2024 State of the Town


The Wake Forest Rotary Club presented the 15th Annual State of the Town Address & Dinner on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, at the Wake Forest Renaissance Centre. 

Debbie Dunn served as the evening's emcee and Ronald Williams provided the dinner entertainment.

During a special part of the event, Wake Forest Rotary Club President Johnny Whitfield presented Joy Shillingsburg with the Vivian A Jones Rotary Peace Award. 

During her address, Wake Forest Mayor Vivian Jones provided Wake Forest citizens an opportunity to reflect on an impressive list of accomplishments in 2023. She also discussed a number of goals Wake Forest will strive towards in 2024.


Full Text of 2024 State of the Town Address

Thank you all for being here tonight. Thanks especially to the Wake Forest Rotary Club for your support of this event every year.  

I am pleased to report that the State of Wake Forest is excellent. Your Town Board and Town Staff are working hard to keep us strong – and always, moving forward.  

Still - we face many challenges that could change our trajectory if we fail to carefully consider all our options. 

Or – as we’ve said from day one here at the Renaissance Centre – let’s Imagine the Possibilities.  

It has been an exciting year for downtown. Once again, every year since 2011, we received accreditation from National Main Street. Many people don’t realize all the work that goes into this and what an honor it is for us to make this list of great Main Streets across the country. 

Friday Night on White was named the Best Community Event in the Wake Weekly competition. We appreciate our residents recognizing and speaking up about this incredible event.  

Last year, we placed historical plaques on 10 buildings in downtown to help showcase our history and we plan to place several more this year.  

I hope you have noticed the beautiful new banners throughout our downtown which were produced by local artists in coordination with the Public Art Commission.  

Our downtown commercial and residential growth continues. Continuing to increase the number of downtown residents has had a huge economic impact on our community, and we need to continue working to make our downtown as productive as possible.  

Downtown should not be a destination for people to visit once or twice a month or year. It should always be a lively, energetic place that is livable, walkable, safe – and the kind of place where people want to be.  

Downtown Wake Forest is the cultural, civic, and commercial heart of our community. Not only is it beautiful, charming, and uniquely Wake Forest – it is, after all, where quaint meets cool - and we need to keep it viable and thriving.  

In the coming months, the food court on Roosevelt and the Atlas Stark building on S. White will make big impacts. 

The owners of Page 158 Books made a significant expansion to their store and now The Lemon Tree is there offering brunch and lunch, along with food for The Listening Room performances held there on Friday nights. We are so fortunate to have this great independent bookstore in our town. The Listening Room and the Firebox Theater are also wonderful additions to the art scene in town. 

We adopted a stormwater utility fee which will be implemented in July. We had several stormwater facilities that were failing and needed to be addressed, so we invited a group of residents with different backgrounds and expertise to work with us and with their help we came up with a plan. They did a tremendous amount of work and research of other communities to make sure we were on the right track. We really appreciate their hard work in this plan. 

We put money in our debt service fund this year to begin resurfacing Town-owned streets. We are trying to get all our streets in good shape and then we will be able to perform yearly maintenance and hopefully keep them this way. 

We have had some not so good things happen in the transportation area. I am sure you all have heard that we lost DOT funding to upgrade Capital Blvd to a freeway. We are all very disappointed, but we are trying to find other ways to help with this.  

The Town has worked with a consultant to explore upgrades to the intersections. And, we have asked NCDOT to work with the NC Toll Authority to evaluate Capital as a freeway with toll funding from NC540 to the Franklin County line.  

Wake Forest, Franklinton, and Youngsville officials and business groups passed resolutions to ask for this study and CAMPO approved this and is working with NCDOT to make the study happen.  

One good thing I can say about the possibility of tolling, the Toll Authority is the only traffic entity in North Carolina in the last few years to do a project on time and on budget— so perhaps this is the answer we need. 

Of course, we have also had some good things happen in transportation. We have partnered with developers to install several needed traffic signals at Song Sparrow, Coach Lantern and Middlegame Way. We are also partnering with NCDOT and a developer to finish Franklin Street through Holding Village. 

We will finally get our traffic signal system upgraded and synched to help make traveling through town easier. This project was submitted by CAMPO in 2016 and approved for TIP in 2018. Of course, it was delayed a couple of times, but we expect it to be completed in 2025. 

And then, of course, we are terribly excited about the S-Line and the possibilities it will bring for us.  

NCDOT Multi-modal Division received a $1.2 billion grant from the FRA. Secretary Buttigieg came to Raleigh to make this announcement.  

This money will be used to upgrade all the infrastructure from Raleigh Union Station to Wake Forest.  

