Chapel Hill-Carrboro Business Hall of Fame

Join in a night of elegance and commemoration

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce will induct seven business leaders and families into the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Business Hall of Fame, 6:30-9:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 5 at The Carolina Inn.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Business Hall of Fame Celebration and Induction Ceremony honors individuals who have made lasting and meaningful contributions to local business and the greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro community through inspiring leadership, entrepreneurial and courageous thinking and action, and excellence in business management.

The 2015 class of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Business Hall of Fame includes:
• Jean Holcomb, Viking Travel
• John Woodard, Sutton’s Drug Store
• The Hogan Family, Lake Hogan Farm
• Eddie Mann, Orange Federal Savings & Loan
• Ted Seagroves, Seagroves Insurance Agency
• Stephen Edwards, Midway Barber Shop
• Eva Barnett, Eva’s Beauty Shop

Tickets to the Hall of Fame, a black tie event including a cocktail hour, three-course meal and entertainment, are $150 per person or $1,200 for a VIP table of eight. Register online at, or contact Chela Tu at or (919) 357-9990.

Inter-City Visit: Lessons From Boulder

Business accelerators: good. Regionally integrated transit: good.

Homes selling for 800,000 dollars: perhaps not.

Earlier this week, nearly 100 local leaders traveled to Boulder, Colorado, for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s biennial Inter-City Visit. Every other year, the Chamber leads a visit to a town much like ours: visitors tour the city, meet with local leaders, and learn how other communities have tackled their problems – many of which are the same problems we face in Orange County.

Situated just outside Denver, at the base of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder is home of the University of Colorado. Town leaders there pride themselves on strong business development – focusing not just on incubators but also “accelerators” that help keep startups in town past the ‘incubation’ stage. And they’re also proud of their transit plan, which incorporates driving, busing, biking and walking together as essential components. Less exciting, though, is a rapid spike in housing costs that puts Chapel Hill’s concern about affordability to shame: the median home in Boulder sells for more than $800,000. (Consequently, far more people live outside Boulder and commute into the city to work. In Chapel Hill it’s the other way around.)

What did the Orange County delegation learn from the Boulder visit? WCHL’s Aaron Keck spoke with several people, both during and after the trip.

Listen to Aaron’s conversation with NC AIDS Action Network executive director (and former Chapel Hill Town Council member) Lee Storrow.


Listen to Aaron’s conversation with Carrboro Alderman Bethany Chaney.


Listen to Aaron’s conversation with Aaron Bachenheimer, UNC’s director of Fraternity & Sorority Life and Community Involvement.


Listen to Aaron’s conversation (post-ICV) with Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger.

Chamber of Commerce to Let Their Hair Down at the BEAs

Aaron Nelson and Chela Tu of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce joined Ron Stutts on Monday to discuss the BEAs.


“BEA” is short for “Business Excellence Awards.  The event is Friday, May 13 at 6:30 PM.  It’s at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill.  There will be an after-party at The Strowd.

The BEAs will recognize the best businesses in the community.  Some of the awards will be chosen by a selection committee.  You had an opportunity to make your voice heard in the WCHL/Chapelboro People’s choice Awards.

Photo: Nicholas C. Johnson: BEAs

Photo: Nicholas C. Johnson

Orange County Homes Are Pricier – But How Much Pricier? And Why?

If you’re in the market to buy a home, where do you get the most bang for your buck?

In 2015, the average closing price for a home sold in Orange County was $342,172, according to Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce president Aaron Nelson. “This is a new high since (before) the recession,” he says.

2007, right before the housing crisis, was the only year in history that Orange County saw higher home prices – and if current trends continue, the county will break that record in 2016.




But what are the numbers underneath those numbers? How does the price of housing in Orange County compare with other counties in the area? If there’s a difference, what’s driving the difference? And is that difference growing, or shrinking?

Start with the average cost of a home. $342,000 is a lot to pay for a house – compare that to Durham County, where the average closing price was just over $200,000 in 2015. But Orange County is not number one, not anymore: closing prices are actually higher in Chatham.

