Sales Tax Revenue Up In OC – But Why?

Orange County is one of the richest counties in North Carolina in terms of per capita income, but we perennially rank near the bottom when it comes to retail sales and sales tax revenue.

But there are some indications that this may be starting to change: “Our taxable sales are now $1.47 billion,” said Aaron Nelson, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, during his annual “State of the Community” report Thursday at the Friday Center.

View the full report here.

According to numbers from the state Department of Revenue, taxable sales in Orange County topped a billion dollars for the first time in fiscal year 2011 and have risen steadily since – topping $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2014 and reaching nearly $1.5 billion in the last fiscal year. That led to a spike in sales tax revenue – breaking $70 million in the last fiscal year for the first time ever, up from just over $50 million three years ago.

That’s a big shift. In 2012, despite being no. 2 in the state in per capita income, Orange County ranked 81st in per capita sales tax revenue. But in 2013, just a year later, Orange County ranked 42nd – moving past Wake, Alamance, and Chatham in the process.

“So around our office there were double-high fives, there was chest bumping – it was really exciting,” Nelson said.

But he says that number is a bit deceiving – because it’s not all about greater retail sales. “The revenue went up because we added a half-cent tax and a quarter-cent tax,” he said – and those tax increases added to the spike, along with the actual increase in sales.

Still, Nelson says the change is a promising sign that Orange County is making progress on an issue that’s troubled local policymakers and business leaders for many years – even if the issue still remains.

We’ll have many more numbers from Nelson’s State of the Community address on WCHL and in the coming days.

Outlook Good: Expert Says U.S. Economy Doing Well Despite Uncertainties

Interest rates are likely to go up, oil prices are likely to increase a bit and then stabilize, and the overall U.S. economy is fairly strong – provided the federal government stops being dysfunctional.

That was the word from Gregory Miller, the chief economist at SunTrust Bank, at the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s annual Economic Outlook Briefing Thursday morning.

The big concern right now: will the Fed raise interest rates? This month officials dropped the word “patience” in their report, which signals a possible increase around June. Some economists worry that could slow economic growth, but Miller says it’s important to remember that interest rates are historically low right now.

“Rising rates are not the same as high rates,” he says. “We have a long, long way to go to get to high interest rates.”

And he says a hike in interest rates could actually boost the economy in the short term – since it’ll lead investors to borrow money quickly, to avoid higher rates in the future.

Generally speaking, Miller says the overall U.S. economy is doing well – especially relative to the rest of the world. That means a strong dollar, which means lower prices for Americans at the stores.

Miller says the American economy is growing at a rate of about 2.4 percent. Economists say a 3-percent growth rate is needed to keep up with increasing job demands – but Miller says the private sector is actually already doing that well. What’s holding the economy back? He says the federal government is simply failing to pull its weight.

“The government’s started to come back,” he says. “State and local governments are already back – the federal government is the only one that’s (still) moving in the wrong direction.

“We suspect that through this year, the (federal) government should start to make a positive contribution to growth. If they do that, then the whole economy (will be) doing 3 percent – and everybody’s happy.”

Miller delivered his economic outlook briefing to a group of about 200 local business leaders and elected officials Thursday at the Friday Center. It was an optimistic outlook, in general – but he did say the positive trends could be jeopardized by increasing instability.

That could come globally if there is conflict or if other national economies collapse – or it could come domestically, when election season rolls around next year.

“When we are headed toward elections, the markets and the economy tend to turn uncertain,” Miller says.

So expect a possible slowdown next year – but until then, Miller says the overall picture is good.

Nominate A Business Of The Year

Would you like to see your favorite local business recognized? The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce is seeking nominations this week for their annual Business of the Year awards.

The nomination period is open through Friday; finalists will be announced at the Chamber’s annual meeting on Thursday, January 29.

“We have categories for large, mid-size and small businesses, and also the non-profit of the year,” says Chamber vice president Kristen Smith.

Last year’s winners were Sweeps in the small-business category, Vimala’s Curryblossom Café in the mid-size category, ARCA in the large-business category, and the Orange County Rape Crisis Center in the nonprofit category. Also recognized last year were three individuals – Mark Chilton, Irene Briggaman, and Gordon Merklein – for their community service work.

To submit nominations for this year, click here. Winners will be announced at a special event later this spring.

Seven To Be Inducted Into CH-C Chamber Business Hall Of Fame

Seven former prominent business leaders will be inducted into the second Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame this year, including former Chapel Hill Mayor and WCHL founder Sandy McClamroch.

McClamroch is the town’s longest-serving mayor having served from 1961-69. He founded the radio station in 1953. The station was formatted as Top 40s music and later Adult Contemporary until the 1990s when Jim Heaver—who was honored in the inaugural Business Hall of Fame last year—was the majority shareholder of the station. At that time, the format was changed to news/talk.

Joining McClamroch is Eunice Brock, Maurice and Mary Julian, Bob Nutter, Al Pons, and Bynum Weaver.