When the infrastructure is completed, the Piedmont train which goes from Raleigh to Charlotte 5 times every day—soon to be 6 times per day—will then go from Wake Forest to Charlotte with all the stops in between.  

What a fantastic benefit this will be to us. We will be able to commute to Raleigh when needed but also to places beyond. 

Now, let me talk about Wake Forest Power. 

Wake Forest Power does a fantastic job keeping the lights on. They have a 99.9% reliability rating. We have great crews who are well trained and – when outages occur - committed to getting power restored.  

I don’t know if you are aware of it or not but all our tree trimming guys are certified arborists, so they know how to trim trees to protect the tree as well as protect the power lines. Because of their great work, we have fewer outages brought on by limbs falling on lines.  

Now, if we could just keep the squirrels out of the boxes! 

This year Wake Forest Power has once again received the Reliable Public Power Provider (RP3) designation from the American Public Power Association. This is an honor that signifies that a utility has demonstrated commitment to best practices. It comes because of a lot of work from a lot of people who care about powering our community.   

The Renaissance Centre celebrated its tenth anniversary in grand style in November. Marcus Anderson came back—he was one of the first performers at the Centre back in 2013.  

The anniversary gala was a wonderful night filled with dinner, dancing and fun with Marcus and the community. At the gala, the Public Art Commission unveiled a sculpture commemorating the historic milestone. Thank you to Ting Internet for providing the funding for this sculpture called BRAVO. You can see it in the lobby of the Centre. 

Not only did our summer campers Find Nemo, but nearly 90 campers were given the opportunity to learn new skills and experience the thrill of performing in a professional setting. 

Our community continues to invest in the arts. Wake Forest Arts and Wake Forest Artist Guild work with the Renaissance Centre to highlight artists and artistic venues throughout the community. Over 90 Partners, Patrons, and Friends made a monetary contribution to the Centre to enhance the performance of arts here in Wake Forest. 

And, you know the Town has purchased the lot next door so who knows what will happen in the next couple of years! We are evaluating an expansion of the Renaissance Centre and arts programing. Stay tuned, we aren’t simply imagining the possibilities – we're realizing them! 

Our Planning Department presented to the Board a Land Disposition Policy to add to our Affordable Housing Plan. This policy will allow us to dispose of public property when it makes sense in order to further our efforts to offer affordable housing in the community. 

The Public Transit Plan was approved, and we are looking at some exciting changes to our transit options that will offer better service and connections for all our citizens. 

2023 was a year of awards for our Planning Department! 

The Town received an Anthemion Award for the Ailey Young House given by Wake County Historic Preservation. I just wanted to thank all the people who worked on this project but especially Michelle Michael our Senior Planner for Historic Preservation, Roger Shackleford and Diane Laws who gave so much time and history to the project, and Pat Shell, a Restoration Contractor who volunteered his time and expertise. 

And, speaking of Michelle Michael, she was awarded the 2023 Robert E. Stipe Professional Award by Preservation North Carolina.  

This is the highest award for North Carolina professionals who demonstrate an outstanding commitment to historic preservation above and beyond their job responsibilities. Congratulations to Michelle; we are proud and fortunate to have you working with us here in Wake Forest to help us preserve our history. 

The Planning Department was awarded three Marvin Collin’s Awards from the NC Chapter of the American Planning Association for our Housing Affordability Plan; for our Northeast Community Plan; and for our Historic Preservation Plan. 

I am proud of staff’s dedication to using the plans that we prepare with the input and help of our residents. They do not sit on the shelf without reference. These plans are important documents, and they are used by staff and the Board to evaluate projects and follow the recommendations of our residents. 

One of the important projects we are continuing to work on this year is the update to the Unified Development Ordinance. As part of that process, we are looking at our zoning to make sure it fosters productive growth.  

Speaking of growth and planning, let’s talk about traffic a bit. 

Yes, we have a traffic problem sometimes in some places in town. What causes traffic problems? And, what can we do about it?  

Most people have the attitude that more drivers equal more traffic; there are just too many drivers on the road.  

So, people advocate for us to pull up the drawbridge and not allow any more people in. But look at the most successful cities in our country; they are full of traffic. So, let’s try and look at traffic another way: The number of people times how much they drive.  

If we built in a way that would allow drivers to drive 10 miles less in a week with maybe a closer grocery store, more connections between neighborhoods, better sidewalks and crosswalks, more transit. More residents bring more businesses and vitality to our town; ultimately this shortens the trips we make. 

The layout of our community affects how much people drive. As we revise our UDO, I believe it is extremely important that we get the zoning right to provide for good, productive growth. Let’s use our best logic and common sense to address this challenge. 

