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Hillsborough competes for coolest small town contest

Hillsborough is competing in Budget Travel magazine's 10th-annual “Coolest Small Towns” contest and is currently leading as one of the top two nominees. 

The contest is looking for American small towns with a population under 10,000 and a distinctive culture.

“Hillsborough has had the lead, and right now, we are running neck and neck with Washington, N.C.,” said Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens. 

As the oldest town in the Triangle, Hillsborough is home to numerous historic sites. More than a hundred buildings from the late 18th and 19th centuries are located in the downtown historic district.

“Before Raleigh or Chapel Hill or Durham even existed, Hillsborough was already well-established,” said Michael Verville, marketing coordinator of The Alliance of Historic Hillsborough.

Today, many nationally recognized writers like Frances Mayes, Lee Smith and Allan Gurganus live in the small town of about 7,000 residents. It was recently called “America’s little literary town” by The Wall Street Journal.

The town’s art community is also thriving — there are three permanent galleries and many gallery spaces, Verville said. The local coffee shop Cup-A-Joe, a popular gathering spot, also has art exhibitions, some of which include works by Stevens, who is also an artist.

The largest folk art building collection in the U.S. is also on display in Hillsborough. It contains more than 1,000 miniature buildings and is owned by local resident Steven Burke.

“I think there’s just so much to do here in terms of live music, the arts, really great locally-owned restaurants, shopping, which you can find in any cool city or town but I think it’s uncommon to find this much of it concentrated in a small space,” Verville said.

Anyone can nominate a town on Budget Travel’s website until Dec. 2, after which 15 semi-finalists will be selected based on the number of votes each town receives and other "cool" factors determined by Budget Travel.  After that, people can cast their votes again, and the 10 winners will be announced in February. 

The 2014 first-place winner was Berlin, Maryland, where The Runaway Bride and Tuck Everlasting were filmed. Elkin, N.C., won fifth place.

Budget Travel will publish the results of the contest and feature stories about the top 10 towns on its website.

“We get about one million visitors to our website or more each month, so being named the Coolest Small Town in America gives the town a lot of publicity just through Budget Travel,” said Robert Firpo-Cappiello, editor-in-chief of Budget Travel.

Other well-known news outlets have also published the winners’ list on their websites in the past, he said.

Beaufort, N.C., a small costal town, won the 2012 contest. As for this year’s contest, both Washington and Hillsborough are more than 2000 votes ahead of the third nominee Huron, Ohio. 

But it's still to early to tell whether Hillsborough will claim the victory.

Stevens said Hillsborough is easy to drive by, but he encourages visitors to take some time exploring the town.

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“You want to spend a little time turning over the rocks, seeing what’s underneath,” Stevens said. “You do that and you will find there’s just treasure in every little corner.”