17 Feb THE TRIANGLE – LAND OF JOBS, GROWING SMALL TOWNS
The Triangle is moving — quickly. So quick, you might mistake it for a circle.
Seven of the fastest-growing towns in North Carolina are in the Triangle, according to 2017 U.S. Census Data. They include Rolesville, Wendell, Morrisville, Knightdale, Clayton, Apex and Fuquay-Varina. And while Charlotte had the fifth-largest population increase in the nation, Durham by comparison has moved just a hair quicker, with a 16.8 percent increase since 2010 (versus Charlotte’s 16.3).
While it’s not a competition, the Triangle — defined by the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill — has definitely caught up to its southern sister and made a name for itself across multiple avenues, from its ever-expanding job market and high-ranking school systems to outdoor attractions and charming small towns.
In 2018, for the second year in a row, North Carolina topped Forbes’ “Best States for Business” list — and for many reasons. The Tar Heel state’s corporate tax rate, for starters, is the lowest in the country. The unemployment rate sits nearly one percentage point below the national average and the labor costs even lower. Reigning industries include technology, government and healthcare, with Blue Cross/Blue Shield NC, the Duke University Health System and UNC Health Care as major players. The Triangle also hosts the largest research park in the United States: Research Triangle Park (RTP).
RTP plays host to more than 250 businesses and 50,000+ workers across the technology, biopharmaceutical, micro-electronics, telecommunications and environmental sciences industries. Its top-five employers include IBM, Cisco Systems, Fidelity Investments, GlaxoSmithKline and RTI International. The latter is headquartered there.
Founded by academics, the park also acts as a hub for the region’s three major research universities: North Carolina State University in Raleigh, Duke University in Durham and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
N.C. State educates more North Carolinians than any other university, offering degrees in all major academic fields. However, its programs in engineering, veterinary sciences and entrepreneurship are some of the best in the nation. Its College of Engineering offers 18 specialties from aerospace engineering to materials science, and the College of Veterinary Medicine is a national leader in animal medicine — most recently developing an innovative stem-cell therapy for treating chronic eye disease in horses. In November 2018, The Princeton Review marked the college as one of its top undergraduate schools for entrepreneurship studies in 2019.
Duke University also boasts an impressive engineering program, ranking number-four in the U.S. for both its undergraduate and graduate biomedical engineering curricula. The largest private college in the Triangle, Duke houses 10 schools and colleges and more than 16,000 students. Forbes magazine consistently ranks Duke high on its “best of” lists such as “Best U.S. College for International Students,” “America’s Best Employers” and “Best Colleges in the South.”
The nation’s oldest public university, UNC-Chapel Hill has placed fifth on U.S. News & World Report’s list of best colleges for nearly two decades — and first for public universities on its “Great Schools, Great Prices” list for 14 years in a row. That accolade is often repeated. In 2018, for example, both The Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education named it the best public university for financial value. UNC features 13 schools and one college and offers more than 70 majors and minors across 60 departments.
Higher education is a cornerstone in this part of the world. The Triangle is home to seven additional four-year colleges and universities, as well as seven community colleges. In fact, 47 percent of the state population aged 25 to 64 holds a postsecondary degree. By 2020, according to a recent article from Raleigh’s The News & Observer, 67 percent of all North Carolina jobs will require some education and training beyond high school.
Such statistics have propelled local researchers and policymakers to push for better education statewide, developing a series of programs to strengthen the K-12 system. UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, for example, oversees the North Carolina Early Learning Network, which provides early childhood educators with professional development and technical assistance to support preschool children with disabilities. LatinxEd, another UNC-affiliated program, recently began a summer camp to build leadership skills among Latinx students — work that parallels with the state’s expanding Hispanic population, which grew by 132,000 residents between 2010 and 2016.
Parents will appreciate the wide variety of K-12 school types across the Triangle. Over 200,000 students are enrolled within four public school systems across Wake, Durham and Orange counties. Dozens of private schools and more than 40 charter schools exist throughout the Raleigh and Durham-Chapel Hill metro areas, two of which — Raleigh Charter High School and Woods Charter School — are ranked as top public high schools in the state. A handful of early college high schools, like Wake STEM in Raleigh, blend high school and college courses so students graduate with a high school diploma and up two years of college credits.