“Chatham County peaked above Orange County for the first time last year,” Nelson says, “and (it) remains in that slot.”

In 2015, the average home buyer in Chatham County paid $359,000 for their house, $17,000 more than they did in Orange.




But that doesn’t necessarily mean Orange County is offering a better value: Nelson says Chatham County houses are more expensive partly because they’re bigger. In terms of the cost of housing per square foot, Orange County is still the priciest: $142 per square foot, versus $138 in Chatham.

And if you want a home in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district, you’re going to pay even more. Last year, the average home in Chapel Hill-Carrboro sold for more than $382,000, or $157 per square foot.

(Compare that to $107 per square foot in Durham.)

“Housing in Chapel Hill is 30 percent more per square foot in the district than it is in Durham,” Nelson says. “So that 3,000-square foot home – the same home – costs 30 percent more.”




So if you’re in the market for a new house, you can get a much better value in Durham – and a slightly better value in Chatham – than you can get in Orange County or Chapel Hill.

But there are signs that this may be changing. In Chatham County, the cost per square foot has gone up dramatically – nearly 10 percent in the last two years. In Durham it’s gone up about 6 percent.

In Orange County, though, exactly the opposite has occurred. “For the first time,” Nelson says, “last year we saw a slight decline.”

For the average home sold in Orange County, the cost per square foot actually dropped by 4.7 percent from 2013 to 2015.




So the value gap may be narrowing between Orange County and its neighbors.

But is that necessarily good?

“If you’re an affordable housing advocate, you are heartened by this information,” Nelson says, “(but) if you’re worried about the erosion of home value, you are concerned.”

The cost of housing in Chatham County is on the rise partly because it’s bigger – and partly because it’s newer. The same is true for Wake and Durham. The housing stock in Orange County, by contrast, tends to be significantly older – and that may be contributing to the decline in cost per square foot.

And the cost of the home itself is not the only factor when it comes to housing value. Don’t forget about taxes, Nelson says: “A $300,000 house in Orange County has a $150-a-month higher tax bill than the same house in Wake County.”

If you’re looking to get a mortgage, Nelson says that translates into about $28,000. “You can buy a slightly more expensive home in other markets,” he says, “so the taxes do impact our cost of housing.”

All of those numbers, Nelson says, are things that homebuyers do consider when it comes to making the decision to live – or not to live – in Orange County.

Nelson made those comments and delivered those statistics at his annual State of the Community Report, last week at the Friday Center. 

Read the full report here.

How Fast Is Orange County Really Growing?

We know that Orange County’s population is growing, and that’s a fact that has some local folks concerned: concerned that we’re getting too dense, that we’re losing our small-town character, or that we’re getting too big for our infrastructure to manage.

But how fast is Orange County really growing? How does our growth compare to our peer communities? And where is that growth actually coming from?

“The story I’ve been telling myself is that people are moving here, that they’re coming to us from Florida and Ohio and the Northeast – but that’s not what’s happening,” says Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce president Aaron Nelson. “Our domestic migration is actually negative.”

What does that mean? “More people move out of Orange County into the (rest of the) US than move into Orange County from the US,” Nelson says.

Nelson’s comments are from his State of the Community Report, delivered last week at the Friday Center. Read the full report here.

He’s citing numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. In the year 2014, Orange County’s population grew by an estimated 1,055 people – but that growth did not come from people moving to Chapel Hill from other parts of the country.

Where did it come from? Immigration, as it turns out. About 800 new immigrants settled in Orange County in 2014, most of them either from Asia or elsewhere in North America. Nelson says that accounts for a little more than half of our population growth.

The rest of our growth is natural: 1,269 people were born in Orange County that year, while 738 people died. That’s a net population gain of more than 500, without anyone moving in or out.

“So we have to be aware that some of (our population growth) is somewhat beyond our control,” Nelson says.




In fact the census numbers suggest that most of Orange County’s population growth is not driven by our local policy choices. It’s partly a product of birth rates, partly a product of international trends. (And a lot of the rest is regional: “The Triangle has been growing wildly,” Nelson observes.)

