quite a bit of office availability in the Cary
market,” Barnes says, “but we’re seeing some absorption and expect that to
continue through 2005. Cary is going to continue its growth pattern
because of its amenities and location.”
“MacGregor Park and Regency Park, and the others are tremendous employment
centers that continue to grow,” says McAlister.
a Village Atmosphere
The Lazy Daze Arts & Crafts Festival
draws hundreds of exhibitors and 60,000 people to downtown Cary the fourth
Saturday in August
Still, as the town’s population ballooned and it grew larger than
Asheville and Wilmington, it held onto its small town feel both downtown
and as a community. It literally plans to keep it that way. “Cary is a
city with a village atmosphere,” says Stephen Zaytoun, 47, president of
Zaytoun & Associates Insurance Agency and treasurer and member of the
NCCBI executive committee and board of directors. “Cary has 100,000
people, but everywhere you go, you see someone you know,” he says.
Railroad ties connect Cary’s future to its past. When the North Carolina
Railroad added a stop at the sleepy rural village in 1854, it transformed
the town’s destiny. Frank Page and his wife Catherine erected a hotel near
the tracks in 1868 and the state legislature incorporated the town in
1871. Page, the town’s first postmaster, mayor, railroad agent, business
developer and employer, was also a fierce foe of alcohol. So he named it
after fellow temperance advocate and former Union general Samuel Fenton
Cary, who had recently lectured in Raleigh. Cary may be the only town in
the Southeast named after a Union Civil War general, according to the
Page-Walker Art and History Center.
A statue of Walter Hines Page, Frank’s son, who distinguished himself as
an author and diplomat, stands outside the center. He served as ambassador
to Great Britain from 1913 to 1918 and is one of only two Americans
honored with a tablet in England’s Westminster Abbey. The Page Walker
Center, located in the original, renovated Page Hotel building,
appropriately connects its displays of Cary history along a railroad track
timeline. Those tracks lead straight to Cary’s future.
Cary expects the coming lightrail station to transform its downtown circa
2008, city leaders say. “We were a railroad town originally,” says
McAlister, “and to complete that loop, to have that vital link to Research
Triangle Park and Raleigh is going to mean a lot to us. Having the station
right in the middle of Cary is going to be huge. It will define the type
of development that occurs downtown because people want to live close to
the station. It will be very good for businesses downtown now and those
coming in the future.”
Among downtown revitalization plans already on the drawing boards: a
multi-story parking deck, and traffic roundabouts. They also include
multi-story housing, mixed-use developments, and an insistence on
retaining a small town feel, even with a city-sized population. “As Cary
grows over the next 20 years, you’ll see it looking a lot like it does
today,” says McAlister. “The pace of growth here takes a backseat to the
quality of growth. Whether you grow quickly or slowly is immaterial if you
know where you’re going. With a good plan in place, you know where you’ll
wind up. It’s clean, it’s green and it’s the way a town ought to grow.”
John Powell, president of Powell Properties Inc. and chairman of the Cary
Chamber, notes that Cary’s downtown “is beautiful and quaint, but it’s not
a large area. In the next five to ten years, it will be totally upgraded.
We’ll have to use land wisely and go vertical with development.” The
downtown plan for the core 1.5 square miles allows buildings of five or
six stories – but no more than that – in the highest density, mixed use
area of 141 acres out of 782. That core area centers on Academy and
Chatham Streets and the new town hall and buildings. “The town is
investing a lot of money ($33.3 million) in its own campus, in new
buildings, council chambers, and a parking deck,” Powell notes. “That
encourages neighboring properties to consider upgrading as well.”
Town Manager William Coleman adds, “The town has put a lot of effort in
developing a new plan for downtown and our vision for its future.”
Ulma says that once the downtown area is fully built-out according to
plans, it will have 2,300 more dwellings, 5,700 additional people, 3
million additional square feet of non-residential development and 8,000
more jobs. It may even end up with its own Town Center Park, but that
project is still being discussed.
Different But Still the Same
Many of Cary’s longtime residents, such as Powell, here since 1967,
remember when its only traffic signal was at the intersection of Chatham
and Academy Streets where Ashworth’s drug store is located. Indicative of
the changes since, Cary now has 120 traffic lights undergoing a $9 million
high tech synchronization that requires 80 miles of fiber optic cable,
making it the most advanced system in the state. Cameras atop 23 tall
poles will monitor key intersections so city engineers can change signals
to improve traffic flow and citizens can tune into traffic images on a
Cary TV channel or web site. The city says the high tech signals will help
save gas and reduce pollution. Red light cameras intended to reduce
accidents are already installed at five intersections and 11 more are
planned. “Traffic is a big issue around here,” notes Coleman.
