“The town benefits from a strong university, and the University benefits from a strong school,” Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said.
Likewise, Chancellor Carol Folt said in a statement, “We can’t think of ourselves as separate from the town. Our University is only as healthy and strong as the community that surrounds us. They depend on us, and we depend on them.”
But these words reflect the mindset of new leaders and hide the fact that from 1990 to the beginning of the recession, the University and town were very much at odds.
“The town was concerned that the University would get the (North Carolina) legislature to stop the town from regulating university growth. UNC accused the town of being shortsighted. They were on completely different pages,” Kleinschmidt said. “At one time, the town even forbade town employees from talking to university planners.”
One of the biggest areas of tension came from university construction projects.
“We did a major construction project on McCauley Street that lasted six years,” said Linda Convissor, UNC’s director of community relations.
This tension was the natural result of an expanding campus and student population. From 1990 to today, the town’s population grew from nearly 39,000 to over 65,000. Much of this growth came from an expanding student body.
The pain brought on by the Great Recession would change that. While Franklin Street businesses are closing, per student funding for higher education from the state is still more than 20 percent below pre-recession levels.
Kleinschmidt said these mutual problems brought UNC and the town together.
“We realized that we had to be more collegial, we had to work together more,” he said.
Since the recession, the amount of collaboration has exploded.
“There’s been a number of successes with the Northside Neighborhood Initiative and providing low-income housing,” council member Lee Storrow said.
Specifically, Storrow points to UNC donating 1.6 acres of land on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard for the new Inter-Faith Council for Social Service homeless shelter.
Convissor has started the Town Gown Table, which will take place at the Carolina Inn at the end of the month to link University leaders with that of the town.
This lunch is meant as a friendly meal for networking between community leaders.
For Convissor, the improving relations have come from increased communications.
“The University wants to know what the town is doing and the town wants to know what the University is doing,” Convissor said. “It’s about building respect and trust.”
New problems are arising since the town has begun talks about limiting downtown student apartments following the construction of Shortbread Lofts and LUX at Central Park, according to Convissor.
Given the new spirit of collaboration in the town, the answer might lay in the personal relationships being forged at the Town Gown Table event later this month.