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The best is yet to come in Wake Forest 

by League Communications Specialist Jessica Wells

At a public hearing in 1999, Vivian Jones told the audience if they didn’t like the people on the board, then they should get behind someone that they do like and help that person get elected.

“After the meeting, two or three people came up to me and said, ‘We want you to run,’” Jones said. “I had been heavily involved in the community already, and it was a good time in my life, so I said, ‘OK.’ We were starting to grow, and a lot of things were changing, and I just felt like there was a lot of negativity that I wanted to change.”

Jones, who has also served as a League Board Member, is in her fourth term as mayor, and Wake Forest is growing faster than ever. The town predicts a 5 to 7 percent growth rate for the next few years, and it’s already tripled in size from population 12,000 to 37,000 since Jones took office.

“It’s been a lot of fun. It’s much easier to deal with growth problems than to deal with problems when you’re not growing,” Jones said.

In 2010 Wake Forest implemented a community plan to help guide the town through its growth. The plan was built from citizen input and focuses on making a more connected community.

“They want it to look just like it does right now. Everybody talks about the small-town feel,” she said. “Wake Forest is a very friendly community, and I think people don’t want us to lose that feeling that you can walk down the street and people will talk to you.”

She credits part of that to the emphasis the town put on preserving the historic downtown area. A recent streetscape project improved walkability by widening and adding sidewalks, adding sculpture seating and a pedestrian crossing that slows traffic and increases visibility.

The project was completed just before Christmas 2013, and Jones said it has reinvigorated the downtown.

"It has really made a difference. I have had a couple owners tell me that they have been here for years, and they’ve never done as well as they have since the streetscape was completed," she said. "It’s amazing sometimes to drive through in the middle of the day and see so many people walking around."

Community events go a long way in promoting the sense of community and connection residents are looking for. Many of the events are held downtown to pull people together and bring them into local businesses. Wake Forest hosts Good Neighbor Day on a Sunday each September for people to come out to the park for a free lunch, arts and crafts and activities so they can meet their neighbors.

In addition to traditional events like car shows and holiday parades, Wake Forest Downtown, the economic development group, creates unusual events like April’s Dirt Day. Nearly 15,000 people attended the event that consisted of dirt digging, fossil finding and gardening.

The town also made a commitment to locating all municipal buildings in the downtown area by building a new, LEED certified town hall building in 2011. Across the street, the town purchased a building that housed an old drug store and turned it into an arts center per the community plan.

The arts center now holds plays, concerts, scrapbooking classes, a writers’ night, movies for kids, adults and senior citizens, and an occasional mystery dinner theater. The community theater group, Forest Moon, presents its plays there, and the building is rented out for special events.

"We’re really excited about being able to offer those things. It was important for us to locate it here and show support for downtown," Jones said. "When you think about how this area has changed or been transformed by the municipal campus, it’s pretty impressive."

Wake Forest’s downtown is home to an assortment of shops including a hardware store, book store, antique shops, coffee shops, and a handful of restaurants. For the things you can’t get in the downtown area, one of two bus routes will take you to the Wakefield Shopping area, hospital or into Raleigh in the morning and evening.

Bringing the bus to Wake Forest was a priority for Jones shortly after she took office – she attended every meeting with transportation on the agenda to meet anybody who might be able to help Wake Forest get a bus. Eventually it was time for Triangle Transit to offer transportation to outlying towns, and they came to Wake Forest first.

"It’s very gratifying to get on the bus and think that you’ve made a difference in peoples’ lives," she said. "I was in downtown one day, and there was a man on the other side of the street, and he ran across and said, ‘I just want to thank you for bringing the bus here because I have a good job, and I couldn’t do that before because I didn’t have any way to get there.’"

To increase access to jobs in Wake Forest, the town is also working on recruiting more commercial businesses. Most of the businesses are retail and service industry, but the town has great opportunity for growth in the technology industry as well. It’s home to the Wireless Research Center of North Carolina, a non-profit testing facility for wireless devices.

Most facilities of its kind are for profit or connected to universities, and the nearest ones are located in Georgia and Ohio making them inconvenient and expensive for inventors in the Triangle. The Wireless Research Center charges a small fee for testing and also provides incubator space for other small businesses.

"So it’s really amazing to have something like this in little old Wake Forest," Jones said. "We see this as being a really big draw."

Jones said Wake Forest will continue to remember the past as it looks toward the future of their growing community to preserve the small-town feel residents love so much.

"I’m excited about our community," she said. "I think a lot of good things are still to come!"