Unlike Cary, which is bursting at the seams with bigger and bigger subdivisions, in Garner homes can still be had for less than $100,000, and Friday night football at Garner High remains a big draw. At Toot N' Tell Restaurant near old downtown Garner, the breakfast special costs less than $3, and the waitresses always smile.
In recent years, the Garner Board of Aldermen has drawn media attention to the town by voting on curious things such as placing a "big rock" in a local park and building an air conditioned mini-house to preserve a beloved albino deer that was killed by a car.
Most folks in Garner like the small town flavor, says Duane Adkinson, whose father, the late W.C. Adkinson, was pastor of Garner First Baptist Church for 20 years. When asked about important issues facing the town, Adkinson complained that Garner is not "a pedestrian-friendly place." An avid walker, Adkinson wants local politicians to get more sidewalks in town.
Tuesday's election in Garner is nonpartisan, but Adkinson, 70, says voting for a Republican is "the only sin I never committed." That's why he has a yard sign for political newcomer Ken Marshburn, one of two Democrats running for alderman. Adkinson even admits he's fond of candidate Kathy Behringer, a mother of six and long-time public servant, who would be the only woman serving on the board, but she's Republican, so Adkinson will give his second vote to veteran politico Gra Singleton, the other Democrat running for the two open seats on the board. The other Republican running for a seat is political newcomer Philip Penny.
It's hard to tell the pedigrees apart of any of the candidates. Behringer, who is an executive manager at Tupperware Corp., is almost apologetic about her party affiliation, noting in an interview that she has plenty of Democratic supporters, one telling her: "You just don't think like a Republican."
Behringer, 56, who lost the 2003 race by 51 votes, also says "a women's perspective would be a positive thing" for the board.
"To me, politics is not a religion, but it is to some people," said Behringer, who has lived in Garner for 12 years.
Revitalization of downtown Garner is on the agenda, but controlling the pace of growth is the front and center issue around here. "Garner needs to be Garner, not Cary," says Behringer, who like her opponents is all for "managed growth," whatever that means.
Singleton, 43, who has been elected to the board three times since 1993, owns his own business, and says he has a track record of being an energetic, hard worker who always does his homework. His solution to growth is for Garner to build more "upper-end housing" to ease the tax burden on everyone else.
Singleton says since Garner relies on Raleigh for its water and sewer services, growth can be easily monitored and controlled. "If you can't flush, you can't grow," he says.
Penny, 49, who is director of the Raleigh-Wake Emergency 911 Center, says managed growth helps maintain the tax base and keep taxes from going up. A longtime Garnerite, Penny touts what he calls the good aspects of growth.
"We don't have to drive to Raleigh to eat in a restaurant. We don't have to drive to Raleigh to see a movie. You can buy a suit of clothes here in Garner."
While he's against clear-cutting because it hurts the environment, Penny says it sometimes has to be done so a commercial developer can have a bigger building footprint.
Marshburn, 56, retired from the federal court system, is making his first run for public office. A 17-year resident of the Garner area, Penny says growth "should be viewed in a positive light. It's important that we continue to expand our economic base."
Garner, with a population of more than 21,000 residents (fourth largest in Wake County) is no longer just a bedroom community for Raleigh, Marshburn said. "Our leadership should view our growth as something that would allow us to make progress," he says.
The mayor's race is a showdown between two current alderman, Democrat Ronnie Williams, 57, a retired post office letter carrier who has served on the board for 20 years, and Republican Phil Matthews, 56, a sales manager for an electronic business.
Williams is finishing up his fifth term as alderman, while Matthews has two years left of his four-year term and will return to the board if he loses the mayor's race.
Both candidates back growth, and neither will be as progressive as the outgoing mayor, Democrat Sam Bridges, who is not seeking reelection after a pair of two-year terms.
Because he's retired, Williams says he plans to be nearly a full-time mayor in a part-time job. He says an annual growth rate of 3 or 4 percent "isn't going to change the character of Garner." But it would only take 20 to 25 years for Garner to double in size under that growth rate, a scary thought.
Williams, a Vietnam vet who has lived in Garner for half a century, says he will work to maintain the things that make Garner unique.
Matthews said it was time for him to "step up" to run for mayor because "the next five to 10 years are going to be very important for the Garner area." Matthews says growth is inevitable, noting that Garner is being pushed from all sides as Raleigh, Fuquay-Varina and Clayton seem to move closer and closer to Garner each year. Like Williams, Matthews says growth won't change Garner. "We can still maintain our small-town atmosphere," he says.
But Adkinson, who spent 40 years as a unionized auto worker in Detroit and came back to a bigger Garner, says the town needs to preserve its working-class roots and remain distinct in a region that is growing too fast.
"They wouldn't want to see it go like Cary," he said. "I think the small town is about what fits with people here now."