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Pearl Harbor: U.S.S. Arizona
By Priit J. Vesilind
You just can't shoot your cannon off like you used to in Cary, bemoans Charles Dreher, Sr., a Civil War buff who owns a cherished artillery piece. "I fired it straight across the road up until ten or twelve years ago when they built the houses over there. I still fire it down High House Road now and then. But if I see headlights, I hold off."
The problem for Dreher is that the number of headlights has exploded in recent years. Located next to Research Triangle Park, North Carolina's booming high-tech business center situated between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, the once rural community has become one of the fastest growing and most affluent areas in the state, its population doubling every decade since 1960. With some 96,000 residents, split primarily between two sprawling zip codes that cover nearly 50 square miles, the officially named Town of Cary eclipsed Chapel Hill in 1990 as the third largest city in the Triangle, the seventh largest in the state.
Most newcomers have moved from northern cities, leading many locals to jest that Cary stands for Containment Area for Relocated Yankees. Ironically, the town was named for a Yankee: Samuel F. Cary, an impassioned Union supporter and temperance leader from Ohio who is said to have delivered one of his fiery sermons here in the 1850s.
"You have to teach 'em how to say kerry instead of kahry," says homebuilder Bob Godbold with a laugh, after polishing off his lunch at Melba's Country Kitchen—a diner where old Cary gathers. "Cary was one square mile for years," says Godbold, 66, who was born and raised here. "Started as a pulpwood town. It's gone from logs to logic now."
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 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 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.
Or at least it did. In recent years cracks have been appearing in the town's appealing facade. Commute times to Research Triangle Park have almost doubled, some to nearly an hour. Classrooms overflowed until 20 percent of students were attending class in trailers. Even Goodnight, who occasionally walks to work from his home on the SAS campus, has noticed a decline in the town's vaunted quality of life.
"Most of the residents feel the same way I feel," says the silvermaned Goodnight. "The roads are choked, the schools are choked. We've got enough people here."
Frustration with traffic and crowded schools led to the 1999 election of Mayor Glen Lang, a 43-year-old software millionaire who felt it was high time for a slow-growth initiative. Since taking office, Lang has been widening roads, improving schools, and preaching the mantra of diversity—particularly housing that would attract seniors and young adults. A native of La Crosse, Wisconsin, Lang's confrontational style ruffled a few feathers among the Southerners who ran city hall for years. His opponent in the mayor's race even called him blunt, which still makes Lang grin. "Where I come from being blunt is not necessarily a bad thing," Lang says in a staccato burst. "Look at Southern literature. There is a fatalism there. If you assume there will be traffic, there will be traffic! I'm a Silicon Valley businessman. I don't see problems; I see opportunities!"
Despite its growing pains, optimism abounds in the big small town, especially among the newer residents who have left blizzards and two-hour commutes behind. "I came kicking and screaming," says one recent convert, who moved with her husband, an IBM employee, from a tony Chicago suburb two years ago. "Now we've fallen in love with it."
But what makes Cary so lovable?
"The weather, of course," she says. "And I like the pace of life here. It's not the big city with all the stress. It's a very friendly community." Just the other day a neighbor called and wanted her to play bunco, a popular dice game. "My first reaction was, I don't do bunco anymore. It's a mindless game, an excuse for all the women in the neighborhood to get out and have a ladies' night." Her crimson lips crack into a conspiratorial grin. "They're coming to my house next Thursday! I've already got my menu planned! Usually there's a theme. . . . I'm passing out tiaras and magic wands they can use to keep score. It'll be bunco princess night! Lots of wine! Lots of fun! "
And somewhere in a cold Ohio cemetery, Samuel F. Cary is rolling in his grave.