Our Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department began updating its Master Plan in 2023 and it will be completed this year. Our programming and participation are increasing by leaps and bounds.  

Can you believe over 6,100 people attended last year’s BooBash?! We must continue to ensure we are meeting the needs of our residents. So, we are updating our plan, but we are already doing lots of new things. 

We will open our first Inclusive Park at Holding Park on Saturday, March 2. I am so excited about this park because my friend, Jay Jay, loves to swing, so he’ll no longer have to go out of town to swing. He can enjoy swinging in his wheelchair right here in Wake Forest. 

In addition to the Inclusive Park, this year we began our SPIRIT program: Specialized Programs & Inclusion Resources for Individuals Throughout Wake Forest. This program is being led by Olivia Atkinson who is a Recreation Therapist and is passionate about making recreation a place for everyone regardless of physical, emotional, and cognitive abilities. I urge you to check out all the opportunities provided. 

In partnership with the Seminary, in July we opened the 18-hole Disc Golf Course on their campus, and we are looking forward to building a skateboard park and pump park in the very near future.  

We will continue our partnership with FUNGO at Flaherty Park with upgrades to the ball field providing great college level baseball for our citizens to enjoy. 

Another thing we are proud of is that our Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department was approved for CAPRA reaccreditation which is done every 5 years. They scored 100% for all standards. This is phenomenal!  

One of the Goals in our Strategic Plan is to Foster a Safe, Diverse and Welcoming Community. When I look at our Public Safety Departments, I know that we are meeting that goal.

Our Fire Department is very involved in taking care of our community. Their Honor Guard participates in our flag raisings in Town Hall’s Centennial Plaza and, did you know, they were the Honor Guard at one of the Carolina Hurricanes games at the PNC Arena?  

Our firemen provided free hot dogs for the kids after the 4th of July Children’s Parade. They have hosted seminars with firefighters from surrounding departments.  

In 2023 they celebrated their 100th year of service and they have a book which is a wonderful history of the department.  

This year we were able to locate a site for Station No. 6 which is really needed to continue our excellent response times. Using ARPA funds, we have ordered a new Aerial Truck for Station No. 2 and acquired 50 new SCBA air packs. 

I have always had the highest respect for our Fire Department and the men and women who provide the excellent service they do.  

However, I discovered this year that when you personally use their service, it adds to that respect. I can assure you from personal experience that our guys respond immediately, and they are kind and professional in every way! I continue to be their biggest fan! 

And, of course, to make our Town Safe and Welcoming, we have the best Police Department in North Carolina – and for my money – in the entire country! That’s what I always tell them!  

Our officers are kind, caring, vigilant, and resourceful.  

I was very pleased to learn about the license plate reading cameras they had installed last year. We have 25 cameras scattered around town. In the first 24 hours of using them, they helped recover 3 stolen cars and there have been many more recoveries of cars and people since then. What a great use of technology to keep us safe.    

But just as important, I believe, is the way our officers interact with our residents.  

They partnered with Tri-Area Ministries this year to give out over 500 turkeys at Thanksgiving. They paired 34 kids with officers for the annual Shop-With-A-Cop event. This has been going on for 25 years!  

Through their Touch a Truck event and other activities, our police department raised over $24,000 for Special Olympics in 2023, the 15th highest amount of all police departments in the state. 

I shared recently with Chief Jeff Leonard that I have had three citizens who have moved here in the past three or so years who told me how impressed they are with our officers. One of them said that evidently our police do not like for you to roll through a stop sign because he got a ticket for that, but he still thinks they are great.  I agree with him, and it is good to hear that other people also recognize their excellence. 

Another of our Goals in our Strategic Plan is to Sustain Excellent Town Services. HR works hard to attract and retain Town staff that will provide those services.  

I want to congratulate HR for the sixth consecutive year, they have managed our benefits program so efficiently that we will not see an increase in cost again this year.  

And, our benefits company, Gallagher, awarded us with the Employer of the Year. As you can see, our HR Department works hard to make us an employer of choice which makes our employees happy, and happy employees give good service! 

Talking about great employees brings us to our Organizational Performance team led by Lisa Hayes. One of their key jobs is to encourage and recognize employees who deliver superior services and to celebrate the diversity of our organization.

The Town’s Strategic Plan lists the Core Values that help shape the behavior, decisions, and actions of our employees. These Core Values are “Caring, Commitment, Character, and Collaboration.”  

During 2023, we recognized 130 employees who were nominated by their peers for demonstrating these values.  

Our Organizational Performance Department offered the second session of our Citizens’ Academy. 23 citizens participated and over the 7-week period they met with the Town Board and members of 13 of our departments.  

