A citizen organization with clout on the explosive growth issues in Wake County wasn't a new idea when WakeUP Wake County (www.wakeupwakecounty.com) started in 2005. The need for one had been kicked around for years by environmentalists and community leaders—without ever taking hold. WakeUP, too, sputtered initially, until Raleigh's Karen Rindge came along and took the reins.
Three years later, WakeUP is a force for better planning, good schools, conservation of resources and mass transit in the nation's seventh-fastest growing county. One of WakeUP's founders, retired Cary businessman Stan Norwalk, was elected this month to the county board of commissioners, unseating an incumbent whose re-election was heavily backed by real estate and development interests.
In a county where the building industry had free rein in the past, Rindge declares, "The times are a-changin' and citizens now have a voice."
WakeUP's mission, says Rindge, "is all about sustainability—sustainability for our community and for our environment." The county will continue to grow, she adds, but to do so, yesterday's sprawl and chewing through land and water resources must give way to smarter development, with those who benefit from growth contributing a fair share of the costs.
She's quick to add, "This is not just Karen Rindge doing WakeUP. It's a lot of people."
Still, Rindge's unusual combination of passion about the county's future and superb organizing skills as the group's chair—honed in Washington, D.C., where she worked on international development issues—have helped bring so many people into WakeUP, including some 700 members, 60 of whom have lead roles on its board and issue teams.
"Karen's intelligence, wit and determination are what motivate others," says Yevonne Brannon, a former county commissioner and current WakeUP board member. "She develops a plan for getting things done, and she inspires people to join in."
Norwalk, who was the face of WakeUP in its early days, before Rindge joined, points to her ability to build consensus from disparate viewpoints.
"Karen is extremely tenacious, a much-needed attribute for anyone trying to influence policy decisions," says Norwalk, who eventually became vice chair before resigning to run for office. "She's also an excellent networker and has been vital in forming coalitions that have helped WakeUP reach a larger audience. The transit issue is a good example of that."
Rindge and a WakeUP team stepped forward when the Special Transportation Advisory Commission (STAC), a regional group appointed by the Triangle's political leaders, finished its work last spring. The STAC's purpose was to figure out how to kickstart rail and bus transit after the Triangle Transit Authority's commuter rail plan was denied federal funding. The STAC produced a fresh plan, including recommendations for local funding. But then its members went away, without any effort to build public support.
So WakeUP organized a public forum, including national experts and the director of the Charlotte transit system, which drew 300 participants and was replayed every few days for months on public-access television channels.
Following the forum, Rindge convened representatives from a wide-ranging set of other organizations—developers, business groups, disability rights advocates, housing advocates, environmentalists—and pulled them together as a new coalition called the Capital Area Friends of Transit.
"They asked WakeUP to take the lead," is the way she puts it.
The coalition now numbers 34 groups and nearly 1,000 individuals. "Our goal is thousands," Rindge says.
Getting transit started, and funded, in the Triangle will be no easy task, and Rindge knows it. Business and development groups have their own ideas about where the first transit routes should go, and they favor a Charlotte-style 1/2-cent sales tax to pay for it. Progressive groups don't like the regressive sales tax, and there's disagreement among the three Triangle counties about where to begin. WakeUP members, too, are divided.
What's ahead is a three-phase job, Rindge says. First, enabling legislation must pass the General Assembly. Then, county commissioners in Wake, Durham and Orange must sign on. Finally, it's likely that voters will be asked to approve the funding, whether a sales tax or something else.
Throughout, Rindge sees WakeUP's role—and her own—as educating the public and seeking a consensus position that's smart and fair to the various interest groups and to the taxpayers. WakeUP doesn't endorse candidates. It does seek to influence elections, though, by raising issues.
WakeUP took that approach last year during the drought. It drew hundreds to a public forum, made alliances with other groups and pulled together recommendations for conservation—including building requirements to capture rainwater and tiered rates to discourage water waste—that members continue to press on the Raleigh City Council and the Wake Commissioners.
WakeUP's importance was underscored for Rindge recently when the Wake Commissioners rejected strong water-quality protection measures around the planned Little River Reservoir in eastern Wake County. Lobbyists representing developers' interests were all over the room, she recalls, pressuring the commissioners to overrule their own planning staff (and Raleigh's) and allow more building in the watershed. She was the only speaker there representing the citizens' interests.
"When that kind of thing happens, I think, that's why we need WakeUP Wake County."
That Rindge was available for WakeUP duty was serendipitous. A UNC-Chapel Hill graduate from western North Carolina, Rindge worked in Washington in the '80s and '90s, first on Capitol Hill and then for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the National Wildlife Federation. Her focus was on global population, family planning and women's right issues. They took her to Zimbabwe for study, to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and to the 2000 World Conference on Women in Beijing, among other places.
She was a self-described Type-A career woman, in short, who married the high-powered Reid Wilson, chief of staff to EPA Commissioner Carol Browner during the Clinton administration.
By the time of the Bush administration, though, Rindge was a mom—she and Wilson now have two kids, 10-year-old Drew and 6-year-old Savannah—and they didn't want to raise their children in Washington. So Wilson looked for employment in state capitals that were good places to live. Presto, the Conservation Trust of N.C. made him its executive director.
It's also lucky, in a way, that WakeUP has operated on a shoestring budget since its founding—about $20,000 this year—because Rindge doesn't want a full-time job just yet, and it's only been for the last few months that WakeUP could even pay her a $1,000 a month consulting fee.
From high-powered to, well, still high-powered, if underpaid.
And from issues of sustainability for the earth to sustainability for her new community, Rindge says. Lucky again.
"Family planning issues, they burn you out," she says. "In the United States, it's all about abortion, which isn't the issue at all—it's education, and equality for women."
Similarly in Wake County, the need is for public education and citizens' rights, she says, laughing a little at where that thought takes her. "Now I'm thinking globally, acting locally."