Garner business community members gathered along with government leaders at the annual Garner Chamber of Commerces CONNECT Conference at the Grand Marquis ballroom Thursday. Key speakers voiced their perspectives on economic development, schools and transportation as the audience networked and took in a couple meals.
State Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata and Secretary of Commerce Sharon Decker each made speeches; Garner town spokesman Rick Mercier joked that the chamber almost had quorum of Gov. Pat McCrorys cabinet. Other state and county elected officials also attended along with most of Garners leadership.
The event kicked off with lunch and then a showing of the video of the Garner All-America City presentation in Denver, as well as the Q&A session and announcement of Garners win.
A forum on the topic of economic development followed, particularly along the U.S. 70 corridor.
Richard Barta, who runs and owns Core Properties, said he had hoped to make an announcement at the conference regarding the land at White Oak Road and U.S. 70 adjacent to White Oak Crossing. Instead he said an announcement would be coming in 60-90 days regarding the type of retail development investment to be made.
We will be making an announcement that will change the landscape of Garner and earn statewide recognition, Barta said, adding that Core would break ground shortly thereafter.
Town economic development director Tony Beasley said later the investment would run up around $70 million to $80 million, significantly greater than the tax value of the current White Oak Crossing Shopping Center.
Barta said taking care to get the retail formula right has been a factor in the delay. He also said the long-delayed project to revamp the White Oak Road/U.S. 70/I-40 interchange which Garner hopes to start by late fall and will take a year played a role.
We are at the mercy of that schedule, Barta said after the roundtable. We wouldnt want to open our development into a construction situation. That would be a nightmare for everybody.
Garner planning director Brad Bass, also on the panel, hopes to have right-of-way contracts in hand the next step within a week.
WakeMed executive Carolyn Knaup also participated in the panel led by Ken Atkins of the Wake County Economic Development group with the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. Atkins praised the new Healthplex opening Monday, Aug. 19, saying it would help with more than just its 175 jobs.
People want to live in places that give them access to cutting-edge care, Atkins said.
Atkins called White Oak Crossing the gateway to the Triangle and also praised the vision and success of the bond effort as Garner attempts to revitalize its downtown.
If youve got plans and citizens see what you are trying to do, you get bonds passed by greater than 60 percent, Atkins said. (Passage rates for the four bonds approved March 12 ranged between 66.5 percent and 74 percent.)
Attendees also heard a pitch for another bond: the Wake County Public Schools bond. Drew Cook, principal of Garner Magnet High School, and Phil Zachary, president of Curtis Media Group and part of a three-member citizen panel advocating for the bond, made the case.
The bond referendum represents about half of what we truly need, Zachary said of the $810 million bond that would build 16 new schools and upgrade 90 more. Do not underestimate the groups out there that will mobilize against this bond. What they believe is no more spending, period. No more taxes, period.
Roughly a quarter of that entire bond will go to Garner-based projects as it should, according to Zachary. A new elementary school and a new high school would be built. The existing high school would use the new high school in southern Garner as flex space during a $67 million renovation before the new school would accept students.
Cook described the space constraints of his school, just two students short of a 2,500 cap it would surely reach. A new freshman center in an old movie theater and a parking lot across the street will at least help when it opens in January.
I am astounded by the number of very smart citizens that say to me, what do I care about new schools? Zachary said, pointing to their importance in attracting economic development and equipping the future workforce. If we cant put education at the top of the list, we will deserve what will befall of us.
Tata and Decker speak
The two state cabinet members each took a turn speaking, spreading their vision for their respective departments.
Tata touched on Interstate 540, implying that though the Red Route must be among routes studied, it would not be built.
Weve got to walk every route, and thats going to take a couple of years, Tata said. Its like a Lewis and Clark expedition I guess I said can you run?
He also talked about the Crawleigh project on I-40 saying engineers eventually convinced him of the necessity and broader state-wide initiatives including efforts to depoliticize the funding of projects.
Decker advocated emphasizing North Carolinas long-held core competencies manufacturing and agriculture to spur long-stagnant jobs figures. She said obstacles to growing advanced manufacturing and agribusiness included getting engaged to overcome resistance of young people toward the industries. She said manufacturing in particular was important, with increasing transportation costs and a large unemployed workforce drawing jobs back from overseas.
Regarding Garner, she praised the remediation efforts of the town to get the ConAgra site in condition to market it to businesses.
She also indicated a new marketing campaign for North Carolina by saying its time for folks to hear about North Carolina again.