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Town’s top planner looks back on 32-year government career

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WAKE FOREST — When Chip Russell joined the town's payrolls in 1987 - well, there was some planning to do.

As the new planning director, Russell, 28 then, was in charge of scrutinizing new development at a time when about 5,000 people lived in Wake Forest. Wakefield hadn't been built yet, and neither had the N.C. Highway 98 Bypass. The town was still recovering from when Wake Forest College packed up and moved to Winston-Salem.

"But things were starting to happen in Wake Forest when I came and I've been busy ever since, 32 years later," Russell said.

On Dec. 20, Russell will retire from town government. The 60-year-old already cleared out his office (he filled five roll-out carts with old papers and items to toss out) and has already started thinking about the new free time he'll have (to fish, golf and finish some projects around the house).

But Russell is also leaving behind his legacy at the helm of a planning department that oversaw explosive growth over the last three decades.

"Chip has been a guiding force in shaping Wake Forest," Town Manager Kip Padgett said. "From shopping centers to the Heritage and Traditions development, Chip has guided the town and advised the board on planning matters that have positioned Wake Forest to be the community it is today. He has done this while helping to maintain the small-town charm so many admire."

After graduating from East Carolina University's city planning program, Russell landed a job as a planner with the town of Clinton, the seat of Sampson County. Compared to Wake County, where he grew up, Sampson was a little slower, and when the job at Wake Forest came up, he decided to apply.

"The folks here wanted change, they wanted growth, they wanted opportunities," Russell said. "Fortunately for us the development community and folks wanted to move here, folks wanted to build here. The challenge was just making sure that we made the right decisions and encourage things to happen in the right places."

Early on, Russell said he had to overcome budget constraints, staffing limits and long hours. He moved into an apartment in Wake Forest three weeks after taking the job, and a handful of "old matriarchs of Wake Forest" took him under his wing to "make sure you got in line and learned how things are done" in Wake Forest, he recalled.

"I appreciate it because a lot of those folks pretty much told me the history and explained the culture of the area to me and helped in the transition," Russell said. "I was fortunate in that respect."

Russell still lives in Wake Forest today, where his children attend high school. He said he'll stick around after retiring and continue to be involved in organizations like the Purple Heart Foundation and Wake Forest College Birthplace Society, where he serves on the boards.

Former Morrisville Planning Director Courtney Tanner will succeed Russell in the Wake Forest planning department, the town has announced. Russell said the community will be in good hands with Tanner and other planning staff as officials look to control traffic and growth in town.

As he enters his last month in town government, Russell admits he'll miss daily interactions with coworkers but "I have no regrets. I wouldn't have changed a thing. God, how many people can really say that?"

It's a sentiment shared by those who worked alongside him.

"As public servants, it is our goal to leave the place in a better position than when you arrived," Padgett said. "Chip has definitely done this and we are in his debt."

The town is hosting a retirement reception for Russell on Saturday. The public is invited to attend and honor Russell from 3-6 p.m. at the Wake Forest Renaissance Centre, 405 S. Brooks St.

A program celebrating Russell begins at 4 p.m.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect date of Russell's retirement reception. It is Sunday, Nov. 17, not on Saturday.