But not everything has changed. Ashworth’s Drug Store, which Powell cites
as his favorite spot in town for its orangeade, hot dogs, and friendly
atmosphere, still sits on the corner of Chatham and Academy. Daphne
Ashworth says her pharmacist husband Ralph walked into the store one day
in 1957, looking for another drug store he heard was for sale. The owner,
asked if it were for sale, said, “It wasn’t, but it is,” and soon after,
Ashworth’s became an enduring Cary landmark.
Zaytoun, whose family moved to Cary in 1970, recalls, “I worked for Ralph
Ashworth when I was in high school. It was my first job.” But he says
that’s not the only thing that’s remained much the same even after the
town added 90,000 residents in the 1990s alone. “I went to a Cary High
School game the other night and it still had the same flavor and
atmosphere as 30 years ago,” Zaytoun says.
Cary’s schools are part of the Wake County system, which is among the best
in the nation, with 87 percent of its graduates heading on to college.
Founder Frank Page built the Cary Academy, the town’s first school, in
1870 on the current site of Cary Elementary, which later became the
state’s first high school. The town recently purchased the historic
building and may turn it into a community arts center, although
discussions continue on how to best use the site.
Cary also has five private schools. Cary Academy, a college preparatory
school for grades 6-12, sends 100 percent of its graduates onto higher
education. Founded in 1996 with financial support from SAS founders Jim
Goodnight, John Sall and their wives, it sits on 52 acres of land donated
by SAS. The school had 672 students in 2003-2004. It focuses on computer
learning and served as a breeding ground for SASinschool software.
Cary Christian School, which had 503 students last year, up from 190 in
2000, is building a new campus because of its growth.
The Wake Technical Community College Business and Industry Center, housed
in a three-story 16,000-square-foot building just outside Cary Parkway,
serves 1,000 students a week. “Our focus is to help people become more
valuable to themselves, their employers and their community through
education and training,” says Wayne Loots, dean of business and industry
services. The center offers a variety of curriculum, adult and continuing
education programs ranging from BioNet and BioWorks, which train people to
work in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, to courses in how to
start a business and introductions to computers taught in Spanish for the
area’s significant immigrant population.
Zaytoun attributes Cary’s ability to blend urban amenities, and employment
opportunities with that village feel to some enlightened and visionary
leadership. Cary’s proximity to Raleigh, RTP, universities, and the
airport led one writer interviewing then-Mayor Koka Booth in 1994 to
attribute its growth to “location, location, location.” Booth replied,
“What about vision, vision, vision?” Zaytoun quotes Booth on how he feels
Booth, mayor from 1987-1999, said he wanted to have a town where his
children and grandchildren would enjoy living and working. Zaytoun sees
that as a reality in his own experience. He returned to Cary after
graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1980, and now, he says, “My kids are in
college but they’re looking at coming back here.”
Pushing Steadily Westward
Downtown for all its charms is only a small part of Cary’s 48 square
miles. Its plans, like its land, stretch to its northeast corridor where
it meets RTP and to its western edges. The plans include provisions for
retaining open space, for affordable housing, for parks, and for retail
and industrial development. Since 1999, Cary has budgeted nearly $500
million in infrastructure projects, including $159 million for
transportation; $101 million for parks, recreation and cultural resources;
$10.5 million for fire; $87 million for sewer; and $135 million for water.
Yet Coleman notes that that, so far, growth in revenue has paid for
increased service levels. “The way our revenue is structured, there is
almost a one-to-one correlation between revenue growth and population
growth,” Coleman says.
He notes that “Cary has had the same tax rate for the last 14 years of 42
cents per $100 of valuation,” but notes, “the valuations are fairly high.”
Cary’s longterm plan includes provisions to have 20 to 25 percent rental
or single family affordable housing, Coleman says.
Needing to slow the blistering pace of growth without stifling economic
development, Cary chose to manage future growth via infrastructure. It
requires that adequate water, transportation and schools be available
before additional development is permitted as it pushes its border
steadily westward. A second rail station is planned for northwest Cary
near RTP, and Cary expects that to be another core development area. “We
expect to build 10,000 residences there in the next 10 to 15 years,” says
Mayor McAlister, “but it won’t be done haphazardly.”
Retaining open space and wooded areas has long been part of Cary’s plans.
