Can A Living Wage Policy Be a Boost For Local Business?

Durham and Asheville have programs that recognize employers who pay a living wage. Some are asking if it’s time for Orange County to follow suit.

Carl Rist is a member of the Durham People’s Alliance, and one of the leaders of the Durham Living Wage Project, a group that certifies businesses that pay employees a living wage.

“What we’re trying to do with the Living Wage Project is to raise the visibility in our community about the importance of businesses paying a living wage and by doing that, we want to bring attention and customers, we want to make this a marketing boost for firms that do pay their employees a living wage,” says Rist.

What constitutes a living wage varies from place to place. It’s calculated as the amount a worker needs to earn to afford basic necessities without relying on public assistance or other financial help.

The Durham Living Wage Project requires businesses to pay employees at least $12.33 an hour, or $10.85 if health insurance is included. In comparison, the state and federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour.

Rist says nearly 50 Durham businesses have gained certification since the program kicked off last month, including several in traditionally low-wage industries such as food service, landscaping and pet-sitting.

“Our goal is by the end of the first year of this program to have 100 businesses in Durham that are certified living wage employers,” says Rist.

While some business owners might push back against the idea of raising wages, Rist says it’s possible to make a profit while paying workers more. He cites Monuts Donuts as an example.

“What Monuts Donuts has done is build in living wages as part of their business model,” says Rist. “What they want to do is do well by doing good by their employees and their customers, and so, not only have they built this into their model, it is part of how they market themselves to the community.”

The Durham program is based on a model first launched in Asheville in 2008. That initiative has grown to include several neighboring counties, with more than 300 participating businesses.

Here in Orange County, local governments, including the Towns of Carrboro and Chapel Hill, along with County government and the two school boards, have all adopted living wage policies that pay the lowest-earning employees a base rate of between $11-$13 dollars an hour.

Some local businesses, like Vimala’s Curryblossom Café in Chapel Hill, have made a public commitment to pay a living wage, but unlike in Durham and Asheville, there’s no formal list or method for becoming certified.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt spoke to WCHL recently about the need to recognize employers who commit to paying living wages.

Rist says those interested in starting an Orange County version of the living wage project should consider building a broad base of support.

“I think it’s important to reach out to a range of businesses, professional as well as blue collar, local businesses and other businesses,” says Rist. “I think it’s good to have a range of businesses that reflect your community so that everyone can get behind it.”

Rist says he’s excited about the potential for regional collaboration if the living wage movement gains ground in the Triangle.

“If we can get efforts going in each of the counties in the Triangle- Orange Wake and Durham- there’s no reason we couldn’t have some kind of a region-wide alliance around living wages. It’d be great to have our region be the first living wage region in the country.”

With little action likely at the state or federal level to raise the minimum wage, Rist says community efforts to recognize and reward employers who are committed to paying living wages may be the best way to address the growing income gap in our area.

“We think this is a model that works and so we encourage you all in Orange County to engage,” says Rist.

Orange County May Soon Award Grants to Local Farms and Small Businesses

If you own a small business in Orange County, you may soon be able to apply for up to $10,000 to grow your business.

A 1/4 cent sales tax, approved by voters in 2011, generates $2.5 million annually for education and economic development in the county. Of that money, $100,000 is allotted for business investment grants, and $60,000 for agriculture grants.

At Tuesday night’s work session in Chapel Hill, the Orange County Board of Commissioners talked about how best to distribute that money to agricultural and non-agricultural businesses to stimulate growth and job creation.

Jim Kitchen, a UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School lecturer and member of Orange County’s Economic Development Advisory Board, helped draft the grant programs.

He imagined one applicant’s story.

“That guy will come in and say, ‘I need a new barber chair. I have two, right now. If I had a third, I could hire another barber. And I could increase my business by $100,000 next year, which would have a significant impact on me and the community,’” said Kitchen. “Okay great, you have validated the demand, and you’re passionate about getting it done.”

