Thursday, December 16, 2010

Changing old perceptions a big task in new economic-development push

By Kirk Ross
Staff Writer

This is the second in a series of articles on new economic-development initiatives in Orange County. The first article, on an effort to set up a new economic-development corporation is at

Call it the Southern Orange 80/20 rule, a kind of informal target for the mix of residential to commercial tax base.

Two decades ago, you would occasionally hear an elected official or policymaker talk about maintaining that 80/20 mix.

Now, not so much. With growing budget pressures, already-high property-tax rates and a lingering reputation of being anti-business, there is a general consensus that Orange County and its municipalities have to revise strategies.

In the past few years, Carrboro and Chapel Hill have expanded their economic-development efforts.

Chapel Hill set up an economic-development office and hired a full-time director in 2007. Carrboro maintains an office of economic and community development, which in addition to overseeing economic-development initiatives manages the town’s human-services grant program and affordable-housing efforts.

Now, with an effort to draw together local governments, the university and the business community in an economic-development collaboration, there comes the task of creating a structure and direction all parties can agree on. Then there’s the job of reversing a perception that has snowballed since Jesse Helms started railing against Hippie Hill.

Too much success
If there really was an 80/20 rule, you might say it was a roaring success, especially in Chapel Hill, which throughout the 1980s and ’90s tightened development ordinances and placed an emphasis on neighborhood protection. Stormwater runoff and traffic impacts were given greater scrutiny and the time developers could expect for review lengthened.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said that while the standards and safeguards put in place then were important, they fed into the perception the town was anti-business.

“Unfortunately, it created a momentum,” he said of the mythical 20 percent target. “We overshot that to our detriment.”

With the town’s commercial tax base now hovering at around 15 percent, he said, the town has to work hard to reverse the trend.

“We have to get businesses open more quickly,” Kleinschmidt said. The town also will have to continue to find ways to streamline the permitting process, he said, as well as be more open to new projects.

“We can’t say ‘no’ to everything,” he said.

Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, who served on the Chapel Hill Town Council in the mid-1990s, said that in both towns the mix of commercial to residential was driven by concerns about traffic and other impacts.

“Commercial development has been more controversial,” Chilton said. “That’s made it easier to grow residentially.”

That’s not likely to change soon, he said, noting the intense interest in projects like the proposed move of CVS in downtown Carrboro.

Brian Russell, a Carrboro business owner who serves on the Orange County Economic Development Commission, said despite efforts to be more open to commercial projects, the anti-business perception still haunts the county.

“As far as the reputation goes, its still alive and well,” Russell, who owns and runs Carrboro Creative Coworking, said. “We have a lot of public relations to do.”

Russell said any new economic-development entity will have to have a clear vision of what it wants to accomplish. He said he doesn’t think that means abandoning long-held principles.

“I think we can find a balance,” he said. “We need to find some harmony between the local business, anti-big box people and those who want them. We need to find some harmony with what environmentalists want and people being able to have a livelihood.”

Old concepts about economic development are colliding with the pressing need for more jobs, Russell said. “It’s not that simple anymore.”

Chilton agreed that the need for increasing the commercial tax base and the jobs that come with it is growing. That means making adjustments. The town recently worked with developers to add commercial properties to new housing developments and identified parcels north of town for commercial development.

“We’re in a far different environment than we were three, four or 10 years ago,” Chilton said.

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