Orange County’s “Retail Gap” Is Growing

This probably won’t come as a huge surprise – but the amount of money that’s spent by Orange County residents exceeds the amount of money that’s actually spent in Orange County.

That’s a phenomenon with a technical term: it’s called a “retail gap.”

Delivering his annual “State of the Community” report this week at the Friday Center, Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce president Aaron Nelson said Orange County has a retail gap partly because we haven’t gone out of our way to bring in major retailers. “Retail is something that we’ve not historically recruited in our market,” he said, because “it generally (offers) low-wage jobs, and we’ve been thinking about (recruiting higher-paid) jobs.”

Get the full State of the Community report here.

But that means a lot of the big retail centers are outside county lines – think Tanger Outlets in Alamance County, New Hope Commons and Southpoint in Durham County, and the new Walmart in Chatham. Orange County residents often leave the county to spend their money – and while other people do come to Orange County to shop and eat (especially to eat!), it’s not enough to make up the difference.

How big is Orange County’s retail gap? Citing figures from the NC Department of Commerce, Nelson says Orange County residents spent about 1.8 billion dollars in 2014, but Orange County saw less than a billion dollars in retail sales. That’s a “retail gap” of 866 million dollars in a single year, far more than any other county in our area.

Orange County's retail gap is larger than those of nearby counties. (Via

Via Orange County’s retail gap is larger than those of nearby counties. (What about Raleigh? The NC Department of Commerce reports retail demand of $13.5 billion and retail sales of $11.8 billion in Wake County – a $1.7 billion retail gap. That’s larger than Orange in real dollars, though Orange’s is higher by percentage.)


And Nelson says while other nearby counties have been reducing or eliminating their retail gaps, Orange County’s has been growing.

Via (Data for Wake not available here.)

Via (Data for Wake not available here.)


Nelson said a growing retail gap is a sign that Orange County could still use more retail development – the better to increase sales tax revenue.

Via Almost half of Orange's retail gap is attributable to two categories: "motor vehicles parts and dealers" and "general merchandise stores." (The latter category would include Walmart, for instance.)

Via Almost half of Orange’s retail gap is attributable to two categories: “motor vehicles parts and dealers” and “general merchandise stores.” (The latter category would include Walmart, for instance.)


But there are also signs that sales tax revenue is already on the rise. According to the NC Department of Revenue, Orange County saw a 36 percent increase in sales tax revenue per capita in just one year, 2013.




Orange County now ranks 42nd out of North Carolina’s 100 counties in sales tax revenue per capita; prior to 2013, Orange County hadn’t cracked the top 60 in years.



New Retail Building Coming to Eastgate

The Eastgate BP station will be demolished to make way for a new retail building.

The redevelopment plans where submitted by the Federal Realty Investment Trust in August.

The plans seek to replace the gas station with a one-story building that will host three or four businesses, according to Chapel Hill town planner Jay Heikes.

“So what’s going there is a little bit less than 8,000 square feet of retail,” said Heikes. “No tenant has been identified yet, or at least shared with us.”

The project is still awaiting zoning approval but Heikes expects the plans to be approved.

Construction at Eastgate BP. Photo via Blake Hodge.

Construction at Eastgate BP. Photo via Blake Hodge.

“The actual demolition of that station, as well as the grading and preparation for the new building, is set to get a zoning approval either late this week or early next week,” said Heikes.

Once the zoning is approved the developers will still need additional approval before new construction can begin.

“Once they do that they do need to seek some additional permits but this is the case with all private construction projects in town,” said Heikes.

Construction is expected to begin sometime in the spring.

The lease had expired on the BP station and the property owner of the Eastgate shopping center decided to redevelop that location.

Construction at Eastgate BP. Photo via Blake Hodge.

Construction at Eastgate BP. Photo via Blake Hodge.

The new construction is taking place in the Ephesus-Fordham Zoning District. The town created this zoning district in July 2014. According to the town, the purpose is to renew and transform an area characterized by strip malls, parking lots, confusing roadways and traffic congestion.

The plans for the new construction involves removing the service road that runs parallel to Fordham and using that space for pedestrians and bike lanes.

This is the fourth project to be proposed in this zoning area since it was adopted last year in an attempt to redevelop the area.

“Retail Gap” Grows In Orange

After years of concerns about low retail sales in Orange County, the last two years have seen a big spike – but there’s still a large “retail gap” between what Orange County businesses sell and what Orange County residents buy.

And Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce president Aaron Nelson says that gap is actually growing.

“Orange County’s retail demand (in 2014) was $1.8 billion, (compared to) $0.9 billion in retail sales,” he said last week during his annual State of the Community report.

View the full report here.

What those numbers mean: in 2014, Orange County residents spent a total of $1.8 billion on retail goods – but Orange County businesses only took in about $900 million in retail sales.