But how fast is Orange County growing, anyway?




In the 2000s, our population grew from 118,245 to 133,801 – that’s an increase of more than 15,000 people in one decade alone.

Which sounds like a lot – until you look back at the 1990s, when Orange County added nearly 25,000 new people.

“In fact,” Nelson says, “the 2000s are the slowest decade of growth in Orange County since the 1960s.”




Nelson says Orange County’s growth has actually slowed down in the last 15 years – not just in real numbers, but also (and especially) in terms of percentage.

“This is the lowest-percentage population growth that we’ve had since the 1930s,” he says.

According to the Census Bureau, Orange County’s population grew by only 9 percent in the 1930s, but it grew by at least 20 percent every decade since – until the 2000s, when we saw only 13 percent growth. (So far this decade, we’re on track to grow about 12.5 percent.)




Compare that to Chatham County, which saw its population grow by about 28 percent in each of the last two decades.




Still, Nelson says, those numbers do add up. Chapel Hill’s population today sits at about 60,000, twice what it was in 1980; by 2050 it’s projected to double again, to nearly 114,000.

And that’s not all. By 2050, Carrboro’s population will jump from less than 20,000 to more than 50,000; Hillsborough will double from 6,000 to 12,000. Mebane will skyrocket from less than 2,000 people today to more than 42,000 by midcentury – and that’s just the corner of Mebane that’s in Orange County.




Those numbers are daunting. But how will it feel? Nelson says to get a sense of what that population will be like, we need to look at population density.

And there, he says, we actually do have some room to grow before we start feeling crowded. Durham and Wake Counties, for instance, are currently about three times as dense as Orange, because Orange County is more rural.




But even when it comes to the cities, Chapel Hill and Carrboro, Nelson says there’s still plenty of room to grow. At about 3,000 people per square mile, Carrboro is the densest town in North Carolina, and Chapel Hill’s not far behind at about 2,700 per square mile – but many of our peer communities outside the state are considerably more dense than we are. Charlottesville, Virginia, Burlington, Vermont, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, for instance, are all above 4,000 people per square mile.

“And I think we admire many of those as places we think are beautiful and wonderful,” Nelson says.




Chapel Hill’s population density isn’t projected to hit 4,000 until at least 2030 – and even then, we’ll be no denser than Charlottesville is today.

(Which isn’t to say that we won’t have difficulty accommodating all those new people – but there are model cities around the country that show us it won’t be impossible.)



Tom Ross Honored By Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber

Former UNC system president Tom Ross was given the Duke Energy Citizenship & Service Award by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce during its Annual Meeting on Tuesday.

As the event’s keynote speaker, Ross delivered a speech on the value of higher education.

“Today it’s my fear that colleges and universities in this country are considered increasingly as nothing more than factories that must demonstrate an immediate return on investment,” he said. “We hear constantly, calls to drive out cost and to produce more product for less cost. There’s far less talk about academic quality and excellence.”

He said if nothing else, North Carolinians should care about higher education because of the economic benefits it brings to the state. Ross said the 9.3 billion dollar budget makes the university system the 11th largest industry in the state.

“In 2013, the UNC System creates 27.9 billion dollars of added economic value to the North Carolina economy,” he said. “It has the equivalent impact of creating more than 426,000 jobs.”

Ross said he was concerned with what he called the divestment in education and said this has led to other nations and other states catching up to the UNC system.

“We now spend two percent more on higher education in real dollars than we did 25 years ago,” he said. “During that same time period our enrollment has grown 60 percent. We’re spending more than 30 percent less per student today than we did 25 years ago in this country.”

Ross ended his speech by calling on residents of North Carolina to make their voices heard and tell their representatives that they want to increase funding for the system.

He also encouraged people to vote in favor of the Connect NC Bond, which will invest nearly half of the two billion dollars raised in the UNC System.

“So if I’m right, we must reverse the 25 year trend and begin investing again in our public universities,” he said.

Tom Ross’ Speech at Chamber Annual Meeting 1.26.16

Salute to Community Heroes Ceremony Held on Thursday Night

The Chapel Hill – Carrboro Chamber of Commerce held its Salute to Community Heroes ceremony at University Place on Thursday night.

