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PRINCETON — The conversion of U.S. 70 to Interstate 42 is seen as both an opportunity and threat to the town of Princeton. Mayor Don Rains, commissioners and town staff discussed that dual reality at a Saturday planning retreat.
Jenny Halsey, facilitator and planner for the Triangle J Council of Governments, facilitated the retreat. Halsey joined Triangle J in March 2016. She coordinates the Regional Transportation Demand Management program, which oversees regional and local transit providers to provide commuter alternatives and reduce congestion.
Haley led the group in a SWOT exercise — a rubric common in the business world that assesses strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Participants wrote down their responses and discussed the most frequently raised issues.
Interstate 42 was seen as strength for projected regional commercial growth. At the same time, commissioners said residents fear it will geographically split the town and have expressed concern that some homeowners and businesses will have to relocate.
Other positives retreat participants mentioned were residential growth, the town’s infrastructure and its regional planning through membership in the Triangle East Chamber of Commerce.
Commissioner Walter Martin Jr. said one weakness Princeton faces is the lack of available property along U.S. 70 for large-scale commercial or industrial sites.
“We’ve got to partner with area landowners to create industrial parks,” said Rains. “There’s one family alone that owns 500 acres.”
“We really need to do is revisit the landowners along the U.S. 70 corridor,” said Martin. “We’ve tried to bring them to the table. While we’ve reached some, we’ve never got an agreement. One property owner could do something that could halt the progress in that area. With proper planning, we might have to develop property worth $50 million. I’d like to see the town and property owners come together.”
Martin said one of the town’s strengths are Town Administrator Marla Ashworth and other professional staff hired in the last 20 years.
“Before 1999, this town had only received one grant,” said Martin. “Since then, we’ve received several major grants which have benefited our community.”
Rains said one immediate goal is to recruit both medical and dental professionals to Princeton.
“Once I-42 develops, we have seniors who’ve traveled U.S. 70 that might be hesitant to get on it,” said Ashworth. “So, we do need medical and dental professionals and we have the infrastructure to support them.”
Ashworth said increased residential growth means the town will need an additional staff person to handle planning, zoning and code enforcement.
“Right now, we have 10-12 active building permits,” said Ashworth. With the new residential subdivisions coming, we’ ll have 200 permit to process over the next couple of years. So we need to increase staff.”
Rains offered an alternative.
“We have other organizations throughout the state (that) do code enforcement and planning for other municipalities,” said Rains. “It might be that Princeton and Pine Level could hire a planner and code enforcement officer together to serve both communities.”
“What I’m talking about is part-time code enforcement,” said Ashworth. “We already have someone on staff who could do it and do a job at it as well.”
Everyone agreed that with I-42 and residential growth coming, Princeton needs to become a destination.
“The progress that’s made on residential housing will cause a change,” said Martin. “We’re estimating that two development programs will increase our population by 300 to 500 people. You would think there will be more economic possibilities by adding those people, more opportunities for businesses to grow. But we need to have something that makes us a destination place.”
Ashworth suggested renovating the old cotton gin in town as a destination with shopping and restaurants.
“The question is how much are we willing to invest?” said Ashworth. “We also need to improve our local roads. We could use state Powell Bill funds to explore traffic patterns and the improvements needed. We could work with the North Carolina Department of Transportation to determine those.”
“We’ve got five roads coming together in Princeton,” said Rains. “A roundabout makes sense. I see sidewalk and road improvements coming within the next three to five years.”