Since 1980, the town has built 10 greenways with names such as Pirate’s
Cove and Symphony Lake Trail, usually along wooded stream floodplains, to
provide open space within walking distance of homes. Zaytoun notes that
“Walking the Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve you feel like you’re in the
wilderness.” Twenty small neighborhood parks and larger metro parks and
community facilities have playgrounds, athletic fields, and open play
areas. Seven staffed facilities provide leisure programs in the arts,
history, nature, recreation and sports.
Each year the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department hosts
more than 50 events, concerts, and festivals. Its catalog of activities
runs to 145 pages. The Lazy Daze street festival, the largest event, draws
60,000 attendees and 600 arts and crafts exhibitors, in a daylong
celebration that includes live bands and contests in August. Its Spring
Daze Arts & Crafts Festival in April also draws hundreds of exhibitors.
Cary Band Day features the largest high school band competition in the
South in November. Cary’s own high school band has won many competitions
and performed at the Rose and Orange bowl games, the Kentucky Derby,
presidential inaugurations and throughout Europe.
Cary hosts tennis, basketball, golf and other amateur sporting events
throughout the year (see sidebar, page 28) that will soon include USA
Baseball’s national team selection trials and training, and the for the
next two years the state amateur games.
The area’s growth is also reflected in the continuing expansion of its
medical facilities. Population growth led the Wake Med Hospital in Cary to
expand from 80 beds when it opened in 1991 to 114 today. It just completed
an $80 million expansion and renovation that tripled the size of the
hospital. Its eight-bed women’s pavilion and birth center expanded to 26
beds and 2,200 babies were born there last year. It operates a 24-hour
emergency department and a busy surgery center, sleep center, and
cardio-pulmonary diagnostics center.
Rex Healthcare’s Cary campus off Cary Parkway and Lake Pine Drive includes
“a multitude of out-patient services,” says David Coulter, vice president
of operations. The Rex complex includes a physicians office building, a
wellness center, and private doctors’ offices running the gamut from
pediatrics to surgical practices. Close to 10,000 patients a year come
through, Coulter says. The latest building went up at the eight-year-old
site 15 months ago and includes four same-day surgery rooms. It recently
added a CT scanner and will add an MRI scanner in about a year. Coulter
notes that the Rex wellness center’s water aerobics program is growing and
fills six classes a week, with users “a little older than your typical
fitness center, most in their early 50s.”
Becoming a Global Destination
Although Cary has often been called a bedroom community, it’s more a hub
of activity in its own right, these days. Just under a third of Cary’s
population now works within city limits, while many people from the
surrounding communities of Apex, Morrisville, Durham and Raleigh commute
to Cary to work.
“We haven’t been a bedroom community for a long time,” says McAlister. He
points not only to the aforementioned SAS Institute Inc., the world’s
largest privately-held software company, but also to MCI WorldCom, IBM,
John Deere, Lucent Technologies, Siemens, and other major firms in Cary as
evidence. The town’s 6,000 businesses include Fortune 500 companies, U.S.
and world headquarters, franchises and hundreds of locally owned small
SAS, founded in 1976, is in some ways a microcosm of Cary itself in the
way it combines size with personal touches. The 200-acre SAS campus off
Harrison Avenue sits on 1,000 acres of surrounding land. It boasts its own
medical building with three fulltime doctors. Other buildings house a huge
cafeteria, recreational facilities that include exercise equipment and an
aquatics center it shares with nearby Cary Academy. The company boasts
that most of its people work in individual offices rather than cubicles.
Sculpture dots the SAS landscape as it does in Cary’s downtown, where SAS
President and CEO Jim Goodnight and his wife Ann help support Cary Visual
Art Inc. Goodnight and wife are also financing construction of the150-room
Umstead luxury hotel project on the SAS campus.
SAS regularly makes Fortune Magazine’s list of the best companies to work
for in America and Working Mother’s best places to work lists. Among other
amenities, its 4,000 or so Cary employees have an endless supply of
company provided M&Ms and a building where they can get a haircut or
clothes tailored at a discount. Yet all of this is good business: SAS,
which earned $1.34 billion in revenue in 2003, estimates it saves as much
as $75 million a year in retraining costs because its turnover rate is
only 3 percent a year, far below the software industry’s 20 percent
“As a global company with headquarters in Cary, this is an ideal location
for us,” says Goodnight, “because of a near-perfect blend of factors
important to a successful business—high quality talent, close proximity to
a major airport, and excellent quality-of-life. Getting people to move to
Cary to work for SAS is usually pretty easy and an important part of that
sell is our location.”