That’s a “retail gap” of $866 million – and even though Orange County businesses are seeing more sales, Nelson says that retail gap is getting bigger because Orange County residents are spending more too. In 2012, Orange County’s retail gap was $728 million – and it went up by 19 percent in just two years.

That confirms what we already knew: in spite of the “shop local” mantra, Orange County residents are still leaving the county to buy a lot of their retail goods.

“General merchandising stores are the place where you see the biggest gap,” Nelson says. “Doesn’t surprise you, right? Where do you buy cleats? This is a basketball town – where do you buy a basketball to play basketball with?

“There are (local) options – but we know that we are driving outside of market for some stuff that we could be finding locally. Food and beverage stores, health care, clothing, electronics, furniture, gasoline…we have room to grow on the retail side in all of those areas.”

And while Orange County’s retail gap is growing, every other surrounding county’s gaps are shrinking – or even turning into surpluses, where local businesses sell more than local residents buy. Johnston County had a $60 million retail gap in 2012; by 2014 that had turned into a nearly $200 million surplus. Alamance County already had a $153 million surplus in 2012 – and that number more than doubled in the last two years. Durham County had a $375 million gap in 2012; it’s now a $105 million surplus. Chatham County still has a $134 million gap, but that’s half of what it was in 2012 – and even in 2012, Chatham’s gap was far smaller than Orange’s.

“Our gap grew, so we’re the opposite of the rest of them,” Nelson says. “That’s a challenge – particularly if we’re expecting great government services, (or) if we expect to grow jobs or fund our schools.”

Nelson says those numbers serve as a reminder that – while Orange County has made quite a few strides toward improving local retail – there’s still a long way to go.

‘Black Thursday’ Backlash Sparks Big-Box Boycott

Though many big-box stores are gearing up for 24 or even 48 hours of non-stop sales this holiday weekend, some are fighting the new trend of shopping on Thanksgiving.

Retailers such as Target, Walmart, Kohl’s and Best Buy are opening their doors on Thursday in hopes of extending the Black Friday shopping binge, but that move has sparked a backlash from some who argue it’s unfair to force employees to sacrifice their holidays for sales.

A Facebook page dedicated to boycotting ‘Black Thursday’ has garnered more than 112,000 likes, and spawned the twitter hashtag #boycottblackthursday.

A growing number of retail chains seem to be getting the message.

This year, Costco, Publix, Sam’s Club, Barnes and Noble, Nordstrom and the Home Depot have all agreed to stay closed on Thanksgiving, along with DSW, Bed Bath and Beyond, Jo-Ann Fabrics, Pier 1 Imports, Burlington Coat Factory, Lowe’s, Gamestop and others.

Some supporters of the ‘Black Thursday’ boycott say they will continue the effort throughout December by prioritizing holiday spending at stores that stay closed on Thursday.

Via Boycott Black Thursday, here’s the list of  retailers who will be closed on Thanksgiving:

DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse
Pier 1 Imports
Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores
BJ’s Wholesale Club
Crate and Barrel
Barnes & Noble
American Girl
The Home Depot
Lowe’s Home Improvement
Sur La Table
Bed Bath & Beyond
Sam’s Club

Opening on Thanksgiving:
Walmart 6pm
Target 6pm
Sears 6pm
Toys ”R” Us 5pm
Best Buy 6pm
Big Lots
Shoe Carnival
Kmart 6am
Michaels Stores 4pm
Belk 6pm
Kohl’s 6pm
JCPenney 5pm
Stage 4pm
Goody’s 4pm
Peebles 4pm
Ulta 6pm
Bon-Ton 6pm
RadioShack (store openings vary by location)
Dick’s Sporting Goods

Poll Suggests Chapel Hill Is Open To Big Box Retail

CHAPEL HILL- Would a big box store be a boost to the tax base or a drain on the local economy? In Chapel Hill and Carrboro the debate has flourished for years.

Now Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, says Chapel Hill may be ready to embrace at least one new name-brand store, and he’s got the numbers to prove it.

“There’s always been a lot of controversy over whether Chapel Hill would be open to a big box store, and what we found in this poll is that 56 percent of voters in town would like to have a Target in Southern Orange County,” says Jensen. “Only 15 percent are opposed to that idea.”

The proposed Obey Creek project across from Southern Village has been earmarked as a potential location for large-scale retail development, with Target as a possible anchor store.

Jensen also asked respondents how they’d feel about an Olive Garden in downtown Carrboro. While many in Orange and Chatham counties were receptive to the idea, Carrboro residents were not interested.

“Overall, voters in Orange and Chatham say they would support an Olive Garden in downtown Carrboro by a 44-35 margin,” says Jensen. What’s kind of funny when you break down the numbers is that voters in Carrboro itself are opposed to an Olive Garden- they don’t want it by a 55-33 margin.”