This is a great opportunity for citizens to learn more detail about what Town staff does every day.  

Our staff really enjoys sharing information about their jobs.  

It was fun to see and hear the Public Works guys discuss building sidewalks and making street signs, to see the amazing physical training our policemen and firemen go through every day, to hear about budgets and planning and the multitude of other jobs done every day.  

I hope more people will take advantage of this class in the future. Our 2023 Citizens’ Academy class members are our guests tonight. Please stand so we can honor you! 

As all of you have read and heard, we have a very real mental health crisis in the United States. Commissioner Nick Sliwinski has been a strong advocate of our bringing awareness to this issue, so the Town held an inaugural Mental Wellness Fair in October.  

This was an opportunity to bring information about resources for the community as well as speakers and conversational sessions. We are committed to continuing this for the next three years and we are pleased to be working with Senator Tillis’ office who has recognized the Town’s leadership in offering this type of event to the community.  

2023 was a very active year for our food security team. Drew Brown, our Community Outreach Manager, works with this team and one of the new things this year was to offer a Mobile Food Market with a “pay as you can” concept. It now comes to Wake Forest twice a month. If you go and buy produce and protein items they offer and pay market price, others can pay less if they need to. 

Our Employee of the Year, Kiel Ortiz (Kill Ortees), oversees our Guest Services volunteer program. This program helps us deliver quality customer service to Town Hall visitors and callers. We had 13 volunteers in 2023 who logged almost 1100 volunteer hours. 

Clearly – we accomplished a lot last year. Now, let’s look ahead to 2024.  

This year will be just as busy as the past few years have been. We are working on an update to the Downtown Plan.

Our Senior Center is bursting at the seams and the Friends of the Senior Center are working hard to bring awareness to the needs of the growing population of seniors in our community. 

We will begin restoration of the dam at the reservoir. When this is completed, we will be able to look at having more recreational opportunities in that area.  

We will be selling the first part of the bonds you passed last year so we can get started on greenway additions, bathrooms in the parks, and other great projects scheduled for those funds. The projects planned for the ARPA funding we received will continue. 

Speaking of funding, our Finance Department does a fantastic job keeping our finances in order.  By using conservative projections and budgeting they guide us well when projects come up. And, as always, this year they received excellence awards for the finance and budget reports required by the Local Government Commission. 

One of the challenges we face every year involves growth—how to deal with the growth we have. 

During our recent Board retreat, I shared a few of my thoughts on productive growth— which I believe is what we all want. I have been reading quite a bit about this lately and I believe we need to be thinking differently about some things.  

From what I read, productive growth, which I mentioned earlier, means getting real return for our investment in infrastructure. The real return we get from spreading out is hard to sustain. On a purely financial level, we must produce enough income to cover our expenses.  

In other words, we need to construct our town in a way that generates enough revenue to cover the maintenance of the infrastructure.  

Everything I read about building communities, says that downtowns are one of the most valuable areas of the community and neighborhoods where houses are closer together are more valuable because we can service those areas less expensively.  

It takes longer roads, more utility pipes and lines, and longer sidewalks for those developments on the perimeter which have large lots with houses spread farther apart.  

We know that we will continue to grow at least for the next few years. As I read recently, sometimes a town can grow kind of like a forest, an ecological succession. A forest begins as grasses and shrubs, then small trees, and then becomes a layered canopy.  

The understory of the forest adapts, and ferns and mosses and ivy grow, and animals thrive.  

Actually, Wake Forest kind of grew this way.  Wake Forest began as an institute to teach young men. They came here, worked on Calvin Jones’ farm, and studied.  

The Town grew up around the farm; businesses started, people moved here, the institute became Wake Forest College; we became a thriving small college town. 

Downtown Wake Forest in 2024 doesn’t look like downtown in 1981 when I moved here; downtown 1981 didn’t look like downtown 1960.  

People in 1960 didn’t get to say, “We are through, nothing else is going to change, we are going to stay the same, just like we are.” Well, in 2024 – we don’t get to say that either because change will continue. 

President John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or to the present are certain to miss the future.” 

I promise you that your Town Board and Town Staff are using data, nurturing engagement with our residents, investing in technology, trying to build trust and transparency to meet the needs and desires of our citizens. It is vital for us to be future ready—to be sustainable, inclusive, resilient, and safe. 

Charles Darwin said that “It is not the strongest of the species that survives nor the most intelligent; but the one most responsive to change.”  

Here in Wake Forest, we recognize that our world will continue to change - and we will continue being responsive to that change. 


2024 State of the Town
Communications & Public Affairs Director