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Economic Development Causing Growing Pains For Chapel Hill

By Rachel Nash Posted April 24, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Community leaders agree that we want to grow as community in a way that promotes economic expansion and sustainability, but we are running out of space to do so.

The populations of Chapel Hill and the campus of UNC are increasing, and with growth comes inevitable change. The task at hand is to decide how to have development happen across the town in a way that serves the community, but many disagree about the best approach.

Aaron Nelson, President & CEO of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, says he is fully in favor of embracing redevelopment.

“I think a lot of the future will be in redevelopment. If we are going to protect the green stuff out there, we are going to have to redevelop the stuff within our municipal boundaries or begin talking about getting into the rural buffer,” Nelson says.

Nelson has been a supporter of the proposed plan to revitalize the area surrounding the Ephesus-Fordham intersection, which includes vacant lots, confusing intersections, and traffic tie-ups.

That plan is causing conflict within the community, with many residents pushing back against the proposed redevelopment, arguing that the process is moving too fast. The Council delayed taking a formal vote on the plan Wednesday evening.

Julie McClintock, President of the Friends of Bolin Creek and a former Chapel Hill Town Council member, has been outspoken about her opposition to the current state of the Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment.

“The fact is that what is so fascinating about everyone of these so-called focus group processes is the citizens have gotten well informed and have pointed out to the council that we need to be more comprehensive. I mean, you cannot just look at the traffic in the Ephesus-Fordham intersection. You have got to look at the entire 15-501 corridor,” McClintock says. “I would really fault the Planning Board of the Town of Chapel Hill. Why do we employ planners if they aren’t to plan comprehensively?”

McClintock also served as a member of the Central West Steering Committee, the group that was tasked with formulating a plan for the future redevelopment along Estes Dr.

Central West, like Ephesus-Fordham, is one of the several focus areas designated for redevelopment in the Chapel 2020 plan, a strategy the Town developed with a hope of formulating a vision for growth for Chapel Hill.

That is where McClintock says she believes that this approach is not living up to expectations.

“I would say that we don’t have an economic development strategy, and we need to get one. I think the Town is in crisis. Fiscally, we have unfunded transit, unfunded houses, unfunded roads. We are in trouble. We need a strategy to get out of this mire,”  McClintock says.

Michael Parker, Chair of the Town Transportation Board, co-chaired the Central West Steering Committee. For more than 10 months, members of the group argued about issues such as how much density was appropriate for the area.

Parker says he felt that the Town Council should have been more specific about what it wanted from the Central West Steering Committee, saying that they spent a lot of time “wandering in the desert.”

After dozens of long, contentious meetings, the group ultimately produced a small area plan which was approved by the Council in November of last year.

As far as the Ephesus-Fordham Redevelopment Plan, Parker says it makes sense for the town.

“Until you take a proactive stance, until the town is willing and to say, ‘These are the things that we want, and we are going to do the things that will make it possible for those things to happen,’ we will be the recipients of things that we very often do not care for and then will have to scramble and struggle to make things right,” Parker says.

On the subject of the effectiveness of these focus groups, David Schwartz, a researcher for the N.C.Botanical Garden, says that Town leaders should consider the bigger picture.

“The small area planning processes are occurring now where you have each area being addressed in isolation from the others. We end up reinventing the wheel, or each area plan not taking into account what is being considered in the other areas, and why it may make more sense to do something integrated across the entire town,” Schwartz says.

Locally-Owned Vs. National Chains

As redevelopment plans are in the works across Chapel Hill, new businesses will move in.

Nelson says the Town should aim to support locally-owned business for a healthy locally economy, but added that national chains draw in consumers which benefit surrounding stores as well. He shared that downtown Chapel Hill was about 80 percent locally owned and operated business and 20 percent national chains.

McClintock says she feared that the Town could loose its character if too many national chains moved in.

Nelson says that Orange County residents have the highest per capita income in the state, but the county is ranked 65th in per capita retail sales—so we are spending our money somewhere else. He says that in order to change this, retail brought into our area should be tailored to serve the population, not excluding big box stores.

All agreed that job creation and a strong transit system were key factors in economic prosperity.

Schwartz, McClintock, Parker, and Nelson made those comments during the “Economic Development” panel of WCHL’s 2014 Community Forum. To hear the full discussion, click here.

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