Brock was the first woman to solely own and operate her own real estate company in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Eunice Brock and Associates. The Julians founded Julians, which continues to set the highest standard in good taste and quality in clothing and fashion for more than 70 years. Nutter is a fifth-generation farmer who grew the family business into one of Orange County’s first and most iconic local food producers. Pons founded Chapel Hill Tire Car Care Center, which has been one of the oldest family-owned businesses in town providing automotive repair to Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Chatham County for more than 60 years. And, Weaver was the owner and operator of the Chapel Hill Funeral Home and Ambulance Service, one of the oldest African-American-owned businesses in the community.

The Cedars owner Bob Woodruff, who is also a minority share holder of WCHL, once again chaired the selection committee of this year’s Hall of Fame.

The induction ceremony will take place Thursday, November 13 at 6:30 p.m. at The Carolina Inn.

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

Additional reporting provided by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce

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.

The 2014 Inter-City Visit, As Told By Aaron Keck: Tuesday Morning

The second and final day of the 2014 ICV is already upon the nearly 100 Orange County residents, including WCHL’s Aaron Keck, who is making his second-consecutive trip with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce.

This year’s ICV has taken the group to Athens, Georgia, with a stop in Greenville, South Carolina on the way. Athens is a college town much like Chapel Hill-Carrboro with the campus of the University of Georgia abutting the City.

Aaron joined Ron Stutts on the WCHL Tuesday Morning News to tell the latest about the trip.

***Listen to the Interview***

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

While in Athens, Aaron has also been writing a column.
Dispatch From Athens: Part I | Part II | Part III

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.

The 2014 Inter-City Visit, As Told By Aaron Keck: Monday Evening

The first day of the 2014 ICV came to an end in Athens Georgia for WCHL’s Aaron Keck, who is making his second-consecutive trip with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, along with almost 100 other Orange County residents.

Aaron joined Ran Northam, who is filling in for him on Aaron in the Afternoon and the WCHL Evening News.

***Listen to the Conversation***

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

While in Athens, Aaron has also been writing a column.
Dispatch From Athens: Part I | Part II | Part III

The 2014 Inter-City Visit, As Told By Aaron Keck: Monday Morning

WCHL’s host of Aaron in the Afternoon and the WCHL Evening News, Aaron Keck, made his second-consecutive trip with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce and almost 100 other Orange County residents for the 2014 inter-city visit.

This year’s journey is to Athens, Georgia–the home of the University of Georgia. But, first, the journey stopped off in Greenville, South Carolina–the home of Furman University.

Aaron joined Ron Stutts on the WCHL Monday Morning News to tell the story of the journey so far.

***Listen to the Conversation***

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

While in Athens, Aaron has also been writing a column.
Dispatch From Athens: Part I | Part II | Part III

Dispatch From Athens, Part I: Yes, THAT Greenville

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

I’m sitting outside in downtown Greenville on Sunday afternoon, alongside a dozen other ICV attendees, including four members of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen. (Wait, isn’t that technically a quorum? But no – one of them quietly excuses herself and steps away. Apparently that is a thing.)

Anyway. We’re admiring Greenville’s Main Street, which is absolutely stunning. Lush trees line the road on either side, lights in the branches; it’s alive and buzzing, with cool shops and patio dining and a gorgeous performing arts center that’s akin to DPAC. Half a block away is Falls Park, a public riverfront space designed around a beautiful natural waterfall. There are people everywhere: young professionals, Clemson students, families with kids, folks with dogs. It’s everything you think a downtown ought to be.

But there’s a catch. You know there’s always a catch.

Oh, it’s beautiful, no doubt – and what’s more, it’s a total transformation. Downtown Greenville used to be a blight. That pristine river used to be a dumping ground for the textile mills, then when the mills went out of business, people just stopped coming altogether. The waterfall was literally forgotten, covered up by a highway bridge. But then – it started coming back. It didn’t happen on its own, of course. Town leaders made a conscious decision. They drafted a master plan, a grand vision, and the town stuck to it. It took decades. Little by little. Block by block. A forgettable four-lane Main Street was narrowed down to two. The trees were planted. A hotel went up. Old decaying warehouses were reclaimed and converted. A mixed-use development went in, then another, then another. That highway bridge came down. The falls were reopened. And now it’s gorgeous. It’s a testament to what can be done, given enough time and enough sustained effort. (News is still getting around. Folks are so used to thinking of Greenville as a nothing burg, they’re still surprised to see it so nice. People on this trip keep using the hashtag #YesTHATGreenville.)

What drove Greenville’s transformation? At lunch we heard from Knox White, who’s been Greenville’s mayor since 1995. He said that master plan revolved around three key components:

1) mixed-use development – balancing business and retail and housing;
2) public spaces – parks and greenways, of which Falls Park is only the most notable; and
3) “personality” – public art, lighted trees, and all those other colorful features that give a downtown a fun and inviting character.

