Chapel Hill Police Investigating Bank Robbery

Chapel Hill Police are looking for a suspect after a bank robbery on Thursday morning.

Chapel Hill Police Lieutenant Josh Mecimore says around 10:45 a suspect entered the SunTrust Bank near the corner of Fordham and Sage Road and demanded money.

“White male, approximately 5’10” and about 170 pounds came into the bank,” Mecimore says. “He was wearing shades, black blazer, black shirt, and black pants.”

Mecimore says no weapon was displayed but the teller did feel if she did not comply there would be consequences.

“The implication was certainly there that something bad would happen if they didn’t give him money,” Mecimore says. “And then he got an undisclosed amount of cash and left the bank on foot.”

Bank Robbery Suspect_2

Mecimore says a K-9 was used to track the suspect and showed police he fled toward Dobbins Hills Apartments before allegedly leaving the scene in a vehicle.

“She tracked a short distance away from the bank and then abruptly stops,” Mecimore says, “at a spot where it appeared a car had been parked.”

Authorities say no one was hurt in the robbery.

If you have any information on the suspect you are asked to contact Chapel Hill Police. Anyone with information can also anonymously call CrimeStoppers and be eligible for a $2,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest.

Chapel Hill Proposed Budget Projects Big Increase in Sales Tax Revenue

The $100.7 million proposed budget for the Town of Chapel Hill is calling for an 11 percent increase in sales tax revenue, but the North Carolina General Assembly may have something to say about that.

The Town Council got their first look at the proposal from Town Manager Roger Stancil on Monday night.

“The recommended [2015-2016] budget does not include a tax increase,” Stancil says. “There is revenue growth from other sources, such as sales tax and permit fees.”

Stancil says following several lean years after the recession, sales tax revenue has been riding an upward trend. But proposed legislation among state lawmakers regarding the redistribution of sales taxes may have a negative impact on Chapel Hill.

Cost of employee medical insurance is down 8.5 percent in the proposed budget. That seemed to make Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt very happy.

“8.5 percent decrease in health insurance cost?!” he asked. “I know I have to hear more about that because it’s almost unbelievable on its face.

“When has any American heard about that without some kind of change?”

Stancil says the lowering of cost does not include a reduction in benefits. He attributes the savings to wellness programs for town staff including increased number of those who have quit smoking.

Other items in the proposed budget include a four percent raise for town employees to be broken up with two percent in July and another two percent in January.

The Parking Fund also has a balanced projection for the first time in six years.

A $40 million bond that will not require a tax increase is also scheduled to be on the November ballot. That money would go toward funding capital improvement projects.

You can view the recommended budget here.

A public hearing will be held on May 18, before Budget Work Sessions are held June 1 and 3. The hopeful date to adopt a budget in June 8.

Free Internet Access Coming to Chapel Hill Public Housing

The Town of Chapel Hill is bringing a first-of-its-kind experiment to public housing.

The Internet has opened up a whole new world during its evolution over the last two decades.

Many of us think of it as a necessity in this day and age.

But a survey conducted by the Town of Chapel Hill in 2014 found that, of the residents with school-age children in public housing units in the town, one in four did not have access to the internet.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says that is going to change.

“The town has partnered with AT&T to offer free standard internet service to go live over the course of the next year in the following Chapel Hill neighborhoods,” he says, “Airport Gardens, Church Street/Caldwell, Colony Woods West, Eastwood – my neighbors, North Columbia, Pritchard Park, Rainbow Heights, and South Estes.”

Not only is the town partnering with AT&T, Mayor Kleinschmidt says a local non-profit is also being brought in to the party.

“The town has partnered with the Kramden Institute to launch a Chapel Hill digital literacy program,” he says. “This is a four-part class on the basics of using computers. Those classes are open to all public housing residents age 14 and up.

“Everyone who completes the program will receive a free laptop thanks to the generous donation of the Kramden Institute.”

AT&T representative Robert Doreauk spoke to the nearly 100 Chapel Hillians gathered on a beautiful morning outside of the Chapel Hill Community Center on South Estes Drive. He says that this is a one-of-a-kind partnership in the US.

“It is something that is needed for success of every individual, and every individual no matter where you live,” he says. “Students at Airport Gardens need internet access to complete homework assignments. Job applicants in Eastwood need internet access to find that next opportunity. Patients here at South Estes need internet access to correspond with their medical providers.”