With many Orange County residents opening their property tax bills this time of year, Jensen says he thinks some taxpayers may be considering how to expand the commercial tax base.

The survey polled 484 registered voters living in Orange and Chatham counties. The margin of error is +/- 4.5 percent. You can find the full results here.

Retail Sales Slowly On The Rise In Orange, Surrounding Counties

ORANGE COUNTY – According to the North Carolina Department of Revenue, the local economy is showing signs of improvement.

The year-end results for Orange County show taxable retail sales rose seven percent between 2011 and 2012. County Manager Frank Clifton says trends are starting to return to where they were before the economic crisis.

“Where people were not spending or holding back on certain expenditures in 2011, they’ve started to move forward in 2012,” Clifton says.

Clifton also says opening smaller shops in the Carrboro, Chapel Hill, and Hillsborough areas have led to growth. He says some of those businesses have grown out of plans for the future.

“The Edge Project in Chapel Hill, and then the hotel project down in Carrboro, that I think are stimulating activity in those areas, and you know, you may have some small businesses that are doing better as a result of some of those activities,” Clifton says.

In addition to projects around town, Clifton says there’s an opportunity for economic expansion across the interstates that crisscross Orange County. He says with the addition of utilities in these areas, opportunities for retail and even small-scale manufacturing will become available.

Despite the economic growth, Orange County still finished behind Durham County last year. Durham experienced an 8.1 percent jump in retail sales between 2011 and 2012. Because Orange County prides itself on homegrown, local businesses, many of the big box stores tend to set-up just across the county-line…Like the Wal-Mart off of 15-501 in Durham. Clifton says the county may have to make some changes.

“The reality is, is that those types of businesses do contribute to the local economy, and if they’re in the adjacent counties, they subtract from the local economy in our county,” he says.

Chapel Hill Economic Development Officer Dwight Bassett agrees with Clifton.

Bassett says, “I hate to see us lose any additional opportunity because once those opportunities are lost, unless our residential market were to grow dramatically, we have limited future opportunity.”

Bassett says developing some large retailers alongside smaller stores will help to benefit local businesses by drawing in more customers. He says redevelopment is important as well.

“I think it’s important that we facilitate that conversation, that we figure out what role the town can play in making sure that we, excuse the pun, pave the road to make sure that they can move forward and we can capture market share in a timely way,” Bassett says.

Talks of a facelift for the Holiday Inn and Park Apartments around Ephesus Church and Elliott Road will begin Thursday at the Ephesus Church-Fordham Future Focus Public Information from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. at Extraordinary Ventures on South Elliott Road.   Basset says the new owners of Village Plaza are also hoping to improve on their three acre development. In total, he says eight to ten million dollars worth of improvements could be made in that district.

Necessary Border Crossing

This column was always supposed to be about how and where we spend our money.  Many times I’ve expanded my definition to talk about how public money is spent and the choices made by people paid with public money.  This edition of $avvy $pender, though, is back to the more personal kind of spending, in this case, my own.

This past weekend I was all set up to pack my son’s things to take to a summer program.  I had the staging area set complete with suitcase, the packing list, the permanent marker and clothes and sunscreen and towels strewn about. The Leffler Command Center was up and running!  

Smoothly efficient, I was, and not a little smug with my planning.  

That ended as I got to the bottom of the list where I had glossed over things like towels and sheets knowing we had some to send.  Glaring at me was the following: “a light blanket”.   

I didn’t particularly want to take one from his bed to send, and anyway, those aren’t exactly light and thin for packing.  Okay, I thought, it’s Saturday afternoon, we can run out and get a light cotton blanket.  

No problem, right?  Right, unless I want to shop in the town where I live.  No problem unless I want my sales tax to go to the coffers of the town where I live.  

Now I’m sure many of you will send me the name of an amazingly lovely store (or two) that sells gorgeous blankets.  I’m sure it/they do/does but think about where this blanket is headed: to accompany a 10-year old boy to join several other 10-year old boys.  That’s not the place to send an elegant coverlet. 

Nor did I want logo’d fleece.  Not because of the logo but because fleece is frequently polyester and polyester doesn’t breathe and it’s for a summer program in the South.  

So, I don’t want to run to one of Chapel Hill’s chic boutiques and I don’t want to run to a UNC booster/souvenir store.  I also don’t have time to make several stops just in case I find one.  Where do I go?  Sadly, fellow taxpayers, I went to Durham.  And so did my money.  

What is so wrong with having enough of a range of retail establishments in our town that we don’t have to (a.) use more gas while (b.) adding to the income of another city and county?

