Executive Summary

Press Enter to show all options, press Tab go to next option

This plan is alive and will call embarrassingly from the shelf, “Pick me up, run with me.” Some communities spend mountains of resources in community leader time, staff work, consultant advice and taxpayer dollars to develop a new vision, initiative, or program of work and then allow the results to rot on a shelf. Sanford Holshouser does not create plans that live well on a shelf. Please don’t over study it, committee it or table it for a slow death. Our advice is to pick it up and run with it.

In conducting this study, Sanford Holshouser has addressed the question: How can Cary improve its capability to attract new capital investment, tax base and quality jobs while retaining and expanding its existing businesses and industries? Residential and commercial development alone will not sustain a tax base sufficient to provide the services desired by Cary citizens. Business development is critical to the long-term economic health of Cary. In addition, many fast-growing, affluent cities in high growth metro areas realize too late the importance of creating employment centers. Sprawl and traffic congestion make it necessary to create employment centers where people live.

Simply waiting for the “right” companies to show up at Cary’s front door is not a winning strategy. By implementing the recommendations of this Action Plan, the Town will become more proactive, and thus successful, in further improving its economic development endeavors. Cary should address economic growth through a comprehensive plan not limited to residential and commercial business attraction. Following is a summary of the main components of the Cary Economic Development Action Plan.

Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (SWOT)

As a major element of Sanford Holshouser’s planning process for Cary, we have conducted a wide-ranging analysis of the Town’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT). We have looked at the Town as if we were a site selection consultant or a business client evaluating the community as a potential location for a company.

About 185 leaders and citizens participated in this study. We believe that the level of participation, combined with the economic development experience of Sanford Holshouser’s six partners, provides the necessary, reliable, and insightful background material for the observations and recommendations we make.

In general, Cary citizens are justifiably proud of their town, its economy, and quality of life. Seventy-four percent of the respondents to our survey rated the Town’s overall economic vitality as good or better. In measuring the Town’s strengths against its weaknesses, strengths obviously overwhelm the weaknesses and paint an excellent outlook for Cary. Cary is, as one participant put it, a premier North Carolina city with small town charm.

SWOT Results (Answers are shown in the order most often mentioned.)

Each of the SWOT categories is described in detail in the SWOT Assessment section of this report. Below is a listing of the most often mentioned SWOT items by the 185 participants of this study.


  • Quality of Life
  • Location
  • Town Government
  • Workforce
  • High Socio-Economic Population Base


  • Regulations and Cost of Development (A dominance of responses indicates that high impact fees and overly restrictive codes and ordinances are major weaknesses for development in town.)
  • Housing/Land Costs
  • Traffic


  • Downtown – By far, downtown improvements were the most frequently cited opportunity.


  • The threats to Cary’s future appear to be mirror images of Strengths and Opportunities; that is, they envision loss of current gains and failure to take advantage of opportunities.

Highlights of the SWOT Ratings (Excellent, Good, Fair, or Poor)

These factors, whether controlled by the Town or by others on behalf of the Town, are important support elements to economic development readiness for any community. Sanford Holshouser asked that participants in the study rate the following factors, and below is the summary of their collective comments. Many of the recommendations in the study address these factors.

  • Public Education – Despite criticism of districting policies and lack of local control, 66 percent of participants believe Cary schools to be Excellent or Good.
  • Tourism Development - Almost three-fourths of the opinion leaders rated tourism development Fair to Poor. Many commented that tourism lacks ownership and commitment.
  • Downtown Improvements – Downtown took the brunt of negative votes with 35 percent rating it Poor and 30 percent rating it only Fair.
  • Small Business Development – This category drew a balance of opinions in the middle, 38 percent Good and 36 percent Fair.
  • Transportation Improvements – Although traffic drew an overwhelming number of complaints in comments for this study, 61 percent of the participants rated transportation improvements as Good or Excellent.
  • Parks and Recreation – Parks and recreation received more Excellent marks than any subject covered in the study. Sixty-three percent called it Excellent and 30 percent Good.