Those citizens honored at the event included:

Carrboro Police Officer of the Year: Sergeant James Walker
UNC Public Safety Employee of the Year: Sergeant Michael Laffan
Chapel Hill Police Officer of the Year: Officer Brad Kramer
Orange County ES EM Coordinator of the Year: Emergency Management Coordinator Kirby Saunders
Orange County ES EMS Employee of the Year: EMS Logistics Officer James Lunsford
Orange County Sheriff’s Employee of the Year: Chief Deputy Jamison Reed Sykes
Chapel Hill Firefighter of the Year: Master Firefighter James R. Spero
Carrboro Firefighter of the Year: Driver Josh Asbill
Citizen of the Year: Mark Kleinschmidt, Town of Chapel Hill
Jim Gibson Volunteer of the Year: Archie Daniel, Orange County Sheriff’s office
Town and Gown Award Recipient: Anna Wu, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Irene Briggaman Lifetime Achievement Award Recipients: Fred Battle and Rev. Dr. Robert Seymour, Binkley Baptist Church

Chamber of Commerce Holds Annual Meeting

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce held their annual meeting on Thursday.

Several honors were handed out during the proceedings. One award went to a public servant for their partnership with the business community. This year that recognition went to Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt.

Among the other awards handed out, longtime Orange County Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass was recognized with the Duke Energy Citizenship and Service Award.

The finalists for the chamber’s businesses of the year were also named at the meeting.

In the non-profit division: Table Inc., Walking Classroom, and the Compass Center for Women and Families.

In the Microenterprise of the Year: Balloons & Tunes, Community Empowerment Fund, and i9 Sports.

In the Mid-Size Business of the Year: Yes! Solar Solutions, Al’s Burger Shack, and the Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

In the Large Business of the Year: Carolina Inn, PHE Inc, and Summit Design and Engineering Services.

The winners will be announced at the Business Excellence Awards in April.

Dispatch From Athens, Day III: Home Sweet Expensive Home

About a hundred of Orange County’s movers and shakers were in Athens, Georgia, this week for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s biennial Inter-City Visit. Every two years, the Chamber leads a three-day visit to a city similar to Chapel Hill: attendees meet with town leaders, tour the community, and draw lessons about how other towns do their business and solve their problems.

This year’s ICV began Sunday (with a brief stopover in Greenville, SC) and ran through Tuesday. WCHL’s Aaron Keck was there.

Have you missed any of Aaron’s updates from Athens?
Monday Morning | Monday Evening | Tuesday Morning | Tuesday Evening

Dispatch From Athens: Part I | Part II | Part III

I’m turning on my computer to write this final piece after a trip that spanned three days, two cities, two states, and – after all that – one long, long bus ride. So you’ll forgive me if I keep this last post brief…

As always on these trips, everyone walks away on the last day full of excitement and energy, ready to get home and get to work – it’s just a question of what to work on first. Do we start the process of bringing a convention center to town, like Athens’ Classic Center? Do we accelerate the push for form-based code, as Athens has done? Or do we – as Donna Bell put it today – start by trying to identify the “low-hanging fruit,” the smaller innovations that we can act on right now?

Everybody on this trip is ready to take action, at least for the moment: we’ve all been inspired by a presentation by the head of Athens’ Chamber of Commerce (a very stereotypical Southern gentleman named Doc) about how the city of Athens and Clarke County managed to consolidate into one municipality back in the early 90s. Not that we want to merge Chapel Hill and Carrboro and Hillsborough and Orange County into one giant lump, of course – but the story of how Athens overcame adversity and took a big risk has us all excited about what we might be able to accomplish back home if we’re only willing to take a chance on things. (In our last session, Linda Convissor of UNC pointed out that that’s exactly what the entrepreneurial spirit is all about.)

