It has been my honor and privilege to serve these last eight years as your mayor and I am humbled to be chosen to serve the citizens of Cary for a third term. It gives me great pleasure to present my ninth State of the Town address. This annual address is an opportunity to recognize 2015’s accomplishments, give a status on the Town’s core services, and highlight why Cary is one of the most desirable places to live, work, raise a family, and do business.
As we begin 2016, Cary is a safe, thriving community with the lowest tax rate in Wake County. We enjoy a flourishing economy with a strong job market and our citizens have a premium quality of life. Cary is the seventh largest municipality in the state with close to 156,000 people, and we have an incorporated area of about 60 square miles. Our population growth rate continues to be at a sustainable rate of less than three percent.
Our residents are educated, diverse, and getting older. Two-thirds have college degrees, about one-fourth have advanced degrees. Eighteen percent are from other countries representing over 59 nationalities, and it’s estimated that less than 10 percent of our Cary residents were born actually right here in Cary. Five-thousand of our residents are turning 65 years old every year.
The Town’s strong partnership with the Cary Chamber of Commerce is one of the main reasons why we enjoy a strong economy and job market. We continue to experience a low unemployment rate of under four percent, while Wake County, North Carolina, and the nation hover around five percent. High-paying employment opportunities continue to come to Cary, and this past year over 500 new jobs were added. Some of the companies that announced job expansions this past year included Align Technologies, Deutsche Bank, Biologics, CBC Groups, and Proto Labs. Since 2008, over 10,000 new jobs have been added. Cary is no longer a bedroom community where people live here but go somewhere else to work. Today, more people who live in Cary also work in Cary, and plenty of people who live other places come to Cary for their employment as well. Cary is truly a great place to work and do business.
Our financial standing remains very robust with the highest rating from all three major bond rating agencies, which helps you, our taxpayers, be sure that the Town is getting the lowest interest rates possible on our debt. In addition, we continue to maintain a general fund reserve balance that is more than double what is required by our Council policy. Our debt is well below our 15 percent ceiling we set at around 11 percent. We continue to budget and spend conservatively, with the 2015 Fiscal Year’s actual expenditures coming in at about $12 million less than planned.
Our community continues to receive more than a dozen recognitions each year. In 2015 these accolades included the #4 safest city in the nation, #6 best place to live, #7 small American cities of the future for economic potential, #1 city in North Carolina to get a job, #10 happiest suburb in America, #8 healthiest housing market, just to name a few. The Raleigh-Cary metro area also received numerous recognitions, like #2 best cities to work for a small business, #2 cities creating the most technology jobs, #3 best metro areas for STEM professionals, #3 metro areas for finding a job, #11 areas for population and wealth growth, and it goes on and on.
The Town of Cary continues to offer you, our citizens, the best services from some of the best departments and staff in the nation. And you don’t have to take my word for it; here are just a few examples:
Last year, the Insurance Services Office moved our community from a Class 3 rating to the top insurance rating of Class 1. As a result, roughly one in three Cary businesses can expect to see lower insurance premiums. Cary is the first fire department in the Triangle to have this highest and best rating, and nationally, only about 100 of 49,000 communities have earned this rating. Our ability to get to number one is thanks to the Town-wide planning, funding, and maintenance of key equipment and infrastructure like water resources, streets, and, of course, fire services. We appreciate the leadership of Chief Cain and our Fire Department for taking on ISO, and we thank all of the departments for their great partnership in bringing all the pieces together.
Another initiative that involved lots of people from many different departments but focused on fire was the opening of new Fire Station 2 in December, which is reducing emergency response times for areas in and around downtown. The addition of this station goes a long way in helping ensure that our nationally accredited Fire Department can consistently meet its goal of a five minute overall average response time to your emergency 90 percent of the time. And our fire fighters continue their focus on training so that all of them can not only put out fires but also serve as EMS first responders.
The Cary Police Department continues to lead the state in public safety and is one of the main reasons Cary is annually recognized as one of the safest places in the nation. This past year they received an Accreditation with Excellence award by meeting all 392 standards of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. This accreditation process is performed every three years and is the seventh time in the last 20 years our department has been accredited.
While Cary is recognized as safe, it doesn’t mean we are crime-free. This past year violent crimes were down but we did see an increase in property crimes. Many of these crimes were crimes of opportunity like leaving doors unlocked and valuables in plain view. It is important to remember that crime prevention is a partnership between the community and the Police Department. And while we have arguably the best public safety in the nation we will all need to continue to work together to keep our community safe, which is why our Police Department will continue to look for ways to effectively reach, educate, and engage our residents, businesses, people, and visitors.
The Town’s water and wastewater facilities are state of the art and will provide the Town capacity for many years to come. Our newest wastewater reclamation facility, which opened in 2014, is now fully operational. The treated wastewater discharged into the Cape Fear River from this facility is actually cleaner than the water taken in from our supply, Jordan Lake. In addition, the biosolids from the facility are sold as fertilizer and, in the future, will fuel the driers that actually create the biosolids.
