Cary has long been thought of as a whistle-stop between Durham and Raleigh. Train tracks run through the center of its quaint downtown, which, with its array of low brick buildingsnow gift shops, upscale thrift shops and boutiques, diners and art studiosfeels a little like a 1950s time warp.

But Raleigh’s beiger little sister’s downtown has raised its profile in the last five years. Smart investments like opening the Cary Arts Center in an old elementary school building, resurrecting the classic Cary Theater, improving Academy Street and, soon, opening a seven-acre destination park have paid off. Downtown Cary is enjoying the beginnings of a small-scale renaissance.

The questionone that’s central to the Town Council elections next weekis how to continue the revitalization.

With Mayor Harold Weinbrecht and at-large Council member Lori Bush running unopposed, only two district races are competitive this year. One is the suburban District D on the western side of town, which has been vacant since Gale Adcock was elected to the state House of Representatives last fall. The otherand the one most likely to chart the course of downtown’s futureis the more urban District B. Two of its three candidates are serious contenders: the incumbent, Don Frantz, who owns an automotive center in downtown Cary and races stock cars at Wake County Speedway in his spare time; and challenger Gabe Talton, a 37-year-old Cary native and attorney. And they have very different ideas about how downtown should develop.

Frantz says he got into local politics in 2007 because of this very issue. The town was indifferent toward its urban core. Since he took office, he adds, that’s changed.

“[The Council] talked a good game but nothing was happening,” he says. “This has not been the case since my election. There’s a buzz and excitement downtown like there’s never been before. There’s retail, office use, residential. Great things are happening.”

Though Cary’s resurgence has generally mirrored that of downtowns Triangle-wide, Frantz is correct that things seem to be moving in a positive direction. The town has strategically bought and restored deteriorating properties, Weinbrecht says. “And now you see people pushing baby carriages, going for runs or just hanging out downtown in the evenings.”

The essential thing now, the mayor adds, is to lure residential projects and get more people pushing baby carriages and jogging along Academy Street. That’s “under negotiations,” he promises. (He didn’t have more details on the kinds of housing downtown could see, but noted that some public-private partnerships would be involved.) Weinbrecht says he’s endorsing Frantz “because I know I can trust what he says.”

But it is this very economic development model that Talton opposes. The challenger says attracting more restaurants and bars, hotels, retail and luxury condos and apartments to downtown Cary”the Glenwood South” model, as he calls itto bolster the local economy will not be sustainable. He notes that Cary’s downtown, with its abundance of older single-family residences, is not a warehouse district like parts of downtown Raleigh or Durham. “Converting old homes into restaurants and bars,” he argues, “is not feasible because of so many safety and sanitation requirements.

“Traditional retail is in a death spiral in this part of Cary,” Talton adds, pointing to the Cary Towne Center, which just converted 2,000 square feet of retail space into a massive indoor playground to drive up mall attendance. “That trend will continue. And people aren’t going out to eat as much since the recession. Without retail, restaurants are not driving housing growth in downtown Cary, and rents are not drawing more people to live downtown.”

Talton criticizes several recent, town-subsidized hospitality projects. The town spent $250,000 to up-fit the historic Jones house on the corner of Dry Avenue and Academy Street with a commercial kitchen for the restaurant Belle. Restaurateur Tammy Calaway-Harper rents the space for about $10.70 per square foot, which Talton says is well below the market rate for commercial space downtown. (Cary’s downtown development manager, Ted Boyd, says downtown rents range from $9 to $20 per square foot.)

And the Town Council awarded a $1.4 million loan to a couple who will open the Mayton Inn, a “luxury boutique hotel” on Academy Street this fall. Room rates begin at $220 a night, according to the inn’s website. Talton says the inn will be in direct competition with the established Umstead Hotel, which is much more convenient to Research Triangle Park. And Talton doesn’t think the inn will be a destination for wedding parties, as the town had envisioned, since few millennials opt to get married in the churches nearby.

“We’re subsidizing luxury hotels to raise the image of the area and seem more highbrow, but we’re leaving local entrepreneurs behind,” Talton says. “We need a strategy for local entrepreneurs to use the housing stock we have. Turning houses into restaurants [is] not feasible.”

Instead, Talton thinks office and institutional development will work best, with a specific emphasis on education.

“My vision is for education-related business to drive economic growth in downtown Cary,” he says. “Music lessons, art lessons, math and reading enrichment centers, day care services, centers for higher learning. Education services is a quick-growing area of the economy, and people move to Cary to do the family thing.”

Weinbrecht is unconvinced.

“History has proven that a mix of uses is the best way to go,” he says. “Residential supports businesses, those services that are provided to residential. Ideally we want to see residential, retail and offices. All of those working together make the biggest success.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “At the crossroads”