Now, this being a businessy trip, it goes without saying that “taking a big risk” means being willing to say yes to new developments, including the big and innovative ones that are likely to really transform a county or a town or a neighborhood. (Cough, cough, Ephesus-Fordham.) But it also means being willing to try new, untested approaches to dealing with longstanding problems. Like affordability. On our ride home – after a surprise pit stop at a peaches-and-fireworks stand – half the bus got into a two-hour impromptu conversation on how best to develop low-cost housing in Orange County. Tiny houses? Workforce rentals? Promoting homeownership as a long-term investment? Everything was on the table. The ultimate solution will likely require multiple approaches.

If there is an ultimate solution, that is. As someone pointed out to me this week, the truth is that it’s going to be virtually impossible to resolve the affordable-housing problem. Chapel Hill is an attractive community, with only so many housing units and limited space to build more. Demand is greater than supply, which drives up prices – and as long as Chapel Hill remains an attractive community, that upward pressure isn’t going to go away. The occasional low-cost development, the affordable units here and there, won’t ever be enough to meet our needs. Greenville, SC, had lots of town-owned land that they were able to leverage for more affordable housing – but even that didn’t move the dial very much. Chapel Hill has even less land to sell.

So if we’re not likely to be able to fix the affordable housing dilemma, what do we do?

There are those who believe we should just accept it. “Chapel Hill is going to be an affluent community,” they say, “and we need to ask ourselves, is that really such a bad thing?” (I’m paraphrasing a line I heard just this week.)

On the other hand, there’s the Carrboro alderman I spoke with in Greenville, who was scared they were spending their life building a community too nice for them to afford to live in. We take the fatalistic approach, we’re giving up on all the people who make this community run – not just that alderman, but also the housekeepers, police officers, town workers, and more.

One thing’s for sure, though. If we’re going to address this problem, it’s going to take some outside-the-box thinking – and it’s going to take some risks.

And it may take an approach from multiple angles. Affordability isn’t just about housing, after all: it’s also about food costs, transportation costs, taxes, the cost of living in general, and – perhaps most importantly – the amount of money you’re making in the first place. Athens knows. Their poverty rate is upwards of 35 percent, third-highest in the nation for a city its size. They’ve tried all sorts of things: cool collaborative educational programs that link the K-12 district with the community college and UGA; a concerted effort to consolidate redundant nonprofits and other services into a more efficient machine; an anti-poverty program called Partners for a Prosperous Athens that drew 850 residents to its first meeting alone. But nothing’s worked. What’s the problem? Delene Porter of the Athens Area Community Foundation says it’s largely about jobs: the unemployment rate is actually very low, but the jobs that exist in Athens simply don’t pay enough for people to comfortably live on. What they need – and what they don’t have – is a living wage. (Are there unions in Athens, who might agitate for one? Hell no. “I don’t think we have any active unions,” says Porter. That lack of unions may have just helped Athens in the short term – Caterpillar, the big manufacturer that just moved in, moved in partly because there were no unions in town. But what does that say about the wages they’re likely to offer? Nothing good.)

Can we in Orange County address the poverty issue by pushing for a living wage? In Greenville, the town has a pretty specific master plan governing how they want their downtown to be developed – including a rough idea of what percentage of downtown businesses are to be unique local stores and what percentage are to be national ‘anchors.’ They’ve made that happen by working together with developers, in a collaborative partnership – making sure everyone’s on the same team, and making sure all sides can benefit from a development agreement. Can Orange County partner with developers in the same way? Can we commit to giving developers the facilitating partnership they need to succeed, and can those developers be facilitating partners in our push to end poverty – by recruiting businesses that guarantee a living wage to their employees?

Is that something that’s possible?

Maybe. Maybe not. But one thing is certain, as we drive out of Athens and head home – our problems are still going to be waiting for us, and we’ll need some entrepreneurship of our own if we’re going to fully solve them.

Column originally posted September 24, 2014, 2:24 a.m.

Dispatch From Athens, Part II: The Da Vinci Form-Based Code

About a hundred of Orange County’s movers and shakers are in Athens, Georgia, this week for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s biennial Inter-City Visit. Every two years, the Chamber leads a three-day visit to a city similar to Chapel Hill: attendees meet with town leaders, tour the community, and draw lessons about how other towns do their business and solve their problems.

