As a major element of Sanford Holshouser’s planning process for Cary, the consultants conducted a wide-ranging analysis of the Town’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT). We looked at the Town as a site selection consultant or a business client evaluating the community as a potential location for a company. We examined not only demographic trends and economic data for Cary but also information and knowledge gathered from people who work and live in the community and who understand the Town best. We obtained opinions of local leaders in government, business, industry, the professions, education, arts, tourism, and other fields, and we listened to others outside the Town who are familiar with Cary’s economic development projects.
Sanford Holshouser talked to several Town officials and Economic Development Commission (EDC) members. We conducted ten one-on-one interviews with locally involved leaders and made use of four focus group sessions to discuss Cary with about 25 others. We developed an extensive online questionnaire that the Town emailed to 2,500 citizens and gained 138 opinion responses. Our partners also interviewed economic development consultants and officials of the NC Department of Commerce (DOC) and local and regional economic development organizations who are familiar with the Town and its economy. Congressman David Price provided information on matters of interest to Cary from the federal government perspective. We have reviewed our work with Town staff. In all, 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 made in this report.
Generally, 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 overwhelm the weaknesses and paint an excellent outlook for Cary. Cary is in fact, as one participant put it, a premier North Carolina city with small town charm. Sanford Holshouser and Whittaker Associates make recommendations for economic development readiness appropriate for a premier city, recommendations that will not lead to the loss of Cary’s inherent charm and sustainable growth model.
Following is Sanford Holshouser’s report of the responses received through the various leadership venues.
Rating Economic Development Factors for Cary
Factors: We asked Cary participants to rate, as Excellent, Good, Fair, or Poor, selected factors regarding the Town. 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. Here are the responses:
- Public Education – Cary schools are part of the Wake County School System. Despite criticism of districting policies and lack of local control, 66 percent of participants believe Cary schools to be Excellent or Good. Confirming those favorable ratings are Cary High School SAT scores that surpass state and national averages and the NC “School Report Cards” that rank Cary schools above the district and state in almost all school performance measurements. Green Hope High School’s new program, Scientists Participating in Active Research with Kids (SPARK!), is an example of an innovative school program in Cary.
- Community College and Workforce Development – Wake Technical Community College and Cary’s workforce development programs received Good to Excellent approval from just over half the participants. The relatively low percentage of more favorable votes was surprising considering the positive comments citing Cary’s highly educated and technically savvy workforce as a major strength.
- Tourism Development - Almost three-fourths of the opinion leaders rated tourism development Fair to Poor. Many commented that tourism lacks ownership and commitment.
- Retail Development – Nearly 50 percent said retail development in Cary is Good and another 20 percent said it is Excellent. Retail sales have continued to grow annually even through 9/11 and the economic downturn. Many people concluded, however, that retail in downtown Cary is very weak.
- 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 several complaints in comments for this study, 61 percent of the participants rated transportation improvements as Good or Excellent. Comments on the efforts of the Triangle Transportation Authority (TTA) to establish light rail transit were generally split between opponents and supporters. The survey was completed before the announcement that light rail funding was not approved for the Triangle.
- 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. Most of the people who offered comments praised Cary’s parks and greenways.
- Arts and Culture – This is another source of Cary pride judging by the vote tally. The quality of arts and culture in the community was rated Excellent by 35 percent and Good by 43 percent.
Economic Development Strategies Prioritized
When asked to prioritize several possible economic development strategies for Cary, opinion leaders ranked Existing Business Support as the top priority, followed very closely by Business Recruitment. Among professional economic developers, those are two of the cornerstones of a successful economic development program. A third cornerstone is “product” or available sites and buildings, while the fourth is leadership commitment to making things happen.
Sanford Holshouser’s concern is that participants rated development of a business park dead last among the priorities. Our cursory look at product in Cary and the input we received from professional developers reveal plenty of Class A office space but a weakness in available sites and buildings for attracting major projects. Shovel-ready sites, preferably certified by NC Department of Commerce, are a necessity if Cary is to compete for desirable projects. There could have been a disconnect by study participants between recruiting new business and having developed land ready for those businesses. Business recruitment and having space available in business parks are complementary economic development programs. Sanford Holshouser’s research shows that Cary should be looking far into the future preserving land for development and planning for the next large business center.
