Lantay, a junior, has lived in Chapel Hill for 15 years and considers it home, but he is concerned that many recent UNC graduates are moving away once they graduate.
Durham’s expanding entrepreneurial opportunities and more affordable housing market draw many young professionals to the area, tipping the balance for those trying to choose between Chapel Hill and Durham.
Chapel Hill town staff, the University and many private businesses have been working to make Chapel Hill an appealing place for young graduates.
“A lot of cities face what we call brain drain, or a loss of the younger population, as our population has aged,” said Dwight Bassett, economic development officer for the town of Chapel Hill.
Nancy Oates, Chapel Hill Town Council member, said keeping grads in Chapel Hill is the eternal question.
“We’re concerned because we recognize the benefit of grads staying in the area, and the talent in which they provide,” she said. “We’d like to keep them in town and make (Chapel Hill) their home.”
Lantay, who is taking a semester off from classes, lives in Durham and works as an intern for a startup software development company.
“During my search process, I looked mostly for internships specifically in Durham because I considered it to be the place I wanted to live if I was going to stay in North Carolina after graduation,” he said.
After comparing Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh, Lantay said Durham seemed to be the clear winner.
“(Durham) is where the American Underground, one of the seven Google Tech hubs in the U.S., and the Startup Factory, one of the best startup accelerators in the U.S., are located,” Lantay said.
Lantay said there were plenty of jobs in Durham for the startup community, as well as affordable housing.
“It is the city where the college graduate community thrives most in the Triangle,” he said.
Chapel Hill Town Council Member Michael Parker said a lot of startups often leave Chapel Hill when they reach a certain size because they have trouble finding affordable office space.
He said the town is trying to fix this problem, and has doubled its funding for Launch Chapel Hill, a startup accelerator on Rosemary Street.
Judith Cone, vice chancellor for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development at UNC, said Launch has been a valuable resource for many startups.
“Launch is an accelerator, but you graduate from that,” Cone said. “Once you graduate, it is hard to find (office) space. When students start companies, what they need is accessible space that’s affordable and has flexible terms.”
She said Durham’s startup community often uses the warehouse district because it offers the kind of flexible office space they need.
“We would like to provide this kind of flexible space here in Chapel Hill,” Cone said.
Between 2000 and 2010, Durham County saw a population growth rate of 20 percent, while Orange County grew by 13 percent.
In 2016, 20.1 percent of Durham’s population was between the ages of 25 to 34. Chapel Hill’s 25 to 34-year-old population comprised 15.4 percent of the town’s overall population.
Bassett said the town has gaps in the local population of 25 to 40-year-olds that has not grown much in recent decades.
According to a presentation Bassett gave in January 2015, there has only been 11 percent of growth among 25 to 34-year-olds, and 34 percent growth among 35 to 44-year-olds between 1990 and 2010.
Both of these fall far below the average population growth the town saw — 68 percent.
“We think a part of that is a lack of job creation,” Bassett said. “The town council is intently set on seeing that trend change, (because) we certainly desire to retain (younger people).”
A separate identity
Town staff has been working to create areas that are appealing to recent graduates, although there are many different ideas for how to achieve this.
“We want grads who want to live here to stay,” Parker said.
Cone said an urban vibe like that of downtown Chapel Hill is an environment in which many people want to find office space, making it all the more hard to find.
Mark Zimmerman, owner of RE/MAX Winning Edge, attributed decades of progress in Durham by farsighted local government and businesses owners to its recent and significant growth.
“Durham worked really hard to make entertainment options and to revitalize the area,” he said. “It has captured the attention of a wide range of people, but certainly a younger crowd.”
Zimmerman said that with all the competition in that area, the Chapel Hill area hasn’t yet been able to catch up.
Lantay said he believes the most important thing Chapel Hill can do is create office space for startups, as well as places catered to the people who work in those offices to spend time, similar to the communal spaces of the American Tobacco Campus in Durham.
Bassett said it would be pretty much impossible to create something like the American Tobacco Campus in Chapel Hill, but there is the potential for the Ephesus Fordham District to become a more affordable, urban district.
Lantay said he believes mixed-use space would create an identity outside of the University for recent graduates.
“More than anything, college graduates who live in Durham feel pride in living in Durham,” Lantay said. “People there have an identity outside of Duke.”
Zimmerman said he thinks this will be nearly impossible to achieve in Chapel Hill.
“Chapel Hill is joined at the hip with the University,” he said. “This is really a college town, and when people graduate, they’re leaving that behind.”
Zimmerman said although Raleigh and Durham have significant university presences, they are not the heart of their respective cities.
Parker said the town has recently done quite a bit to preserve and create affordable housing in Chapel Hill, which is a necessity for many recent graduates.
The town’s efforts include placing one cent of property taxes into a fund for affordable housing, which works out to roughly $700,000 to $750,000 each year, Parker said.
Despite these efforts, Zimmerman said the average cost of living in Chapel Hill is about $500,000 — much higher than Durham or Raleigh.
Zimmerman said although the housing market can discourage recent grads from living in town, many alumni return later to buy a home in Chapel Hill.
“They have a wonderful time, they love it, but they go off and have their career,” Zimmerman said. “Then when they can afford to, they get a place in Chapel Hill. A lot of people retire and come back to this area because it has that hold on them. In a way, you don’t lose them forever.”