This year’s ICV began Sunday (with a brief stopover in Greenville, SC) and runs through Tuesday. WCHL’s Aaron Keck is there.

Have you missed any of Aaron’s updates from Athens live on WCHL?
Monday Morning | Monday Evening | Tuesday Morning | Tuesday Evening

Dispatch From Athens: Part I | Part II | Part III

The idea behind the Inter-City Visit is to tour a city and really examine it in depth. But because of our unique schedule, today was our only full day in Athens. So we had a lot of information thrown our way today.

How do I begin to make sense of it all?

The short answer is: I can’t. See, all I can do is tell you one story. But the truth is that everyone here – and there are a hundred of us – is drawing different lessons, remembering different points, focusing on different things. (This is how it’s intended to be, by the way.) So now, at the end of our one day, we have some folks thinking about how to bring a convention center to Chapel Hill, like Athens’ Classic Center…we have some folks thinking about Athens’ parking-deck policy (free for the first half hour, and you can add time on your smartphone)…we have some folks admiring the investments Athens is making in its public schools…and still other folks are talking about how they can use the Athens experience to make Chapel Hill/Carrboro a more bike-friendly place. And then there are 95 other people with their own ideas.

So no, there’s no way I can tell you the whole story.

But a couple big overarching points are emerging.

The first is manufacturing. Two years ago the ICV visited Bloomington, Indiana, and I was struck then by the amount of light-industrial business they had. Same deal here in Athens, where UGA is still the biggest employer but 13 percent of residents work in manufacturing.  (We heard from Ryan Moore, the town’s economic development director – and his entire presentation revolved around how Athens was pulling in light industry. None of this how-to-bring-in-a-Costco talk.) The new hotness is Caterpillar, the construction-equipment manufacturer, which just moved a plant to Athens from Japan – a $200 million investment that’ll bring about 1,400 jobs to the community.

And the second point is form-based code. By now, if you follow Chapel Hill politics, you get the gist: in a form-based code system, rather than forcing developers to get special approval for each individual project, the community sets guidelines and parameters in advance – “here’s what we want to achieve in this part of town” – and then developers can build as they please, provided the project’s specifications meet those pre-established guidelines. (As Mark Kleinschmidt put it, the idea is to “be clear about our rules – and then get out of the way.”) In theory, at least, it’s a way to streamline the approval process, reduce the onus on developers, and make the town-developer relationship a little less adversarial. Chapel Hill is trying this now in one segment of town, Ephesus-Fordham, and even within those limits it’s extremely controversial – but in Athens, form-based code has been standard operating procedure since 2000. (Said county planning director Brad Griffin: “it was the desire of the community, in 2000, to adopt a set of standards and let them work.” That’s been the state of things ever since.)

Based on what I’m hearing here, can I say that form-based code is the future in Chapel Hill? Well – it’s worth remembering that the Chamber of Commerce is hosting this tour, so it’s bound to be a business-friendly affair no matter what. And even our most gung-ho proponents of form-based code don’t insist it’s the right approach everywhere in town. (Plus, it was a little easier for Athens to implement the form-based approach: the process was already fairly streamlined, and they didn’t make too many changes to what they were already demanding.) But there certainly does seem to be a lot of support for it, and that support extends to business leaders, elected officials, and everyone in between. There were cheers from our people when the Athens folks discussed the process, knowing murmurs when the Athens folks mentioned their contingent of naysayers. (Not everyone was quite that audible, but you get the idea.) I double-checked with a couple people whose work focuses on social justice, people who’d be the first to raise the red flag if they felt our values were being railroaded by development – and they seemed fine with it too, at least to a significant extent. We’re still waiting to see how this experiment plays out in Ephesus-Fordham, but these Chapel Hillians are largely on board with form-based code, and our meetings with the Athenians are only reinforcing that view.

