This story was written for our sponsor, the Wake Forest Business & Industry Partnership.

Wake Forest is developing a “live-work-play,” mixed-use technology park that will be a first-of-its-kind in northern Wake County.

Despite the challenges currently presented by COVID-19 to land developments of all sizes and to the future of modern work habits, Wake Forest’s plans for a nearly 200-acre, tech-centric site remain active.

In 2018, the Wake Forest Business & Industry Partnership, with the full support of the Town of Wake Forest, entered a joint land-development agreement with private landowners to develop a strategically located property near the heart of Wake Forest and connected to the town’s most significant road infrastructure.

If there’s one thing Wake Forest and the Triangle knows and knows well, it’s growth and development. In recent years, Wake County has witnessed an increase in both commercial and residential real estate development, alongside its population explosion. Census data for July 2017 to July 2018 reports Wake County grew by over 20,400 residents — the highest number of new residents in the state.

A mixed-use development model has become a popular and efficient way to accommodate this growth and address residential and business needs, as well as a demand for entertainment, food and more. A “live-work-play” model, while not yet the standard, is arguably the face of the future in suburban communities.

As an Entrepreneur article put it, “The main advantage of such real estate developments is that they are planned to provide a holistic life approach for inhabitants.”

“The majority of urban dwellers continue to live in the suburbs and unplanned locations due to cheaper housing and living costs (than bustling cities). The solution to this rest(s) with mixed-use real estate projects, which provide a far more comfortable work-life experience to residents and reduce the need to move out for work or recreation,” the article continued.

Several mixed-use developments have popped up around the Triangle outside of downtown corridors, offering businesses and tenants additional options and resources, which is exactly what the Town of Wake Forest wants to provide for its residents.

The Wake Forest tech park, located off of Capital Boulevard/U.S. 1, represents one of the key initiatives to advance economic development in the area. Pre-COVID market research conducted on the property indicated potential phase one development of up to 180,000 square feet of office space, 372,000 square feet of retail space, and 720 housing units of various varieties through 2023 alone.

While the lingering economic effects of the pandemic are unknown, according to the N.C. Technology Association, the availability of high-tech jobs across the state as of July 2020 are nearly back to pre-COVID levels.

“While including progressive residential and retail amenities to the community, the major emphasis of this future innovative space is on creating opportunities for Wake Forest residents to work in the same community where they live,” said Jason Cannon, president of the WFBIP.

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary owns the land on which the tech park will be developed.

“We’ve looked at multiple projects over the years — the easiest to build are subdivisions, but that’s not how we saw fit to use this land. We wanted to make sure that the land was developed to benefit the seminary and benefit the town, as well as it being a good investment,” said Ryan Hutchinson, vice president of operations for SEBTS. “When the discussion happened with the Town about them looking for property to potentially do a project like this — we knew it would be a long term commitment, but we felt like it was going to have a positive impact on the community.”

Adrienne Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and former executive director for Wake County Economic Development, said the tech park will create an opportunity for tech and other companies to enter a community that has both an excellent quality of life and a strong and educated workforce.

Fifty-four percent of Wake Forest residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

“We’re always interested in helping economic development initiatives, job creation and investment in our Wake County communities. An important part of that is having product available for companies that are interested in moving into an area,” Cole said. “The Tech Park will be amenity rich and feature residential and retail opportunities to the community with Class A offices, flex and coworking space, research labs and more.”

Cole believes the tech park will be “catalytic” for northern Wake County and will be a valuable asset to Wake Forest, which she said has “so much to offer companies” with resources like its Wireless Research Center, quality-of-life richness and talented employee base. Additionally, it will give more people the opportunity to work where they live, which Cole pointed out, will be great for attracting and retaining talent.

“Municipalities are like people — they have different personalities. For one company, Durham might be a good fit, but for another, it may be Wake Forest. This tech park provides another great option for companies that are considering the Triangle area,” Cole explained. “Even large companies want to tap into the entrepreneurial ecosystem and innovation happening here. If you’re creating a park where networking opportunities can happen, you’re creating a vibrancy for existing and new companies alike.”

“We know that Wake Forest has one of the fastest-growing communities in the state and it really wants to make sure it’s providing opportunities for its residents to actually live and work in the same environment,” echoed Sarah Odio, a project manager for the Development Finance Initiative, a program of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government, which conducted market analysis for the tech park development.

“We’re working with SEBTS and the WFBIP really long term,” continued Odio. “Right now we’re in the pre-development process, working with the architectural design team to figure out what actually works on the site. We’re figuring out financial feasibility for the private development sector as well.”

Hutchinson said SEBTS has benefitted from a great relationship with the town for years and this formal partnership with the WFBIP by way of the tech park development will allow stakeholders to bring this vision to life.

“Right now we’re working together to commonly determine from a land-use plan what the best and highest use for this property will be. We’re working with designers on how it will look, not only architecturally, but also from a layout and flow perspective of the property,” said Hutchinson. “We’re also taking into account how the tech park development will impact and be impacted by other projects of DOT.”

Odio emphasized the long-term nature of this project, noting completion of the tech park will take 10 to 15 years. Additionally, she stressed that while there’s a lot of commercial development happening around the Triangle, the area around Wake Forest is “completely underserved” and the tech park is meant to fill this gap.

“The ability for employees to live near where they work is really important. But another emphasis of this project is putting a greenway through the site, creating a public park at the heart of this project, and welcoming the entire community to come and use it,” said Odio. “Again, we are in the very early stages but there will be public engagement opportunities once we figure out financials — we want to make this feasible for both the public and private sectors.”

Wake Forest Tech Park Site

The Wake Forest tech park, located off of Capital Boulevard/U.S. 1, represents one of the key initiatives to advance economic development in the area. (Image Courtesy of Town of Wake Forest)

The tech park will not be a typical office park made of asphalt and towering buildings, but instead, will embody the town’s attractiveness and reflect its community feel while enticing people to spend time both inside the development and on its grounds. While stakeholders aspired to complete the land-planning stage of the development by Q3 of 2020, the pandemic has delayed but certainly not stopped progress.

Hutchinson hopes the community will be as excited as he is about lies ahead.

“The tech park is a great opportunity to tie together the history of Wake Forest with the future of Wake Forest. This property has a rich history in terms of the land that we’re looking to develop, but will also keep the community moving forward,” he said. “Hopefully what it’s going to do is provide people in the community a place for local job options that maybe don’t require them to commute. Wake Forest has been a town that has survived over the years. It survived Wake Forest College leaving. It continued to adapt and grow while maintaining its historical core. Keeping Wake Forest relevant, but also being able to tie in that rich history that we have, I think is an exciting concept.”

Added Cole, “Wake Forest having the foresight and will as a community to bring partners like the Seminary, the Town and the WFBIP together to create this opportunity is going to be really important for Wake Forest going forward.”

This story was written for our sponsor, the Wake Forest Business & Industry Partnership.