Realizing that vision, Mayor White said, required a concerted and cooperative effort – which meant an emphasis on public-private partnerships. (But always with the grand vision in mind. So there have been some intense negotiations, and the town has made some pretty specific demands: in one case Greenville officials required a developer to put in an ice-skating rink.)

So what are we supposed to learn from all this? Meg McGurk, of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, emphasized the importance of having a master plan and sticking to it. (She and Megan Wooley have been working for months to develop a master plan for our own downtown.) The nature of public-private partnerships is also critical: it’s important for there to be cooperation, for there to be give and take; but it’s also important for developers to be on board with the town’s long-term vision – and to design projects that help realize that vision, rather than kicking the can down the road. It’s also worth noting the need for public spaces and “personality” as critical components of a successful plan: what can Chapel Hill and Carrboro and Hillsborough do to create more public space, or spice up their own “personalities”? (Several folks on this trip are asking how we can create our own downtown waterfall just like Greenville’s. They’re joking, of course, but it’d be great if we could have a signature feature of our own too.)

Ultimately, though, the takeaway from Greenville – the positive takeaway, at least – is that just about anything is possible, given enough patience and effort. Greenville’s downtown was nothing before; it’s a destination now. (“People come up to me all the time,” said Meg McGurk, “and they ask, ‘Do you know what they’re doing in Greenville? Did you see the new thing they did in Greenville?”)

But there’s a catch. You know there’s always a catch.

How expensive is it?

I’m sitting outside, remember, with a dozen Orange County folks including half the Board of Aldermen. We’ve all got affordability on our minds. Carrboro, like Chapel Hill, has been struggling to keep itself affordable forever, and that struggle has ramped up more and more in recent years.

Does Greenville show us the way?

Not really. “It’s rich and white,” someone says, looking at Main Street. She’s right. There are dozens of people on the sidewalks – we’re half a block from Falls Park, plus there’s a culinary festival going on – and there’s hardly a single nonwhite pedestrian to be seen. (This in a city with a fairly sizable black population.) Around us are fancy restaurants and swanky boutiques. Above the restaurants and boutiques are condos and apartments; they’re fairly new and very nice, and they cost (we’re told) about a million dollars. Earlier, Mayor White talked about how Greenville’s master plan included a specific vision for which businesses to attract: an “overwhelming” majority of unique local stores, balanced by some “name” national retailers who could serve as anchors and attract shoppers to the area. It’s a terrific idea. And it succeeded. They brought in the high-end women’s clothing store Anthropologie – and almost immediately, Mayor White said, another five local high-end boutiques opened right alongside it. Success story. But it’s all high-end. It’s all rich. It’s all white. “What used to be here?” someone asks. “Before this all moved in? Someone was here. Where did they go?”

Now, it’s not all bad. What’s there in Greenville now is a darn sight better than what was there before – and that’s a process that’s still going on. “Look across the street,” someone says, pointing out the Greenville News building. “They’re tearing that down to put up another new development.” And sure, that’s sad. But I look at the building. And it is hideous. It’s gray and brown and stocky. It’s out of place next to the lush green parks and the sparkly new buildings. It’ll look so much better when it’s revived, with some luxury lofts up top and a Ruth’s Chris and a Benetton out in front.

And Greenville has taken steps to address the affordability issue, primarily by leveraging town-owned land. In one case the town used public land to get an affordable housing project near Greenville’s new minor league baseball stadium. Now, condos near the stadium are running for hundreds of thousands of dollars – but the affordable housing is still there. It’s a good deal and a good approach.

But even that only works as far as the town has land to sell. Chapel Hill is already pursuing that strategy with the DHIC project in Ephesus-Fordham, but the demand is greater than the town’s land holdings. And Greenville’s attempts to preserve affordability – by the mayor’s own admission – haven’t made much more than a dent in the problem of rising costs.

The catch is hard to escape: you want to make your town a good place, but the improvements make it more attractive, which increases demand, which increases the cost of living. Theoretically you could stop trying to improve the town, but that’s not really an option – and preserving affordability is a Sisyphean task. You might make some real gains – DHIC, say, or the units by the stadium – but the demand keeps coming, more and more.

And then what? I’m sitting with some members of the Board of Aldermen, we’re talking about affordability, and one of them says something that sticks with me:

“I don’t want to spend my life building up a community that I then have to turn around and move out of.”

And that’s the rub. Donna Bell said a similar thing last year, at a meeting of the Chapel Hill Town Council. And these are elected officials talking. What about the housekeeper at UNC? What about the waiter at Topo?

There are no easy answers. We drive out of Greenville, headed for Athens. Falls Park is behind us, and the performing arts center, and the baseball stadium, and the tree-lined main street, and the Anthropologie and the five boutiques that sprung up around it. It’s a beautiful, beautiful city. But that million-dollar question – how do we do all this and make it affordable too? – still lingers.

There’s a lot we’ll be talking about in Athens.