John J. Jenkins, president of the John Deere Co. worldwide commercial &
consumer equipment division says, “Cary has consistently made the top
ratings as the best place to live, work and raise a family. All these
factors were very important to us during our location selection and we
have not been disappointed. We find a wonderfully diverse culture here.”
Becoming a Major Force
in Amateur Sports
it comes to amateur sports, Cary knocks the ball out of the park. And it’s
reputation as a hotbed for amateur athletics is about to burn even
North Carolina will hold its state amateur games there in June for the
next two years. By 2007 USA Baseball will open four fields of dreams for
selecting and training the elite young amateur players who will represent
the nation in World Cup, Pan Am and Olympic games.
“Cary is regarded as a leader in amateur sports in North Carolina,” says
John Powell, chairman of the Cary Chamber of Commerce and president of
Powell Properties. “The facilities Cary has are second to none.”
He points to the SAS Soccer Park, its cross-country course, and the
30-court Cary Tennis Center as examples. “They’re all the best in the
United States,” Powell says.
Cary recently held its first sports marketing summit to tout its growing
reputation as an amateur sports venue to about 60 attendees. Cary owns the
tennis center and its parks and recreation department manages the SAS
Soccer Park, which is owned by Wake County. It also has a skateboarding
“These sporting events have a tremendous economic impact,” says Powell.
“People stay overnight in the hotels, spend money with various merchants.
People who come to the events realize this place is beautiful and well
maintained. The town has invested millions.”
Mary Henderson, director of the Cary Parks and Recreation Department,
which has a yearly budget of $7 million, notes “Youth sports bring people
to town. The Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau says they account for
the greatest number of nights visitors spend in Wake County hotels.”
The 23-event state games held in June at an Olympic style festival will
bring more than 12,000 athletes and coaches to Cary in addition to hordes
of spectators in 2005 and 2006.
Mayor Ernie McAlister says that strong corporate support helps Cary put on
its events. “We recently spoke to SAS about an event the town wanted to do
at the Cary Tennis Center that needed a corporate sponsor. They said they
would be happy to work with us on that, and then, unsolicited, added that
they knew we were bidding to have the state amateur games here and would
like to be a sponsor of that.”
Cary already hosts the Jimmy V Celebrity Golf Classic, which honors the
late Jim Valvano, coach of the 1983 national champion N.C. State
basketball team and ESPN commentator. The event, a major fund-raiser for
the V Foundation for cancer research, draws 20,000 spectators to watch
celebrities play at Prestonwood Golf Club.
Prestonwood is one of three golf courses in Cary, which also include
MacGregor Downs Country Club and Lochmere, with more than half a dozen
others within a 15-mile radius.
In April, 1,000 runners fill the streets around Cary High School in a 10K
marathon. In September, there’s both the Cary Towne Tennis Tournament and
the Hot Hoops Basketball Tournament.
USA Baseball chose Cary as the permanent home for its national training
center over 10 other suitors, says Paul Siler, executive director. “We
looked at the flights in and out of the airport, which are good here, the
community and corporate support and decided it was the perfect niche for a
lot of things we needed from a business standpoint,” he says. Siler adds
that the opportunity to play national games at one of the finest minor
league operations in the country, the Durham Bulls stadium, also played a
role. “Cary is already a hotbed of amateur sports and a hotbed for
baseball,” Siler says. The town hosts pony league softball and other
events at its well kept fields in addition to baseball games.
But Cary itself proved a magnetic draw, he says. “Cary does things on a
first-class basis,” Siler notes. “They have an outstanding leaders, in the
Parks and Recreation Department and right up to the mayor. They’re a
pleasure to work with. Everything in the community is geared to quality of
life. They maintain their facilities at a high level. They take their
time, think things out and make good decisions for the taxpayers, which I
appreciate, since I’m living here now.”
USA Baseball is constructing four fields at Thomas Brooks Park, where four
softball fields already exist. “We’re hoping for a summer 2006 opening,
but 2007 definitely,” Siler says.
At the Cary sports summit, Siler pointed out that people in a community
“ride by a park and take it for granted, but a lot of work and effort goes
into maintaining them so that they’re great places to go to. They’re all
reasons why we chose to relocate in Cary,” he says. “We’ve never looked
back. This is a longterm deal. We’re signing a 20-year contract with Cary.
We think somewhere down the road, Cary can become synonymous with the USA
National Baseball Training Center.” -- Allan Maurer