Here is how participants prioritized the various strategies:
- Existing Business Support
- Business Recruitment
- Small Business/Entrepreneurial Development
- Downtown Development
- Sports Development
- Travel and Tourism Development
- Business Park Development
What Industries to Recruit
Part of the planning process for Cary included a target industry analysis by Whittaker Associates, recommending four industry sectors that Cary should concentrate on for recruitment. The target industry analysis takes into consideration Sanford Holshouser’s SWOT assessment and its related evaluation of the community. Obviously Whittaker did not want to recommend trying to recruit an industry sector unsuitable to Cary or undesirable to the majority of its citizens (e.g., heavy industries). As input to Whittaker’s targeting consideration, Sanford Holshouser asked Cary leaders what business/industry sectors they think should be recruited. Sanford Holshouser, in general, agrees with the responses received; however, research and development coupled with light manufacturing is a natural strength for Cary and should be strongly advocated. Cary is fortunate in that all of the suggestions for development are feasible for the Town, a statement that cannot be said for many municipalities in North Carolina. Among the most mentioned types of companies are, in order (the first three received the greatest majority of recommendations):
- Healthcare and Medical Technology
- FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate)
- Research and Development
- Distribution (But many said “No distribution” because of truck traffic)
- Light Manufacturing
- Professions (Law, Education, etc)
SWOT: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats
Input into the SWOT analysis has come primarily from local leaders, although Sanford Holshouser spoke with state, county, and regional economic development officials who offered helpful information. The opinions of professional site selection consultants also carry weight in this analysis. While the SWOT items listed below do not necessarily reflect Sanford Holshouser’s opinion or sense of priority, they are listed in the order most often mentioned as strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Overall, Sanford Holshouser recorded approximately 185 responses in the various venues for registering preferences (one-on-one interviews, focus groups, and survey).
What makes Cary Unique? There were many answers to this question, but the most frequent citations fell under the Quality of Life category: a clean, safe, family-friendly town with a small town atmosphere, great parks and greenways, excellent arts and cultural interests, good schools, and a focus on youth and recreation. Unique assets mentioned often were:
- Quality of Life (91 comments)
- Good municipal planning (25)
- Educated and affluent population (13)
- Excellent town government and services (12)
STRENGTHS: In addition to the unique and positive assets noted above, below is a list of Cary’s major strengths as identified by participants in the study. Listed in order of the number of times mentioned, the assets include those brought up at least ten times.
- Quality of Life - Based on 91 positive quality of life comments , it is apparent that Cary citizens truly respect and enjoy their Town. It is a major strength upon which to build an excellent economic development plan.
- Location – The “Center of the Eastern Seaboard” location asset was mentioned 74 times, citing proximity to Research Triangle Park, RDU Airport, the metro amenities of Raleigh and Durham, state government offices, the universities and colleges, and a relatively short drive to beaches and mountains.
- Town Government – The Town of Cary received 63 kudos for strong, pro-business leadership, good planning, customer service, law enforcement, financial responsibility, and efficient administration. Professional developers interviewed praised the Mayor and Town Manager for their strong advocacy for Cary on economic development projects. The Town staff was rated as professional in working projects. There was concern expressed by developers, however, that some staff can become bureaucratic and arbitrary, sometimes unnecessarily obstructing projects. Town development regulations were criticized as too stringent and complicated.
- Workforce – 61 comments cited Cary’s workforce as heavy in PhDs and other highly educated, technologically savvy people who are much in demand by the new economy. In the opinion of professional developers, this is Cary’s greatest asset for attracting the industries and businesses that Whittaker Associates’ target industry list includes.
- High Socio-Economic Population Base - 42 respondents mentioned that Cary’s base of high-income families is a major factor in supporting local government services, high-end retail, fine neighborhoods, and the quality of life that is attractive to the class of businesses and industries desirable for the Town.
- Housing – Housing was seen by 21 as a source of pride. Upscale, well-kept neighborhoods are considered a strength in attracting the type of workers that will attract desirable companies to Cary. However, it was also noted that housing costs are too high for low to middle-income workers, creating a local shortage of that class of worker.
- Infrastructure – Several respondents expressed interest in infrastructure, primarily streets, but also water lines and water/waste water capacities. Sixteen participants considered the infrastructure status as a strength; however, infrastructure is also listed in the “Weakness” section below.
- Schools While Cary schools received high marks in the “Rating” section above,, only 12people listed good schools a strength for the Town.
- Chamber of Commerce – There were ten positive remarks about the Chamber of Commerce citing its community leadership and services to its members.
WEAKNESSES: Study participants identified weaknesses in Cary’s economic development structure. In some cases, one person’s perception of weakness is another’s vision of strength. Sanford Holshouser presents these challenges below in the order most frequently mentioned.
- Regulations and Cost of Development – A dominance of responses (72) indicates that high impact fees and overly restrictive codes and ordinances are major weaknesses for development in Town. Even outside the Town, Cary has the reputation of being over-regulated and developer-unfriendly. Some developers who have implemented projects in Cary are now looking at other Triangle towns instead. Numerous comments about the planning and inspections offices included phrases such as: “bureaucratic,” “unresponsive,” “conflicting ordinances,” “slow process,” “red tape,” and “time is money.” Complaints included the high cost of business licenses and permitting fees, as well as a sign ordinance that results in “hiding” businesses. (It is worth noting that among the business people quoted in a recent Cary Business Journal, none mentioned regulations or the cost of development.)