Our expansion of the Cary/Apex Water Treatment Plant is well underway and should be operational later this year. It will take our maximum clean water production capacity from 40 million gallons a day to 56 million gallons a day, and that, along with our community’s culture of conservation, should serve our needs for more than a decade. I’m proud to say that Cary is a recipient of the Directors Award of Recognition from the national Partnership for Safe Drinking Water for going far beyond federal requirements to achieve excellence in water quality.
The Town is also working on a water utility project near downtown. The water tank on Maynard Road across from Cary High School is being renovated, with construction beginning next year after a completion of a new water tank to be located about a mile away. Once completed these tanks will provide additional storage for the water system, help maintain system pressure, reduce demands on the transmission mains during peak flow, and provide reserve capacity during firefighting or system maintenance. And yes, the Town will continue painting “Class of” on the Maynard tank in honor of all of Cary’s rising seniors.
Cary’s nationally accredited Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Resources Department continues to provide significant benefits to our citizens. Last year we expanded our greenway system to about 82 miles. This year we will complete the design of the White Oak Greenway to the American Tobacco Trail and should have that open next winter. In addition, construction of Carpenter Park, the Downtown Park, and Jack Smith Park are underway, and those parks should be open later this year. Phase 2 of Mills Park will be designed this year with construction expected to be completed in the summer of 2017. And the turf conversion and lighting projects should also be completed later this year.
Cary’s three major sports venues not only provide our citizens with outstanding recreational and entertainment opportunities but also provide significant economic benefit. It is estimated that Wake Med Soccer Park, USA Baseball, and the Cary Tennis Park inject close to $10 million into our economy annually. How does that happen? Well, this past year over 500,000 people attended events at our venues, including those who came from all over the country to see the ACC and NCAA National Soccer championships, which we will once again hosted at our Cary sports venues. In addition to events, these facilities get a lot of use by our citizens. The Cary Tennis Park and the USA National Training complex had a 90 percent level of use while Wake Med Soccer fields had a 100 percent use. Although the venues are not programmed for full cost recovery, the venues recover about 63 percent of cost. This, of course, excludes economic impact which is estimated to be at $100 million since the venues began operating over the last decade.
2015 brought several significant changes to Town staff leadership, changes that are presenting lots of opportunities this year. These include replacing Town Manager Ben Shivar, who retired after decades of serving the community. The search for his successor continues as does the search to replace former Town Clerk Sherry Scoggins, who left in early 2016 after accepting a position in a nearby community as Special Assistant to the Town Manager. Longtime Technology Services Director Bill Stice retired, and our new CIO, Nicole Raimundo is doing a great job moving the Town forward with technology. Former Police Chief Pat Bazemore retired this past summer, and we are fortunate to have Tony Godwin as our new Police Chief. Chief Godwin has been serving Cary citizens for 25 years, and I am confident he will do an excellent job at serving the citizens of Cary and keeping us one of the safest places in the nation.
The Cary Town Council has had a couple of new changes as we move into this year. Ken George took office in December and is now representing District D. The council also elected Ed Yerha as the new Mayor Pro-Tem. Even with a new member, the council still averages about 10 years of experience and a combined total of over 70 years of experience. I am blessed to be able to work with six extraordinary leaders who are professional, respectful, passionate, and committed to keeping Cary great.
As we start 2016, Cary can expect to see a few changes along with familiar challenges. Plans for how the town grows, downtown development, and technology upgrades are some of the changes we can expect. Legislative actions and issues related to growth will once again be major challenges this year.
For decades Council has made decisions on development that were mostly on undeveloped land called “greenfield” areas. These decisions will become fewer as the town begins a new chapter on infill development and redevelopment. This is such an important change that the council and staff made it the main focus of our annual working retreat and it is included in the Town’s new planning process called Imagine Cary.
This three-year process to create a new community plan should be finished later this year. It is the most ambitious long-range planning effort in our community’s history and is a wholesale update to our Comprehensive Plan. The new Community Plan will be an integrated, policy-driven document that blends 13 existing separate plans into one, with a horizon of about twenty five years. The project is now more than “two-thirds” complete and contains the key policy recommendations for land use, transportation, housing, economic development and other related components. It also defines key areas of town for redevelopment and development such as the “Eastern Cary Gateway,” which is between Chatham and Walnut Street and could affect the nearby mall, areas along Maynard, and the edge of downtown.
Our downtown has already experienced some areas of redevelopment and infill. It is being transformed from areas of older and deteriorated properties to new and exciting destination points. Town projects of the past few years: the Cary Arts Center, The Cary Theater, and the Jones House have been successful in spurring new growth and redevelopment. This year we will see the completion of the Academy Street Streetscape. This project creates a visually enhanced street section of South Academy Street and Dry Avenue in the area between Chatham Street and Walnut Street. It will serve as a setting for street festivals and other activities designed to attract visitors to downtown Cary. Planned improvements on Academy Street include enhanced pedestrian spaces, upgraded sidewalks, unique streetscape elements, landscaping and utilities. In addition, Academy Street will see the completion of phase one of the downtown park and the Mayton Inn.