Economic Development Strategies

Sanford Holshouser’s concern is that participants rated development of a business park dead last among the priorities. Business recruitment is rated high but the complementary initiative of business park space was rated last showing that participants may not have connected the items which are interdependent. Participants listed the following economic development strategies in order of priority:

  1. Existing Business & Industry Support
  2. Business Recruitment
  3. Small Business/Entrepreneurial Development
  4. Downtown Development
  5. Sports Development
  6. Travel and Tourism Development
  7. Business Park Development

Benchmarking Analysis

Cary stands up well to competitor cities: Roswell, GA, Irving, TX, Sunnyvale, CA, Huntsville, AL, Fort Collins, CO and the Northern Virginia region of Tysons Corner. Cary is growing the fastest but has kept costs in check. Housing, healthcare and recreation are all affordable in Cary. Cary is maintaining a younger workforce which is important in attracting fast-paced, high-growth technology companies. Cary’s only weak spots are the higher percentages of workers in relatively lower paying jobs in Retail Trade and a low personal savings rate.

Sanford Holshouser’s Recommendations

There are occasional points of deviation between the conclusions drawn by participants and our own conclusions based on research, experience and familiarity with nationwide economic development best practices. The recommendations are Sanford Holshouser’s for the Town of Cary. Strong and, in some cases, controversial recommendations follow, not necessarily in the order of priority:

  • Branding: Make Cary “America’s Heart of High Tech” with development of a technology business park, a technology incubator, and a venture fund.
  • Modify the Economic Development Organization for the New Economy. Responsibilities for economic development in Cary are diffused and are somewhat confusing. The spread of organizations involved in marketing and client services for Cary ranges from the Department of Commerce (DOC), the Research Triangle Regional Partnership (RTRP), Wake County Economic Development (WCED), the Cary Chamber and its economic development committee, and the Town’s Economic Development Commission (EDC). When a client is brought to the table usually through the Chamber, the mayor, manager, and planning staff typically get involved and when the project involves incentives, the entire Board becomes involved. Cary should back away from the client table and look at the big picture of economic development that begins with organization and prepare before the client arrives.

The Chamber of Commerce, particularly the Chamber Director, does an excellent job of client handling for Cary, but there are missed opportunities for Cary, because the Town does not have a single-purpose economic development organization with resources to take on a wide-ranging, comprehensive economic development plan.

Sanford Holshouser offers three alternatives to Cary’s economic development organization and the rationale for advantages and disadvantages is discussed in detail in this report.

  • Alternative One: Retain the current arrangement with the Chamber, but add two new staff members: one, a full-time Economic Development Director, and two, an Existing Business Retention and Expansion (BRE) Coordinator with additional responsibilities for plan implementation. In addition to staff, an increase in program funds will be required to implement this plan.
  • Alternative Two: Establish a Town of Cary Economic Development Department and hire a professional Director and BRE Coordinator. All economic development responsibilities would fall to the EDC and the new Department. Reversion to government-run economic development organizations, however, is a step backward, and Sanford Holshouser does not recommend it for Cary.
  • Alternative Three: Form a new 501(c)3 public-private partnership dedicated strictly to economic development (e.g., the Cary Alliance for Prosperity (CAP)) and the carrying out of this plan. Assign all economic development responsibilities to CAP, which would establish its own offices and hire its own staff. The Board of Directors would be weighted toward the private sector but would include Town appointees and some ex-officio seats.

Sanford Holshouser strongly recommends a combination of alternative one and three. The Town’s arrangement with the Chamber has worked well for many years, and the Chamber Director’s unique capabilities in client handling and negotiations are valuable to the Town. To pick up responsibility for the myriad of other economic development responsibilities, such as those outlined in this plan, we believe the Town also needs a single-purpose, advocacy organization as a bridge between the Chamber and Town. CAP would add expertise, business sense, and new energy for development. The Town would fund the arrangement initially, but CAP would be expected to begin raising funds from the private sector for its operations.

  • Institute an Existing Business Retention and Expansion (BRE) Program. Nationally, existing industries and businesses create 75 to 80 percent of all new jobs and investment in a locale. Sanford Holshouser lists a number of services that the Town should provide to local companies, including to Cary’s largest existing business group: Research Triangle Park.
  • Concentrate on Product Development: In economic development, the term “product” refers to sites, building and infrastructureOf the 101 sites listed for Wake County on the NC Department of Commerce website, only two were in Cary. Only six buildings in Cary are listed on the website.

Sanford Holshouser strongly disagrees with the Cary leadership on the business park priority. Trite, but logical: “You can’t sell from an empty wagon.” Cary has a magnificent wagon, but the wagon is empty of product or its product is not promoted. Developing an inventory of available sites and buildings will not guarantee economic development success, but not having these elements in place guarantees that the Town will miss out on many quality projects.