Karen McAdams, an Efland farmer and member of the advisory board, also worked on developing the programs.

“We do have a diverse and strong agricultural realm here in Orange County,” said McAdams. “We have the traditional farmers and we have new farmers.”

Economic Development Advisory Board members proposed two types of grants for businesses, including farms.

Small grants of up to $1,000 would have a simplified application process. Commissioners debated about whether this amount is too small to be effective.

Large grants of $1,000 to $10,000 would require a more thorough application, including more detailed financial information.

Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier said the selection process should not be weighed heavily toward business “innovation.”

“The idea is to get more income,” said Pelissier. “So if the market is far from saturated on strawberries, why wouldn’t you want to help somebody who wants to add on strawberries?”

County officials will hash out details of the grant programs, which will likely include partnerships between grant recipients and mentors. Commissioners could approve these programs at the board meeting on February 3.

Carrboro Looks To Market Town Message

CARRBORO- Carrboro leaders are looking to lure tourism dollars by hiring professionals to market the town’s unique brand of cool.

The Board of Aldermen on Tuesday will consider negotiating a contract with local marketing firm The Splinter Group to develop a campaign to promote Carrboro.

The campaign will cost the town $18,000 during this fiscal year and could extend into next year.

The board will also review a $40 million dollar list of capital improvement projects. Sidewalks, greenways, road resurfacing and new vehicles top the list of big ticket items the town will invest in during the next five years.

The board meets at 7:30 p.m at Carrboro Town Hall. For a link to the full agenda, click here.

Homebrew for Hunger

Who can take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew
Cover it with choc’late and a miracle or two
The Homebrewer can, Oh the Homebrewer can
The Homebrewer can ’cause he/she mixes it with love and 
makes the world taste good…
(My interpretation of the Willy Wonka/Aubrey Woods/Sammy Davis Jr. classic, “The Candy Man“)

I like it when goodwill is served straight up in a frosty mug of craft beer. The inaugural Homebrew for Hunger Festival (H4H) on Saturday, November 12th, is one of those Chapel Hill events that bundles a lot of greatness into a tidy package of Try Not To Love This. 

Several breweries with open doors to the public dot the Triangle beerscape, and I support all those big little guys, from Carolina Brewery to Aviator. H4H excites me because it provides an opportunity to spotlight the homebrewer – my favorite mad scientist. Spruce, cardamom, oatmeal, cocoa, green tea, apple must…there’s room for all these ingredients in beer, says the homebrewer, just maybe not all those ingredients in the same batch. “Homebrew for Hunger expects to showcase beers from over 30 homebrewers. Already 19 homebrewers have registered offering more than 100 gallons of homebrew for the tasting session including Smoked Milk Stout, Rye IPA, Chinese Green Tea Ale, and Belgian Orange Spiced Ale.”

In addition to celebrating local beer, the event organizers from Fifth Season Gardening Company will raise their glasses to support the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. “Proceeds from Homebrew for Hunger will feed hungry children in central and eastern North Carolina. The Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina serves 150,000 pounds of food every day to more than 500,000 individuals. North Carolina is among five states with statistically significant higher rates of household food insecurity than the U.S. national average.”

Highlights from the event will include “Homebrew U”, demonstrations on homebrewing basics, a panel discussion featuring craft brewers from Mystery Brewing, Fullsteam, and Bull City Burger & Brewery as well as tastings from the participants. 

The Deets:
Tickets are $20 each, and are available at as well as Fifth Season Gardening Company locations in Carrboro and Raleigh
Saturday, November 12th
12pm – 5pm
at the West End Public event space, 462 West Franklin Street, in downtown Chapel Hill

IMO, you can’t beat Brixx Pizza on Monday for $1.95 pints of almost two dozen local and domestic craft beers. What are your favorite spots in the Chapelboro to share a locally made beer with friends?