There is also development and redevelopment along Chatham Street. East of Walker Street will be a new office building that will begin to meet demand for office space downtown. The adjoining shopping center will also get a facelift, a plaza, and new tenants that will make it a destination. And to help support these private efforts, the Town is adding a new parking lot. West of Walker Street has already seen redevelopment and new businesses with the Pharmacy Bottle & Beverage, a new restaurant, and a coffee shop in The Cary Theater annex. The Cary News and Confounders Capital are also located in that building.
Several transportation projects will provide much needed congestion relief in key areas of town. The traffic signal system software upgrade will be completed by this summer. South Academy streetscape improvements are also expected to be completed this year. Walnut Street Traffic and pedestrian improvements are on schedule and should be completed this fall.
Several technology projects should bring big benefits to our community this year. The Town is overhauling its website to offer a fresh new design, new features and improved efficiency for its 150,000+ monthly users, hundreds of whom are actively involved in shaping its transformation. The new website is on schedule and will be launched before the end of the year.
We’re also expanding our use of and your access to open data, which will enhance the potential for new apps on mobile devices. Town staff is researching the most requested data sets in other municipalities and prepping data sets we currently have as well as updating our Open Data Policy. Our enhanced open data site should be up and running this summer.
Fiber is a hot topic and is being installed throughout town. If the street or right-of-way in front of your home hasn’t been torn up yet, it probably will be within the next year. AT&T, Google and Time Warner are working hard to connect the region to gigabyte speed internet. Google alone has over sixty crews working in Cary. This type of high speed connectivity is something we truly want and need in Cary. To help get us through to the other side, the Town has established a web page to help citizens know who is working in front of their home and how to contact them to resolve any issues.
The North Carolina General Assembly’s legislative actions of the last couple of years have had a significant negative impact on Cary, and potential future actions are a major concern. Gone are the Town’s ability to control the look of single-family residential development, and gone are citizens’ rights to file official protest petitions on nearby development that could ruin their quality of life. Moving forward, our 100-foot stream buffers to protect water quality may have to be reduced to match the State’s 50-foot buffers, and rules to protect our drinking source, Jordan Lake, have been delayed indefinitely. But one of the biggest concerns is the proposed redistribution of sales tax revenues. If such a proposal were to become law, it could jeopardize 20 percent of the money we use to provide existing services, which would have a huge impact on our budget and tax rate. We’re thankful that such an item did not move forward this past year, and the Town will continue to work hard to help the State understand the ramifications of such actions. Hopefully, with the use of all our resources, we can protect our residents from further harm.
Areas of town such as western Cary and southeastern Cary will continue to see growth, development, and redevelopment. We welcome our new residents, enjoy patronizing our new businesses, and appreciate the employment opportunities that such changes bring. At the same time, all of us recognize the issues that go along with growth, like congested streets and overcrowded schools. The Council and Town staff will continue to work with the North Carolina Department of Transportation as well as the Wake and Chatham county commissioners and school boards for proactive solutions. It’s only through collaboration and partnerships that the best solutions are found.
There will be several projects this year that will have a future impact on Cary. The Wake Transit Plan has been underway for over a year to determine the County’s future transit needs to meet a rapidly growing population expected to increase by one million citizens by 2054. Whether the proposed transit solutions will move forward will depend on if Wake County voters choose to fund the program by approving a half-cent sales tax increase at the polls this November.
Other road projects will begin but will not be completed this upcoming fiscal year. The Carpenter Fire Station Road Railroad Bridge will include the realignment of Carpenter Fire Station Road from NC 55 to Morrisville Carpenter Road, a new four-lane, median-divided roadway with paved shoulders for bicycles, and a new underpass below the CSX railroad. This project will start in 2017 and is scheduled to be completed in 2019.
The Green Level West project will widen the eastern segment of Green Level West Road from the newly constructed northbound ramps at NC 540 and NC 55 interchange. This $14 million project is expected to begin in the spring of next year.
The long anticipated Cary Parkway and High House Road Intersection Improvements will include an additional left turn lane on both High House Road approaches and the northbound Cary Parkway approach, exclusive right turn lanes on all approaches, and upgraded traffic signals with new decorative traffic signal mast arms. Construction for this project will also begin next spring.
As it has been since the beginning, Cary’s success as a community continues to rest on the shoulders of each person who calls Cary home. Today’s Cary has been shaped by the intentions of those who came before us, and our destiny will be delivered by those who are involved, invested, and inconsolably positive about what we will accomplish together. I am grateful every day to play a small role in helping keep Cary great, and I thank all of you for joining me in this calling. Although Cary may experience difficulties and challenges in the coming year we are in a far better position than the majority of municipalities in our region, state, and nation. And so in this New Year, I challenge each of you to be intentional about Cary -- about keeping each other happy and safe, about making life easier and better, about sharing our time and our talents, and about enjoying each day with an appreciation for all that we’ve been given.