As the presentation finished up, a line immediately formed as residents stood waiting for their turn to sign up for the courses that will be offered by the Kramden Institute.

Kramden’s Michael Abensour says that for the last decade they have been working on getting laptops to those in the most need.

“For years that meant getting in donated computers, refurbishing them, and awarding them to students across the state,” he says. “These computers go directly into the homes of students who don’t have a computer, and who have never had access to it.”

By bringing in the hardware from Kramden and the connectivity from AT&T to Chapel Hill’s public housing units, Kleinschmidt says this is a huge step toward closing the digital divide.

Commencement Weekend in Chapel Hill

This will be a celebratory weekend for many across Chapel Hill.

There will be more hustle and bustle as parents filter into the town for commencement.

More than 6,000 students are expected to graduate from Carolina, culminating with the commencement ceremony on Sunday morning in Kenan Stadium.

Dr. Ron Strauss, Executive Vice Provost and Chief International Officer at UNC, says Jason Kilar, a 1993 graduate of Carolina with a background in innovative ideas, will be delivering the commencement address.

“[Kilar] is the former CEO of Hulu and a very active entrepreneur,” Strauss says.

Strauss adds officials at UNC were impressed with another speech Kilar delivered in Chapel Hill.

“When we screened speakers, we got a chance to watch a talk [Kilar] gave at Kenan-Flagler Business School,” he says. “He’s very enthusiastic and an engaged speaker. So, I think it’s going to be a wonderful commencement address.”

Innovation has been a buzzword across the UNC campus in recent months, and Kilar seems a timely fit to deliver the speech.

“The campus is very engaged in both educational innovation and expanding beyond the borders,” Strauss says. “It looked to us that Mr. Kilar was just an exemplar of how you can use a Carolina degree and launch into a world of passion and big impact.”

Commencement will begin at nine o’clock in Kenan Stadium on Sunday, Mother’s Day.

Chapel Hill Transit will provide Tar Heel Express Shuttle Service from 6:45 to 12:30. Chapel Hill Transit shuttles will operate from the Friday Center park and ride lots. Buses will run every 10 to 15 minutes. Shuttles and parking will be free. Riders, and in particular graduates, are encouraged to arrive at the park and ride lots at least one hour prior to the start of the ceremony.

Lecture at Chapel Hill Library to Focus on Planning for Growth

How we develop and plan for growth is always a hot topic in Chapel Hill and the surrounding area.

David Shreve is the President of Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population, which is an organization based in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Shreve will be delivering a lecture Wednesday at the Chapel Hill Public Library entitled “The Myths that Shape Economic Development.”

“Myths associated with job creation, housing affordability, and broadening of the tax base,” is how Shreve describes the lecture.

Shreve says the lecture will focus on the idea that many of the decisions we make for development are based on assumptions rather than factual evidence.

He says the conversation will focus on key questions; “What are the weaknesses of the rationalizations we often make and the assumptions we make? What does the evidence show us?

“And when you’re dealing with issues of economic development, community clues, jobs, housing affordability, and the like.”

Shreve says his organization, ASAP, has not had policies they can point to of changing the way development is handled in Charlottesville, but says the goal is to educate the public.

He adds there are many similarities to development in Charlottesville and Chapel Hill because of the universities the towns house.

“There are unique considerations when it comes to college towns,” he says. “How they grow. How they develop. Particularly in this age. It’s something I consider a relatively new phenomenon.

“College towns have always been distinct in some ways. But with respect to economic development, and growth, and real estate patterns, we have seen a new structure emerge in the last generation.”

The lecture will begin at six o’clock Wednesday in Room A of the Chapel Hill Public Library and is scheduled to last until eight o’clock with time for questions.

Refreshments will be served.

This event is sponsored by the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town.

Is Affordable Housing a Priority for Chapel Hill?

Critics say Chapel Hill is not prioritizing affordable housing, especially in the Ephesus-Fordham district.

While a small portion of the 190-acre Ephesus-Fordham district does offer developers a density bonus for building affordable housing, there’s no mandate for affordable housing at Village Plaza Apartments.

Chapel Hill Town Council member Donna Bell says the town is prioritizing affordable housing as Ephesus-Fordham becomes more developed.

“Our thought behind Ephesus-Fordham is that this is a space that creates income,” says Bell. “It could bring more property taxes and multifamily buildings that don’t cost the same as single-family buildings, that it would bring more office and more retail. And thus, from those additional tax funds, we could support things that are important to us, like affordable housing and our transit.”

