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In Suburban Sprawl

By Joel Bourne, Jr. Photographs by Scott Lewis

All roads lead to a cul-de-sac in this mushrooming high-tech hometown of transplanted Yankees. A friendly game of bunco, anyone?

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Rolling red clay tobacco fields and loblolly pine forests have given way to sweeping new subdivisions and brick-fronted shopping centers that look remarkably similar. The town’s largest employers now include IBM, Cisco Systems, Lucent Technology, and SAS Institute, whose world headquarters occupies a 500-acre (2-square-kilometer) campus on the edge of town. Named for the Statistical Analysis System its founders developed at nearby North Carolina State University to analyze agricultural data, SAS produces software that scans oceans of information to find relevant patterns and meaning. Its uses now range from developing new drugs to calculating the consumer price index of the United States.

“SAS Institute mirrors Cary and Cary mirrors SAS,” says Koka Booth, a former mayor who works for the software giant. The average age in Cary is 33, the average SAS employee is 35. The median household income in Cary is about $60,000, the average salary at SAS is $60,000. Striding the hushed corridors adorned with modern art, Booth reels off a laundry list of employee benefits—from on-site day care to belly dancing lessons at lunch—that have led various business magazines to rate SAS, and in turn Cary, one of the best places to live and work in the country.

The symbiosis between the company and the community extends beyond the front gate. Jim Goodnight, SAS co-founder and CEO, bankrolled the town’s largest developer, who built subdivision after upscale subdivision. Just as every employee works in a 10-foot-by-12-foot (3-meter-by-4-meter) office, nearly everyone in the 27513 zip code lives in a “five, four, and a door”—a two-story colonial with five windows across the top and two windows on either side of the entrance. Fifteen percent of all households include someone with an advanced degree. The crime rate is among the state’s lowest for cities of its size. Cary resembles a futuristic Pleasantville.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

NOMINATE your own wonderful, weird, or wacky choice for coverage in this magazine series.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Between 1970 and 1980 the population of Cary nearly tripled, growing from some 7,600 residents to more than 21,000. As Cary expanded, town leaders began to worry that it would lose its small-town feel, especially with the influx of new businesses to the area. The town took action in 1975 by refusing to allow McDonald’s to display its famous golden arches. The following year local leaders went a step further by appointing a committee of storeowners to develop a sign ordinance. The committee banned billboards, set height and color limits, and prohibited neon signs in windows. In the downtown area already posted signs that didn’t conform to the specifications were demolished using hydraulic lifts.

The ordinance is still in place today and has burgeoned into a 44-page document that covers everything from awning signs to yard sale signs. Neon signs are still forbidden, as are portable signs, certain residential signs, and signs with more than two colors. Some residents oppose the strict ordinance, saying that the rules and regulations go too far. But ignoring the regulations won’t work in this town as officials take violations seriously. During the 2000 elections more than 20 local candidates were fined for displaying unapproved signs. Fines for an illegal sign posted for three days tallied U.S. $1,600.

—Cate Lineberry

Cary Chamber of Commerce
Discover why several publications have named Cary one of the best places to live.

Town of Cary
Find out what Cary is planning for the future.

Research Triangle Park
Learn more about this 7,000-acre (28-square-kilometer) high-tech business park, which houses approximately 150 companies.


Thompson, John M. National Geographic’s Driving Guides to America: Florida and Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. National Geographic Books, 1997.

Wamsley, James S. “Waterfall Country,” National Geographic Traveler (March/April 1996), 100-110.

Newman, Cathy. “North Carolina’s Piedmont,” National Geographic (March 1995), 114-138.

White, Mel. “Wending the Winding Blue Ridge Highway,” National Geographic Traveler (September/October 1992), 82-91.

Schemmel, William. “A Country Corner,” National Geographic Traveler (May/June 1991), 120-121.

Simpich, Frederick, Jr. “Around the ‘Great Lakes of the South,’” National Geographic (April 1948), 463-491.


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