There’s clearly something wrong with it that I don’t understand.  And while I don’t understand it, I probably will end up paying higher taxes.  And while I don’t understand it, town services may decline.  Someone, please explain to me why it seems sustainability applies only to Chapel Hill’s beautiful natural world and not also to keeping the town a vibrant and dynamic place.  

Next summer, when I’ve forgotten something on that list (and I will, because I’m aging!), please let there be some leadership in this town that allows for a mixed environment that serves the interests and needs of all its residents. 

I’m not the first to tell the story of running to Durham to spend money.  The exciting food scene there is also a draw to many of my friends.  Please leave a comment below or write to me at to tell me how you think town leaders should do the impossible: attempt to please everyone!

Town Square offers us a virtual town square where we can learn what’s happening and exchange ideas.  But any strong community offers places where we can physically be together as well, exchanging a quick hug or sharing news over a cup of coffee, for instance.  
     This coming week Chapel Hill kicks off the development of its new comprehensive plan. The discussions and debate will no doubt include the topics of density, urbanity and space. And, while there will be many points of view, I’m going to bet most people will be looking for more opportunities to create town squares.  I said create, not build, because sometimes these opportunities develop without any intent.  And, as far as the points of view: there will be many ideas of what constitutes a town square.
     One enterprise in town is trying to build one and its location might surprise you:  University Mall.  Between the summer concert series and art shows and children’s activities, the mall has been working hard to become a destination beyond shopping.  While I wasn’t able to reach the mall’s marketing manager this week, I have spoken with General Manager Peter de Leon in the past, and I am absolutely sure he’s not forgotten he’s in the retail business!  So, what’s at work here?  
     De Leon has clearly decided to tap into what I’m sure is an almost global desire for a town square.  By offering exhibits, playdates and performances, University Mall seems to be trying to offer the benefits of a town square under a roof.  As it’s pouring right now, I have to say that roof part seems especially brilliant!  And, if while you’re there, you remember you need to get a birthday gift, so much the better for the tenants.  I’m sure tenants don’t mind if you linger a while in the center area to see an exhibit; they know something of theirs might also catch your eye.
     Some people are likely to find the idea of a mall as a town square not to their liking.  Try separating the idea from the reality though because running into a friend and sharing music, art and conversation is awfully nice, no matter where it happens.  And, if you save yourself an extra errand, is that a bad thing?
     Has the community programming drawn you into University Mall?  While you were there, did you spend money?  Please tell me your story by leaving a comment below or writing to me at  I’m also interested in hearing your definition of a town square so please leave those thoughts as comments below as well.

     P.S.  A savvy owner recognized her business in a previous column about a surprise charge I was asked to pay.  She reached out, apologized, and offered a refund.  A tip of my cap to that owner.  FYI, I declined the refund as that was not the point of my post.  What I did want and now believe I received, was an understanding that the business should work with the customer.

Filling the Borders II

 Filling in the Borders

The cavernous space that once housed Borders on Fordham is about to be filled… by a recent retail visitor to Chapel Hill.  And, like the last time, this visit will be temporary.

A month-long J.Crew pop-up warehouse sale is opening there for the month of October. 
Property Manager Joe Mendola says he’s been working hard to fill the 25,000+ square foot space since Borders closed last spring.  
J.Crew has had success here before, when it occupied an empty space in University Mall.  The photo below shows the crowds it attracted last winter when it brought in merchandise  from dozens of stores and made it a special event.  
Last April, University Mall General Manager Peter de Leon told me the J.Crew event brought it lots of traffic, particularly younger customers who are not frequent mall visitors.  He told me then J. Crew’s success opened the door to a repeat event. 
I asked de Leon today about J. Crew’s plans to return to Chapel Hill but not to the mall.  While he wishes the company was returning, he says University Mall couldn’t offer J.Crew a space big enough, “They wanted something bigger.”      

A source at J.Crew concurred that the larger location is what decided where it will open.  I learned also that Chapel Hill is one of about 4 places the company holds these sales and it’s the college town aspect of Chapel Hill that makes it a good place to set  pop up.  

Chapel Hill Economic Development Officer Dwight Bassett is glad to welcome J.Crew, “ This will be a positive short-term addition for Chapel Hill and hopefully can lead to a future tenant that will be a positive addition to our business community long-term.” 
As for that long-term tenant?  Mendola tells me to stay tuned; he’s working on a long-term deal with new tenant.  He would give me (us) the following clue:  “it’s community-minded”.
Are you ready to get in line for J.Crew’s pop-up?  It will be open Oct. 7-23rd.  On the 7th and 8th it will be open 8am-8pm.  From the 9th-23rd the store will be open 10am-8pm.  Customers will find samples and some returned merchandise.  What would you like to see next in that spot?  Leave a comment below or write to me at