Chapel Hill’s new zoning rules for the Ephesus-Fordham district, known as form-based code, set parameters for building height, parking space and other details. And it authorizes the town manager, instead of the town council, to approve projects that meet the criteria.

Since the council enacted the new code ten months ago, the town received three project applications, and one, Village Plaza Apartments, has been approved and is now being built.

“When we talk about the Ephesus-Fordham piece, I’m thinking about the affordable rental units that are going to go away or have gone away over in that area, and that’s a sad state,” says Delores Bailey, executive director of the non-profit, EmPOWERment Inc. EmPOWERment helps place low-income people in homes.

Mark Marcoplos, who operates a local green building company, says we can’t have a substantial discussion about affordable housing without also talking about a “living wage,” the minimum wage necessary to meet one’s needs while living in a place.

“What we’ve done in Chapel Hill all these years, we’ve pumped up and advertised our school system,” says Marcoplos. “We’ve advertised to retirees. We’ve tried to create this oasis of wealth, and we were successful at doing that.”

Marcoplos also emphasizes the importance of adding routes to the public transportation system to serve those who cannot afford to live in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Marcoplos himself is a rural Orange County resident.

Bell, Bailey, Marcoplos and other Orange County leaders came to the WCHL Community Forum to discuss local affordable housing. Also in the room were Tish Galu, board chair of the nonprofit Orange County Justice United, and Daniel Eller, president and CEO of Eller Capital Partners, a major local property owner.

Several members of the panel said the greatest local housing need is rental housing affordable to people earning below 80 percent and below 30 percent of the area median income.

The panel touched on many other facets of affordable housing in Orange County. You can find audio from this panel and all the other panels – including a panel on development in Chapel Hill and one on poverty – here.

Chancellor Folt: Northside Neighborhood Initiative will Strengthen Community

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt says the Northside neighborhood initiative is aimed at helping strengthen the community.

“Our excitement about this is that we want to help that community be strong,” she says. “We’re only as strong as the community that surrounds us.

“We are really trying to help settle some of the problems, help make it possible for working families to stay there.”

Folt says the university is hoping to work with students to help them realize the value of a strong community.

The Northside neighborhood is a historically African-American community that has been evolving with student rentals from investors.

Earlier this year, UNC announced a deal with the Town of Chapel Hill that included a $3 million no-interest loan to help preserve the neighborhood.

Some of the investors have voiced concerns their rights as property owners were not being respected.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says the full decision-making process for the neighborhood does not lie solely with property owners.

“I think we need to be thoughtful about making sure that we tap into the full array of members of the northside community, including the investment community,” he says. “[But] now that the scales have tipped, where so much of the property is now in the hands of the investment community, you don’t just put up the flag that that should be the dominant voice.”

Kleinschmidt says the goal of this project is to bring stability to the neighborhood.

Folt says the university is excited to work with Self Help – who will manage the loan from UNC – based on their past work.

“They have really beautified neighborhoods. They have made them very attractive,” she says. “And it’s important for our entire region that every neighborhood feels like a thriving neighborhood, because that attracts people to a region.

“There are a lot of things that aren’t quite so obvious – in the way you state this – that can be the result. And I think we’re excited about working with Self Help based on their success.”

Folt says she is confident this will be a positive move going forward.

“There couldn’t be anyone that would disagree with the idea that the most vibrant communities are ones that have a mix of working families, seniors, and students,” Folt says. “And I think this is an initiative absolutely designed to maintain that kind of balance in a thoughtful, inclusive way.

“And I think we’re proud to be a part of it. It’s important to take risks [and] to try things in a developing, rapidly-growing region. If we don’t do it, who would?”

You can hear more on this discussion during the Town and Gown portion of the WCHL Community Forum.

Chapel Hill Development: What’s Working, What’s Not?

It’s been a decade since Chapel Hill leaders began to push for more commercial growth to balance the tax base. But David Schwartz, co-founder of Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, says in that time, the town has failed to move away from residential development.

“We cannot make up for a deficit in commercial by doubling down on the amount of residential that we build,” says Schwartz.

Town Council Member Maria Palmer says that’s not a fair assessment.

“You can’t say we’re not building enough commercial if every commercial proposal that is put forward is attacked by the same folks who have organized the group you represent,” says Palmer.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce President Aaron Nelson takes that idea even further.