Protect the 65 acres in Town zoned “I” (Industrial). There are 680 acres inside the corporate limits and an additional 775 acres in the Cary planning jurisdiction zoned “ORD” (Office, Research and Development)which includes light manufacturing use. Light Manufacturing is one of the targets recommended for Cary by Whittaker Associates.

Cary should partner with WTCC to conduct a feasibility study for a technology incubator in the new proposed park.

Talk to neighbors about establishing a multi-jurisdictional business park not necessarily in Cary.

Forget speculative building. Construct a computer-generated “virtual” shell building.

Use “landbanking” or share in street access, utilities, etc. to encourage private developers to build the park.

Add certified sites to Cary’s product development inventory with a minimum of 20 acres, preferably 40 acres or more, certified under the NC Department of Commerce program.

  • Revitalize Downtown. It is clear that Town leaders are moving to reverse the fortunes of downtown. Sanford Holshouser agrees with the preliminary findings of the Town Center Civic & Cultural Arts District Study and recommends:

Begin implementation.

Begin innovative private-public partnerships, e.g. (Morganton, Davidson and Clayton), resolving the “who-pays-what-and-how” problem for downtown redevelopment.

Consider model incentive programs, e.g. (the cities of Hickory and Gastonia), to encourage downtown development.

  • Participate in Regional Economic Development. Sanford Holshouser makes suggestions that would return economic development benefits to Cary through cooperation with other communities in the region.
    • Become more deeply involved with WCED.
    • Establish close working relationships with RTP and its companies.
    • Remember to market Cary to Wake County government.
    • Cultivate relationship with WTCC at Millpond. Make it the best community college campus in the state.
  • Establish a Small Business and Entrepreneurial Development Program.

Make “entrepreneurship” the rallying cry for Cary.

Adopt strategies to recruit several small companies employing 5, 10, 25, 100 people in a number of different businesses and sectors.

Balance the service sector with research and development, high tech and light manufacturing companies.

Establish a high tech incubator or virtual one-stop entrepreneur’s center that works collaboratively with WTCC’s Small Business Center.

Put entrepreneurs in touch with Small Business Administration (7A,704 & 7(m)) loan programs. Get assistance from an alphabet of services-- Small Business and Technology Development Center, Community Development Corporation, Service Core of Retired Executives and other programs.

  • Improve the Permitting Process.

Developers and survey participants say that interpretation and enforcement of development rules is still unnecessarily strict and costly. “Time is Money.”

o Do not scrap well-designed regulations. Rather, work toward a business-friendly model of permitting.

  • Adopt tourism as a priority strategy for Cary economic development.

Cary needs more than a website. It needs a tourism advocate.

Tourism in Cary should be all about an active lifestyle: outdoor tourism (Parks & Recreation) and sports tourism (minor league soccer, USA Baseball, the State Games, golf tournaments, AAU basketball, etc.) Historical tourism is a questionable but possible fit for Cary

  • Jump into the Retirement Industry. This is an easy fit for Cary.
  • Adopt the Industry Sector Targets. Whittaker Associates has conducted a Target Industry Analysis for Cary as part of the scope of work for this project. The analysis indicates industry sectors that most closely match the Town’s assets as:

Medical Devices and Instruments

Light Manufacturing



  • Review Incentive Policies.

Internal Marketing Strategies

  • Visioning and Branding: This is a given for Cary, a town that understands the importance of internal and external image.
  • Adopt an Economic Development Public Relations Program. SH offers numerous recommendations designed to help local citizens, businesses and industries understand and feel ownership for the economic development activities.

External Marketing Strategies

  • Develop an Economic Development Website: Town and Chamber websites are not designed for economic development purposes. Sanford Holshouser proposes 16 recommendations for an economic development website.
  • Communicate and cooperate with WCED for marketing.
  •  Do more economic development marketing. There are 21 Sanford Holshouser recommendations in this report.
  • Measure effectiveness of marketing. Sanford Holshouser provides several check-list measurements.


The Town of Cary already possesses most of the desirable features that other towns are trying to develop. Sanford Holshouser believes that Cary is in a position to retain its small town appeal while building on its strengths and opportunities. In economic development terms, as well as in quality of life, Cary is a leading light for North Carolina.