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.