CHAPEL HILL – Orange County is by many measures the most affluent county in North Carolina, but its poverty rate is also well above the state average—a striking statistic that’s troubling for residents who say they’re committed to progressive values like social and economic justice.
It’s a reality that’s existed for years, and there’s no easy or quick solution. But local economic development leaders say attracting the right kind of business to the area may offer a boost to those living at or below the poverty line—not to mention those who can’t afford to live in Orange County at all.
“I was talking to (CHCCS Superintendent) Tom Forcella recently about the number of teachers that teach in our public schools that actually can afford to live in Chapel Hill–(and) that number’s very low,” says local entrepreneur Jim Kitchen. “I was talking to (Chapel Hill Police Chief) Chris Blue about the same thing for policemen and women and other public servants, and that number’s very low.”
Kitchen made that comment at a panel on economic development during Thursday’s Community Forum on WCHL.
Economic inequality was a key point of concern at the forum, not only for Kitchen but for all his fellow panelists—Orange County Economic Development Director Steve Brantley, Chapel Hill Planning Board member Amy Ryan, Carrboro Economic Development Director Annette Stone, and Chapel Hill Town Council member Jim Ward. But while conversations about development in Orange County usually tend to revolve around the need for more retail business—the better to increase the county’s commercial tax base—Thursday’s panelists all agreed on the need to think outside the box.
Annette Stone, in particular, keyed on two novel approaches.
“The emphasis that the town has put on arts and entertainment and the food economy–the ‘creative economy’–in the past few years has been very successful,” she said Thursday. “And working to really help what I (call) the ‘hidden economy,’ those entrepreneurs that are sort of embedded in the town–and you can map out privilege license and see how many little home businesses there are–and really helping them up and out–I think those are the things that we can do.”
Speaking for Orange County, Steve Brantley said the future of local economic development also lay in light industrial business, as well as retail and other office space.
“I think that a company coming in and bringing high-tech skills, where the community college trains those people, where those people get full-time jobs, not part-time jobs–(where) they get the benefits, health care, retirement, maybe for the first time in their life–to me, that’s the social justice that economic development can bring,” he said Thursday.
Brantley says much of his work as economic development director has focused recently on attracting light manufacturing to the area.
Also in the works are a variety of large retail projects—including proposed developments at Ephesus Church Road, Glen Lennox, Obey Creek near Southern Village, University Square in downtown Chapel Hill, and the EDGE project on Eubanks Road, to name only a few.
Amy Ryan says there are many possible benefits to those projects—but one of the most important may be the degree to which they can address the issues of affordability and economic justice.
“We have very high ideals for ourselves and the kind of values that we have–and they’re very expensive,” she says. “And I think having that discussion–saying, look, if you have this amount of economic development, you’re going to be able to let your teachers and firefighters live in town, you’re going to be able to provide more affordable housing–it may be worth it to you to put that big-box retailer somewhere, if it then brings those extra benefits to town.”