- Housing/Land Costs – 48 participants said housing costs are prohibitive to middle and lower income people who work in Cary and others who would like to live in the Town. Similarly, some site selection consultants think the cost of land in Cary is prohibitive for many projects. High land prices may drive desirable businesses and industries to locate elsewhere.
- Traffic – Traffic jams within the Town of Cary and along daily commute routes are the bane of existence for at least 40 participants in the study. Heavy traffic also deters industries from locating in the Town, especially distribution centers and those businesses dependent upon trucking for shipping goods or receiving supplies. Interest in TTA’s light rail plans appear to be lukewarm among participants in this study. (In the Cary Business Journal quotes from business people, most complained of traffic.)
- Schools – Over-crowded schools, poor school site planning, long-distance bussing, constant re-districting, and the lack of local control were the complaints of 22 respondents. Student performance in local schools, however, is a source of pride.
- Downtown – Twenty-one study participants identified downtown as a weakness for Cary. Problems cited were the “lack of character,” no definitive boundaries, inadequate parking, few shops and restaurants, and empty storefronts. Participants feel the Town needs a heart. Developers who help locate headquarters’ sites say most companies prefer a downtown area with upscale urban amenities and, of course, parking.
- Taxes – At least 14 citizens say that the property tax rate and other taxes and fees collected by the Town, including water rates, are too high and are weaknesses for attracting business and industry to Cary.
- Infrastructure – The flip side of the compliments that “infrastructure” received in the “Strengths” section is the opinion of some 14 citizens who believe that streets, water and waste water, and other infrastructure cannot keep up with new development. They believe that the Town does not have the capacity to keep expanding.
- Recruiting Incentives – Ten participants stated the need for an incentive policy to recruit industry and business. Developers who have worked projects in Cary say, however, that the Town has been very aggressive in matching State and County incentives for projects and that no projects have been lost from lack of incentives.
OPPORTUNITIES: There were numerous ideas about opportunities for Cary but little consensus. Those mentioned ten or more times are listed below in order.
- Downtown – The most frequent mention of opportunities (29) regarded downtown Cary. Most suggestions involved setting definitive boundaries for a Downtown Development Zone allowing for high-density developments such as shops below and condos or apartments above, encouraging rehabilitation and beautification through incentives, and actively attracting developers with the means “to do it right.”
- Other Incentives – Fourteen respondents suggested that the Town adopt a financial incentive policy to include retail operations and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to improve downtown
- .Existing Business Support – Ten people recommended that the Town adopt a program to assist companies currently operating in Cary helping them to survive and grow in the Town. An existing business support program received the most votes in the “Rating” section previously shown.
THREATS: 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. Threats suggested at least ten times are shown in order below:
- Over-Development – As mentioned in previous sections of the plan, several respondents (14 addressing the subject here) believe the Town is growing and developing beyond its ability to keep up with streets, water and sewer lines and capacities, and other infrastructure.
- Traffic – Following the same line of reasoning as “over-development”, 13 people foresee traffic gridlock in the near future both on Town streets and along commuter routes.
- Impact Fees and Restrictive Ordinances – Several participants (11) believe that Town permitting fees and restrictive ordinances have already begun chasing away desirable development for Cary. Their concerns were addressed in the number one “Weakness” above.
Sanford Holshouser SWOT Comments
The above SWOT ratings and comments came from local opinion leaders. For the most part, Sanford Holshouser agrees with the SWOT assessment. The differences come from the fact that opinion leaders are insiders, often relying on local information and experiences, while the consultants are outsiders, relying on their professional experiences and expertise. With regard to questions raised by Council in a preliminary briefing of the plan, the consulting team views the Research Triangle Park as one of Cary’s greatest strengths. RTP was mentioned as a strength relative to Cary’s location, but it should be a stand-alone strength because of the value it brings image, recognition, and marketing, and the draw for educated, high-tech workers. The weakness of high housing costs was not confirmed through research. However, high land costs relative to other towns in the Raleigh metro area with which Cary competes were confirmed. Sanford Holshouser believes Cary’s greatest opportunity is in creating another business/corporate park setting that will draw the next wave of technology companies. RTP’s land is dwindling, and the expected build out of existing business parks is less than ten years. Cary’s future growth depends on how, when and where the next business park is developed. The looming threats to Cary’s future economic health are the lack of planning for economic development and complacency. If areas for business development are not identified and planned, then business will develop outside the immediate Cary area creating more traffic and sprawl problems. Cary citizens need employment centers where they live and play. Finally, in order for Cary to maintain a high level of service to its citizens, the Town cannot be complacent about economic development. It should continue to pursue a level of economic growth that supports all of the amenities that Cary now enjoys.