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Zebulon business expansion playing catch-up with population growth

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ZEBULON — The town of Zebulon is growing at a rate of one to four people on any given day. With that rapid growth, local residents are eager and waiting for new businesses to pop into town.

At the corner of business development and residential development, rumors and stories mingle, flinging blame onto the town for slowing down new businesses who are trying to enter the scene.

There are varied reasons business development in Zebulon seems slower than the pace at which builders are constructing new homes.

“I think the town has been having some growing pains,” said Dallas Pearce, a realtor in Zebulon for 44 years. “I think they’re trying to change, but I think it’s taking its toll. It’s frustrating a lot of people, and it’s frustrating a lot of business people. In business, time is money.”

Pearce, who rehabilitated the building that houses his real estate firm in downtown Zebulon in 2015, cites four reasons he believes progress is slower than the community might want.

“The planning department has totally started over, they lost three employees at one time,” Pearce said. “They’re restructuring there, and that’s a big problem. One of the other problems is it’s not a definite clear where Zebulon’s jurisdiction stops and Wake County’s starts, so it’s creating a lot of frustration in the market for people who are moving here and want to buy or rent buildings.”

In Pearce’s opinion, the last two reasons are structure-related.

“You’ve got, for lack of a better word, some purchasing ignorance that goes down with everybody, and that’s because they don’t know what they’re getting into,” he said. “They don’t know how to do these things and what it’s going to take to totally renovate a building, so they get caught behind, unprepared, financially, time-wise, and emotionally. You’ve got people that own the buildings downtown that don’t want to sell, but they don’t want to fix it up. Those are the factors that are slowing down the process of revitalization and rehabilitation downtown.”

Zebulon Planning Director Michael Clark took over the position in April after coming from Apex. He said structures in downtown are “older” and they require “extensive renovations to bring them up to code.” The town contracts with Wake County for inspections in the town limits.

Town Manager Joe Moore cited communication issues with Wake County as a problem that is being addressed.

“One thing that makes inspections a little more complex for communities like Zebulon who don’t have their own inspection department is the communication and the coordination with Wake County to do the inspections,” Moore said. “I feel that we’re progressing in the right direction, especially with the new leadership that we have in the planning department.”

“We’re in the process of rewriting all of our regulations as it relates to land use,” Clark added, “and the new Unified Development Ordinance will really free up what businesses can and cannot do. We think it will really help emphasize that the town wants businesses downtown.”

The town is using the Zebulon 2030 Strategic Plan to guide the new UDO.

“That strategic plan was important, because we needed to know the things we needed to budget for in the upcoming years,” Moore said.

The strategic plan, created with community input, calls for a vibrant downtown, continuing the small-town atmosphere and growing smart. The town is using these three principles to budget and plan for the future.

Moore said the new UDO will streamline the current Code of Ordinances, which will make a clearer pathway for anyone developing a business or residential community.

He believes there are two problems with the current document. The land usage section is unwieldy, reflecting what he calls “a brushfire approach” with codes that were created to take care of certain situations, and which sometimes counteract other codes.

“There’s nothing coherent about it,” he said.

The other problem is “they don’t necessarily go toward achieving a goal,” Moore said. The goals that will be addressed with the UDO are the three goals of the strategic plan.

“You’ve got to know what the goals are to write the ordinances, so that you are progressing toward those goals,” he added.

Moore also explained that the businesses that are coming to Zebulon now are somewhat different than those that will come in the future.

“The type of businesses that we are naturally attracting right now are businesses are geared toward motorists. They are looking at traffic counts,” Moore said.

Traffic counts from Highways 264 and 64 are drawing businesses such as fast food restaurants to look at the properties around the highways exits.

“We get businesses, particularly corporate businesses that are interested, and really they’re just coming in and vetting the site to see if it will work for them,” Moore said.

In the future, as houses are built in the new developments planned around Zebulon, a different type of business will enter the scene: those looking at rooftops. These are sit-down restaurants that local residents are eager to see.

“At some point, there’s going to be a critical mass amount of people where they can put a sit-down restaurant and know that a certain amount of people within a certain distance of that restaurant will sustain that restaurant,” Moore said.

“We’ve gotta be open for business,” he added. “If we don’t have a successful business community, we’re not going to have a successful community. If we need to revisit policies, processes, ordinances, we’re game for that.”

While all of the players acknowledge the growing pains in Zebulon, Public Works Director Chris Ray, who has some major projects coming to improve the roadways in town, may have expressed everyone’s common thought the best:

“I’m encouraged that we’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “Our community is changing. But, sometimes change is slow.”