The largest school system in North Carolina, Wake County Public Schools has more than 160,000 students and the most National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certified teachers for any school district nationwide. Two of its Title I schools, Reedy Creek and Yates Mill Elementary, rank among the highest 10 percent of all Title I schools for performance. Durham County Public Schools serves 32,000 students and features a top-notch school nutrition program, offering free breakfast to all students. In 2018, three of its high schools made U.S. News & World Report’s list of best high schools: City of Medicine Academy, Clement Early College High School and Durham School of the Arts.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has the highest SAT scores in North Carolina and the second-highest cohort graduation rate. Hosting 12,000 students, all of its schools boast technology-rich classrooms, gifted education specialists, and Positive Behavior Implementation and Support to “create a positive climate, safe and respectful atmosphere, and embedded social and emotional learning.” Orange County School System is the region’s smallest with 7,400 students. It has a 14:1 student-teacher ratio and serves rural communities like Elfland, Hillsborough, White Cross, Cedar Grove and McDade. On its list of “Best School Districts in North Carolina,” data analysis website Niche ranked it at number 11.
One of the conveniences of living in the Triangle is easy access to the beach and the mountains. A two-hour drive east will bring you to the port city of Wilmington, home to the Cape Fear River and three vibrant beaches. But go west and in about three hours you’ll arrive at Grandfather Mountain State Park, a 300-million-year-old landscape that summits at nearly 6,000 feet — one of the highest peaks in the Blue Ridge Mountain range. The Triangle is also just two-and-a-half hours from Richmond, four from Washington, D.C., five from Savannah, six from Atlanta, seven from Jacksonville and eight from Nashville.
Plenty of adventure exists right here, though. In Durham County, hikers will enjoy Eno River State Park, packed with 30 miles of challenging trails along a shallow stream perfect for fishing, photography and floating. The Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area in Orange County offers a 3.5-mile loop with a summit overlook, as well as the town of Hillsborough’s paved River Walk for strollers, wheelchairs and bicycles. Raleigh’s Neuse River Trail features a 10-foot-wide asphalt path spanning 28 miles from Falls Lake Dam to the Wake County line, as well as a series of boardwalks that wind through wetlands, historical sites and agricultural fields. >>
But what about those small, boom towns mentioned above? Nestled in northeastern Wake County just above Raleigh, Rolesville is the fastest-growing city in the state. Home to 8,000 residents, this small community is the second oldest in the county and just celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2017. It has a solid housing market for investors, according to Forbes magazine, plus great schools. The newest adddition is Rolesville Charter Academy, the curriculum for which focuses on virtues like respect, integrity, perseverance and courage.
Wendell, Rolesville’s southern neighbor, is just shy of having 7,000 residents. Head to downtown, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, to peruse unique mom-and-pops like Ladybug Cottage, a quilting store; Southern Charm, a craft market; and the Wendell General Store, an old-fashioned candy shop and local stomping ground. Need a coffee break? Walk the two blocks to 41 North Coffee.
Foodies will like Morrisville, land of international cuisine. Each September, its East Meets West Festival showcases food, culture and music from around the world – and the food exploration doesn’t end there. Throughout the year, residents enjoy worldly flavors at local restaurants such as Neomonde Mediterranean, Hyderbad House, Carmen’s Cuban Café and Lounge, and Lugano Ristorante, to name a few.
As of 2019, Knightdale is the fastest-growing city in Wake County with nearly 17,500 residents, and a young one with a median age of 37. It’s also the home of cool hangouts like the Oak City Brewing Company, located in a 1920s bungalow. The tap house offers 20 rotating drafts and a different food truck daily. Mingo Creek Park is where it’s at for runners, walkers and outdoorsmen. Wander along the 3.5-mile trail to explore wetlands and hardwood forests, and even travel to Raleigh via a pedestrian bridge that connects to the Neuse River Greenway Trail.
For energetic performances, check out Clayton, population 23,000. For the past 12 years, the Clayton Downtown Development Association has hosted the Town Square Concert Series, a free event featuring a variety of acts from ’90s girl groups to 12-piece bands. Throughout the year, the Clayton Center hosts musicians, comedians, Broadway shows, plays and more. Likewise, the town of Apex draws thousands of visitors each year to the Apex Jazz and Music Festival. It also celebrates arts and crafts at PeakFest and the best of North Carolina barbecue at the Peak City Pig Fest.
Fuquay-Varina — the last of the fastest-growing towns in the state — began drawing visitors in 1858 upon the discovery of its mineral spring, thought to have healing powers. Today, people travel to the 28,000-person town just 30 minutes south of Raleigh for a different type of water: to cool off at South Park’s 6,000-square-foot splash pad, or sip on some suds at one of the town’s three craft breweries.