So how does this play out in practice? In Athens, once a proposal comes forth, it takes about nine days for the various departments to review it for compliance with the code – then another period of revision before approval. Members of the public can sit in on the meetings, but there’s no public comment (since the public already had its say back when the guidelines were set). All told, it takes about 3-6 months from initial proposal to final approval – much much shorter than in Chapel Hill, where it often takes years. Result: in 2012-13, seventeen big projects got approved – including Caterpillar and several big mixed-use downtown projects – totaling $295 million in value. (For perspective’s sake: Greenbridge was a $50 million project; 140 West was $40 million.) It’s a pretty big deal.

And for serious, I can’t overstate how quickly our folks livened up when the topic was raised. They – like – this idea.

And perhaps with good reason. Yesterday I wrote about our trek through Greenville, South Carolina, a very nice town that struggles to remain affordable. We’ve got the same issue in Orange County. How do we address it? One economic development official reminded me today that “affordability” isn’t just a question of cheap housing: it’s also about holding down the cost of transportation; keeping taxes at a manageable level; and creating good-paying jobs, ideally close to town so employees don’t have to shell out for gas to get to work and back. Achieving all those things requires new developments – multiple new developments – and that in turn requires a more friendly, less adversarial relationship between public and private interests. (Set the basic parameters, he said, and then give developers some flexibility to create a plan that works for them.) “And if we spent less time poring over every development,” he said – I’m paraphrasing – “we’d have more time to focus on the social justice issues we care about.”

Fair point. Is that how it plays out in Athens? Yes, to a degree. We were all wowed this morning by Philip Lanoue, the superintendent of schools here in Clarke County – who’s made huge strides in eliminating the district’s achievement gap by leveraging sales tax dollars, forging public-private partnerships, and (most importantly) setting clear and high expectations for all kids across race and class lines. They provide tablets and laptops to students; they’ve established a dual-enrollment program with the local community college, Athens Tech; they’ve spent $400 million on needed repairs and upgrades (CHCCS is asking for $160 million); they’re providing health insurance and healthy food for kids who need it – because “if you’re going to close the achievement gap you have to have healthy children” – and in the process they’ve raised the graduation rate among African-Americans from 35 percent to 70 percent in 10 years’ time. This in an extremely poor district, where the poverty rate is 34.9 percent, the per capita income is less than $20,000, and 82 percent of students – 82 percent! – are on free or reduced lunch programs. Amazing things can be done. (Based on tours of the Clarke County schools, CHCCS folks are heading home with a renewed commitment to fix their infrastructure, and there are already conversations with county commissioners on how to make that financially viable as a long-term project.)

But even with all those positives, the image of Athens that’s beginning to emerge is one of missed opportunities. That’s not the official narrative, of course – as you’d expect, we’re getting a very rosy picture from all the Athenian town leaders. But we’re noticing things. The big new mixed-use downtown developments are all geared around high-end student housing, less so for workforce housing. As far as we’ve seen, there’s no African-American representation among any of the town leaders, and this is a town with a near majority black population. The poverty rate is quite high, 35 percent; efforts are being made to address it but there’s little indication that things are improving. Some of us are hearing less-than-ideal things about wage levels at that Caterpillar plant. And perhaps the most striking thing, that we’ve all noticed: there don’t seem to be any students anywhere. Or anyone at all, for that matter. We’re staying right in downtown Athens, UGA’s right there – on a comparable night in Chapel Hill, Franklin Street would be packed. Here in Athens, the sidewalks are empty. We can’t make heads or tails of it.

All of which is to say: Athens is a great town, but we’re heading back to Orange County with our heads held high. We have our foibles – and they’ve still got one more day to knock our socks off – but right now I think most of us would say we’ve got Athens beat.

But Athens also has us beat on certain levels as well. Greenville too.

So the question is still open:

What happens if we take Athens’ streamlined development process, Greenville’s focus on public-private partnerships, and apply them to a town with a real commitment to social justice?

Judging from our group’s reaction to the form-based code in Athens, we may well be spending the next few years finding out for ourselves.

(Then again, I remember folks toasting the imminent end of the drawn-out development process two years ago in Bloomington too. So it may not be riiiight away.)

Column originally posted September 23, 2014, 3:43 a.m.