Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas
2 min read May 2021 — A new era is coming to the Town of Chapel Hill as areas like Downtown attract greater commercial development, which not only will generate more job opportunities for the community but will also diversify the town’s tax base. Pam Hemminger, the mayor of Chapel Hill, is excited and optimistic that her town is on its way to becoming an attractive innovation hub.
How did Chapel Hill contribute to the successful management of the pandemic?
I’m very proud of our community for how we have come together to manage the pandemic and take care of one another. The Orange County leaders got together quickly to create an emergency management team and by trusting science from the outset, we were able to stay ahead of the curve.
As part of that effort, our county and municipal staff pivoted immediately, taking on new roles and working closely with community partners to address urgent needs. For instance, we partnered with the business chambers to help them find funding for PPE. So, it was a good partnership. We also stepped up and created or expanded programs like providing a weekly food bank distribution, working with the schools to provide food for students at meal sites across town and moving people out of our local shelters into hotels so they would be safer. We also created partnerships with the university and with our ethnic communities, so we had the sense that we were all in this together. Thanks to everyone’s hard work, our community stayed below the case numbers and positivity rates that everyone else around us was experiencing.
What is Chapel Hill doing to support private investment?
One of the main reasons I ran for office is because I saw really bad choices being made that were going to lock us into being an elitist bedroom community and that’s not what I wanted for Chapel Hill. We are 80% residential and that’s just not a recipe for long-term success. That means people love to live here but they work somewhere else. To change that, we need to create more job opportunities in our community. We noticed companies were leaving our community.
To change that, we need to create more job opportunities in our community. The University is a tremendous economic engine and we noticed that start-up and growing companies were leaving our town. We asked them why and received a list of issues, including the need to have more available commercial space here.
We have taken a number of steps to help solve some of those issues to keep those companies here and help them with their growing needs. An early step was creation of an Enterprise Zone in the northern area of town to attract or retain companies with light manufacturing operations. In March, Carolina Donor Services broke ground on their new headquarters – the first project in that new zone.
We also approved several performance-based incentive agreements which have helped us increase office space and bring jobs to Chapel Hill. In February, Wegmans opened a new store here that created over 400 new jobs at the height of the pandemic. This Spring, a new 100,000 SF office building will open in Glen Lennox.
What has been the strategy to revitalize Downtown?
One of the trends that concerned me about our downtown was the significant amount of new student housing on Downtown land parcels. While we love the energy that students bring to Chapel Hill, those individuals are only here for nine months, and it just doesn’t work for an economy. We need workers, families and young professionals who will be here for 12 months of the year living, working and shopping Downtown
Another component for Downtown was a need to invest in infrastructure because new development hasn’t occurred here despite proximity to the University and the positive outlook for our region. We were stuck in this chicken and egg situation wherein nobody was willing to build a commercial development because they couldn’t figure out how to park and nobody was going to build parking if the commercial was not there. Fortunately, a portion of our downtown has been designated an Opportunity Zone and we were able to partner with a private developer to combine two awful parking lots into one newer deck. Creation of the new deck has catalyzed other commercial opportunities including the university’s decision to bring undergraduate admissions to Franklin Street and be part of this parking deck. There is also a new proposal for 200,000 SF of commercial office and wet lab space for the original parking deck site.
We have also formed a new partnership with UNC called Downtown Together to spur economic development in Chapel Hill by creating an innovation hub. The partnership is focused on taking steps to revitalize the look and feel of our downtown as well.
It is a wonderful opportunity to invest and bring in new companies and year-round jobs. This is all very exciting for us.
What is the town’s strategy around taxes?
It’s a shift for Chapel Hill because we never really thought about the business components in this way. Our message is that if we bring in a broader commercial tax base, diversify our tax base, it provides dollars to do the things you care about, like affordable housing, climate action, greenways and all those things. That resonates with our residents. You can’t thrive on a residential tax base without increasing taxes.
What is your outlook for Chapel Hill for the next 12 to 18 months?
I’m excited. We are seeing all kinds of interest and companies wanting to be close to that energy, to try new models. People are eager to get back to business here and to get back to a full university experience as well. The University receives $1.2 billion annually in research dollars so we see this as a wonderful opportunity to retain talent and recruit companies with a synergy to the University and UNC Health which benefits all of us. I’m excited about these opportunities for Chapel Hill to become an innovation hub and a sustainable place that welcomes everyone.
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