Wendell — once a sleepy suburb — grapples with traffic, development as NC’s fastest-growing town
This is the second installment in the new Main Street NC series from the WUNC Politics Podcast. In the coming months, we’ll be visiting communities across the state to hear from local leaders about the positives going on in their towns, and the challenges they face, from population loss to flooding to aging utility infrastructure.
East of Raleigh, the once sleepy suburb of Wendell ranked as the fastest-growing town in North Carolina between 2020 and 2021, with a population that increased by 16% in a single year.
The U.S. Census Bureau now estimates that about 12,500 people live in Wendell. That’s more than double the number of people who lived here in 2010, and it’s four times the town’s population in 1990.
Signs of growth are everywhere you look in the Wake County town. It’s a prime example of what the rapid growth of North Carolina’s metro areas means for the once sleepy towns on their outskirts. It’s the kind of place where houses are sprouting up like weeds in old tobacco fields, and an old horse stable can be repurposed as a popular craft brewery.
On the northern edge of Wendell, Wake Tech Community College is building a new 100-acre campus, where students can earn degrees in things like engineering and robotics. On the western side of town, the sprawling Wendell Falls development adds a new restaurant or shop nearly every month on land that was mostly vacant a decade ago.
“We are not out in the county anymore,” Mayor Virginia Gray said. “And I think that's probably one of the biggest challenges that we have. People say they moved here because they wanted to be out in the county or it was quiet, and it's not so quiet anymore.”
Part of the appeal is that Wendell’s historic Main Street looks a lot like it has for the past century. The local barber shop has been a fixture for decades, looking like it could be a scene from the Andy Griffith Show.
Neighboring businesses have changed though – downtown now has two breweries, a coffee shop, an Asian restaurant and boutique clothing stores.
But none of that was here for much of Wendell’s history. The area was first settled by tobacco farmers in the late 1800s, and its main businesses were tobacco auctions.
The town got its name from a local teacher who wanted to name it after his favorite poet, Oliver Wendell Holmes.
The pronunciation changed over time though, thanks to train conductors who would shout out "Wen-DELL" as they approached the station.
Now, the unusual pronunciation is something the thousands of newcomers have to figure out when they arrive.
To learn more about why Wendell is suddenly one of the state’s fastest-growing towns, and the challenges that brings, WUNC spoke with Mayor Virginia Gray and Mayor Pro Tem Jason Joyner.
NOTE: This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
For decades, Wendell and its neighbors here on the east side of Raleigh didn't see the same levels of growth that communities like Cary and Wake Forest were experiencing. Why was that, and what's prompted such a sudden increase in growth and development just over the past 5 to 10 years alone?
Gray: "I think that Wendell has been kind of a little hidden secret for a little while. As far as highways, we were a little bit off of the main routes going around the county. And now we've kind of been discovered, and we're a great place to live. We have available land here. A lot of places have run out, they are growing up instead of out, and we can still grow out here. And we offer a nice quality of life."
Joyner: "The way the development community develops places has changed dramatically. Wendell Falls is a really good example of how a developer can come in on the edge of a community and build out almost a fully sustainable community within itself, right on the edge and kind of double the size of a town. We're not exclusive in that. You can see it pop up all around the Triangle. And obviously the job-creating Triangle is certainly helpful to the cause.
"Years ago, I called an economic developer that we know well from Raleigh and said, ‘Hey, look, we need a Chick-fil-A and a Target and a Starbucks.' And he came back and said really clearly, ‘Hey, you're below 10,000 people. As soon as you cross this 10,000 threshold, the way that lots of different types of decision makers make decisions is off that number.’ We're at the right place at the right time. And we've just eclipsed that right number."
What kind of pressure does this put on the town government to keep up and provide services when you're growing this fast and adding rooftops and businesses this fast?
Joyner: "We're going to continue providing those services, and growth certainly allows for that level of increase. What does a capital plan look like for a community that we think is going to double in population over the next 10 years? That's where the tricky planning comes in. And that's where the (recently approved parks and transportation) bond comes in. So for the first time, we're going to be exploring other ways to get ahead generationally on parks and protecting Buffalo Creek."
Gray: "It's challenging to balance the interests of the people who've been here a very long time with the interests of the people who are new and have expectations of things. In addition to them wanting the Starbucks and the Chick-fil-A and the things like that, they also want amenities. They want parks and they want sports programming and Zumba at the community center, they want these things and art classes and things like that. And so, we've kind of reached a point where we can continue just like we are, and we will, or we can take it up a couple notches."
A lot of the new proposed developments here have led to sometimes contentious public hearings at town commission meetings. So how do you balance the pressure from developers and other newcomers who would like to see more high-density mixed-use projects here, as you see in areas like Raleigh, with the people who prefer lower density growth?
Gray: "It's very challenging to kind of straddle that line to offer more for people but to not forget the people who've been here all along. And change is difficult. And we're going through a tremendous amount of change."
Joyner: "I'm proud of the way that we have split the difference in a lot of places as far as development decisions. I would venture to say that vast majority of people I talk to are excited about some of the new options — these really weird, three-story-high, high-end townhomes that are going to be a block from Bearded Bee Brewing Company, folks are excited about that. Now there's folks … that live on the edge (of town), and I am very sympathetic to their calls, they did not ask for Wendell to grow. That said, they're one voice and they get to be heard. You have to listen to everybody, and you have to hear what the concern is. Because a lot of times those folks show up, and they have that one thought that makes the project better."
How do you manage the increase in traffic that comes from population growth?
Joyner: "Whether or not it feels good at the time when we're making a development decision, we require (developers) to give us the numbers so we can see exactly how many cars it's going to add, exactly what that will take it up to. And you see a lot of new roads … We are widening roads in front of almost every development you see, it's just happening all at once. And that's part of the challenge."
Gray: "We have a five-year roads plan. And we are taking care of the ones we manage. And we are nagging the heck out of the DOT on the ones that they manage. Traffic is a constant concern of residents; I don't blame them. And as we're growing, every day, there's new cars added to our traffic concerns here. Road construction follows growth instead of coming ahead of growth, which is interesting, and people don’t always understand that."
If you happen to visit the area yourself, here are some recommendations on what to check out:
- From Mayor Virginia Gray: "Visit Wendell’s downtown. “I think the downtown is charming. It's over 100 years old, it's a kind of place that a lot of people try to build and recreate... So, we have that already.”
- From Mayor Pro Tem Jason Joyner: "Try the breakfast at Wendell Country Club or the steak-and-cheese sandwich at Aubrey and Peedie’s Grill, served only on Fridays. And take advantage of Wendell’s relatively new social district, where you can get an adult beverage and sip it while strolling through downtown."
- From WUNC podcast host (and Wendell resident) Colin Campbell: "Take advantage of Wendell’s nature preserves with a hike. Wendell Community Park has a web of short, unmarked trails starting behind the picnic shelters. And just outside of town, Wake County’s Sandy Pines, Robertson Millpond and Turnipseed nature preserves are relatively new additions serving walkers, kayakers and even horseback riders. Then, grab some tacos or pupusas from one of several food trucks that are usually parked in front of the Interfood Plaza grocery store."