Aaron Nelson and Chamber board chair Paige Zinn at the State of the Community meeting. Photo by Donn Young, courtesy Orange County Visitors Bureau.
CHAPEL HILL – Orange County is the wealthiest county in the state of North Carolina—but the steady flow of money outside county lines continues to be a cause for concern.
“Per capita income is the highest (and) unemployment is the lowest in the state, but we still have this huge retail gap,” said Aaron Nelson, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, presenting data Tuesday at his annual State of the Community report.
The “retail gap” refers to the difference between the amount of money spent by Orange County residents each year and the amount of money that’s actually spent in Orange County.
According to the state Department of Commerce, Orange County residents spent about $1.68 billion dollars last year alone—but retail sales in Orange County were less than $1 billion.
“The gap in Orange County is $728 million” in 2012, says Nelson. “Making gains on this will have (a) huge impact.”
That $728 million gap is nearly twice that of Durham County ($376 million) and more than three times the retail gap of Chatham County ($236 million). And Alamance County—thanks in part to Tanger Outlets—actually has a $154 million retail surplus. Nelson says that gap helps explain why Orange County—number one in the state in per capita income—ranks only 65th in terms of sales tax revenue.
And he says eliminating that gap—or at least reducing it—will go a long way toward easing the tax burden on local property owners. About 87 percent of Orange County’s taxable land is residential property (compared to just 60 percent in Durham), which means the county’s property tax burden will always fall most heavily on homeowners. Nelson says that number’s not going to change—so the key is to generate more sales tax revenue from the commercial property we have, so as to be less reliant on property taxes as a whole.
“We should stop focusing on (and) beating ourselves about that split between residential and commercial,” he says. “We need to use that to remind ourselves (that) we’ve got to grow revenue from commercial sources.”
And Nelson also says Orange County can ease its burden by taking steps to reduce “wealth migration,” the amount of income that leaves the county whenever people move. Not surprisingly, Orange County draws in wealth from all over the country—but when it comes to our neighboring counties, there’s a lot more money leaving Orange County than coming in.
“The biggest outflow is $179 million worth of wealth…moving to Chatham County,” says Nelson. “The second highest amount was to Alamance County, $86 million, (and) Durham County, $83 million…Wealth migration has had a negative impact on Orange County, but a positive impact on our neighbors.”
Those numbers cover the period from 1992-2010; in that span, Orange County suffered a net wealth-migration loss of nearly $50 million in gross income. (All of that loss came in the last nine years; until 2001 Orange County was gaining more than it was losing.)
Nelson delivered his State of the Community report on Tuesday at the Friday Center. You can see the full presentation at this link.