Two former Carrboro mayors urged the Board of Aldermen to support a proposal to build a four-story building downtown for the ArtsCenter and Kidzu, in a deal that would include a second hotel at 300 East Main Street.

Former Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, now the Orange County Register of Deeds, said he had been watching the public hearing at home before rushing over to Town Hall to speak just before the end of Tuesday night’s public hearing.

“I’ve heard a lot of great questions raised tonight about this project,” said Chilton. “And I think that they’re questions that the folks who are proponents of the project need to address.

“But I also think that this is a really significant opportunity for downtown Carrboro. Opportunities like this – while they will come again, there will be another time, down the road, when we’ll have an opportunity to consider a major new art center – they don’t come very often.”

The partnership of non-profits The ArtsCenter and Kidzu Children’s Museum is asking the town to construct a four-story, 55,000-square-foot Arts & Innovation Center at the corner of Main and Roberson Streets, on a former parking lot across from the Armadillo Grill.

The estimated cost of the project is $13 million, according to the partnership.

“We want to raise $7.5 million and gift it to the town, in order to build this building” said architect Phil Szostak, who serves on the board of the Carrboro ArtsCenter. “And we would do that before anything else happens – before the town spends any money. And so were asking the town and other public entities that may be involved to contribute the other $7.5 million over the next 25 years.”

In return for Main Street Properties donating the land to the town, the ArtsCenter would swap its building at 300 East Main, allowing the Hampton Inn to build a second hotel there.

The proposal has stirred a lot of public interest – so much so that people were spilling out into the hallway and the media room of Town Hall on Tuesday night. Sixty people signed up to speak, and many of those didn’t get a chance.

Some speakers were enthusiastic about the plan.

Jon Mills, co-founder of Kidzu, speaks at the Jan. 20, 2015 Carrboro Board of Aldermen public hearing about a proposed new Arts & Innovation Center downtown.

Jon Mills, co-founder of Kidzu, speaks at the Jan. 20, 2015 Carrboro Board of Aldermen public hearing about a proposed new Arts & Innovation Center downtown.

“I can’t think of anything better for Carrboro’s future,” said Betsy Bertram, general manager of Townsend Bertram & Company Adventure Outfitters, her family’s business. “As a young person living in Carrboro, I often drive over to Durham for shows, for classes, for cultural opportunities. And I want to be able to stay right here in Carrboro.”

Others were opposed outright. They said that the town should make affordable housing or infrastructure issues a higher priority. Some said the deal would change the very nature of Carrboro that made them want to settle there.

Several speakers said they wanted the proposed 16-month deadline for a decision extended for the sake of further study.

“I’d love to see The Artscenter flourish,” said Brad Bonneville, owner of a Bonneville Electric, “and I’d love to see Kidzu find a place here in Carrboro. But I think that we need to proceed with caution. This is a risky venture.”

Concerns about risk

Part of the risk that made some speakers uneasy was the promise of tax revenue generated by the new hotel to fund the project, thus eliminating the need for any new burden to Carrboro taxpayers.

And there were a lot of concerns expressed about parking.

Nathan Milian, manager of Carr Mill Mall, is no stranger to controversy regarding the subject of Carrboro parking. He offered this opinion on Tuesday night:

“Any consideration of this project should be put on hold until after the completion of the proposed parking study,” he said.

Former Carrboro Mayor Ellie Kinnaird, who recently retired from her subsequent job as a state senator, shot down parking concerns in her full-throated endorsement of the project. She said there’s plenty of parking in the parking garage at the Hampton Inn, and the new hotel will provide even more.

She also had an answer for those who questioned the occupancy rate of the existing hotel, in the context of whether the town could support another one.

“The Hampton Inn is 95 percent occupancy,” said Kinnaird. “And whenever I go in there, I ask them how they’re doing. And they are flourishing”

‘Soul of Carrboro’

There was some strong support expressed for Frank Heath, owner of the legendary music club the Cat’s Cradle, a fixture at 300 East Main for several years.

“The Cat’s Cradle, as you know, has brought in, in the time it’s been in Carrboro, hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue,” said Orange County Commissioner Mark Dorosin, a former Carrboro alderperson. “It has also made an immeasurable impact on other businesses in the community. Ask any restaurant or bar owner about what happens to their revenues when there’s a good show at the Cradle.

“The Cradle has become, through its national reputation, identified as the soul of Carrboro.”

Some speakers said they wanted assurances that the club would be protected from getting squeezed out.

Heath was there for part of the meeting, but didn’t sign up to speak.

Alderperson Randee Haven-O’Donnell said she hopes that Heath shares his views on the CAIC proposal when the hearing is continued on Feb. 3. Another alderperson, Sammy Slade, requested that the hotel developers show up as well.

If time permits, alderpersons may also weigh in at that hearing. And a work session for the proposal is likely to be scheduled soon.