“We’ve moved beyond NIMBY in our community,” says Nelson. “NIMBY stands for ‘not in my backyard.’ We’ve gotten to NOTE: ‘not over there either.’ And so, it is a challenge when you both want to protect your neighborhood and prohibit it from happening in other appropriate places as well.”

Schwartz is also critical of the town’s new form-based code, in which the council sets specific parameters for development, then hands over the approval process to the Town Manager’s office. He argues the town isn’t asking enough from developers.

“The problem we have with our form-based code is that we didn’t ask for anything,”says Schwartz. “We asked for basically nothing. We said OK because we are so eager to get some kind of investment in here, any kind, even if in fact, it is the wrong kind in terms of what the town needs, that we are going to basically ask for nothing.”

Last spring, the Town Council rezoned 192 acres near Ephesus-Fordham Boulevard using form-based code in a bid to spur redevelopment in the area. Ben Perry is with East West Partners, the development company that submitted the Village Plaza Apartment plan, the first project under the new rules. He takes issue with Schwartz’s assertion that the town asked for nothing.

“We paid a very significant payment-in-lieu to Parks and Recreation for open space to develop that somewhere else. We paid a transit fee to Chapel Hill Transit which is not a requirement anywhere else in town,” says Perry. “It’s not that the town didn’t get the things they wanted and usually expect, they just told us what they want and we didn’t haggle. We just did it.”

Now, a little less than a year after adopting the form-based code, the Town Council is considering a laundry list of adjustments to tweak the code based on public input and planning staff feedback.

Southern Village resident Jeanne Brown said she’s happy to hear there’s room for change.

“One of the concerns in the community is that we’ve gone up significantly in height and density- that changes character,” says Brown. “That’s something we’ve got to address and understand, that not everyone is feeling good and comfortable with that.”

Dwight Bassett is the Town’s economic development officer. He says building dense residential developments like Village Plaza Apartments can help draw commercial investment, a strategy he ultimate expects to benefit the whole town.

“From my perspective I think we’re headed on the right path and we’re going to wake up one day and look back at that district and say that was a great decision because it helped create something that was missing in Chapel Hill.”

You can hear more debate on the changing face of Chapel Hill here.

Congressman Price Makes Stop in Chapel Hill

US Congressman David Price made a stop in Chapel Hill this week to hold a Town Hall at East Chapel Hill High School.

Prior to the event, Price stopped by the WCHL studios and told WCHL’s Blake Hodge more about what his priorities are in Washington and shared his concerns about recent decisions from state lawmakers in North Carolina.

Listen to the full interview below:

Program to Feed Hungry has Best Year Ever

A local program that raises money to feed the hungry in Chapel Hill and Carrboro had its best year ever in 2014.

112 restaurants contributed more than $26,000 during the 2014 Restaurants Sharing V/5 & V/5 Percent event, in November.

That brings the 26-year total for funds raised to $457,386.

You can read the full letter from event founder Irene Briggaman below:

As we close the books on the November 11, 2014 RSVVP event, we are delighted to announce that this was the best year ever for Restaurants Sharing V/5 &V/5 Percent. The 2014 total of $26,004 brings our 26-year cumulative total to $457,386 – inching its way to a half million dollars to feed the hungry in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

This is the time for recognition and appreciation to all who make this annual community event such a success. Our sincere gratitude goes out to the restaurant owners who sign on year after year; to our faithful media who publicize the event (The Daily Tar Heel, The Chapel Hill News, WCHL 97.9FM and; to the diners who eat out for breakfast, lunch and dinner and to the UNC community, students and faculty, who are urged to “Eat Out” on RSVVP Day by the HOPE Committee who help us to spread the word and flyers on the UNC Campus. Our RSVVP team, Pat Dorward, Susan Friedman, Donny and Mary Ann Walker, Frances Jackson and Elizabeth Garfunkel, worked diligently to recruit the restaurants and carry out the details of the project to its completion.

Inter-Faith Council executive director John Dorward stated, “RSVVP is IFC’s single largest fundraiser and it provides critical funding to our FoodFirst programs. Last year IFC’s Community Kitchen provided 84,645 hot meals and the Food Pantry distributed 16,828 bags of groceries and 867 holiday meals. This has a huge impact on our neighbors who are food insecure.”

Thank you, one and all, for contributing to the success of RSVVP 2014!

Irene Briggaman – founder and team member of RSVVP
Nancy Jenkins – RSVVP Coordinator