Chapel Hill, a 200-year-old town filled with history and Carolina Blue, is in no way immune to the passage of time. In one decade, the Town has seen its own rise out of an economic downturn, multiple classes of college students, new businesses come and go and shifts in the cultural and political identities of the town’s residents.
Three town leaders discussed how they got into public service, what challenges the town has faced over the course of the decade and where the town might go next.
More residents and less business
Mark Kleinschmidt, Orange County clerk of court, joined the Chapel Hill Town Council in 2001, fresh out of law school. He had been involved in addressing issues with bike paths and other transportation methods, leading him to pursue the Council seat. He then sought and won the mayor’s office, holding the position from 2009 to 2015.
He came into the office seeing the growth pressures, especially coming out of the Great Recession. He said it was important that the Town responded to them in a healthy way.
“That meant preserving a sense of place," he said. "That didn’t ever mean that we had to preserve exactly what existed. We should work to accommodate change and growth but continue to preserve the uniqueness of the character of our community. I think we dealt with that pretty well.”
He said that in the early days of his term as mayor, because of the recession, there wasn’t much investment in businesses and other parts of the town. As a result, he and his team created a plan focused on creating transportation options and developing affordable housing, along with creating and maintaining the character of the town.
“I’m really proud of that process. We engaged over 10,000 people in that process, making it the most comprehensive plan ever created in the town’s history,” he said. “We really set ourselves on a good path.”
Another challenge Chapel Hill has seen was the relationship with the General Assembly, which Kleinschmidt said could have responded more to what the town wanted. He said Chapel Hill doesn’t necessarily have the same autonomy that larger cities might have, which led to some creative solutions.
“The town for a long time had been asking the legislature for new tools to diversify revenue, to encourage economic development, to form affordable housing policies and all kinds of things," he said. “The North Carolina legislature has bound the Town’s hands in many ways that would be able to make progress in ways that our citizens would like and that our community leaders would like."
Opportunities to improve, but little choice
Outgoing council member Nancy Oates said she had been going to town meetings and writing about the town council’s decisions for the better part of a decade before deciding she wanted to be more involved and ran for a seat.
Oates said she came into office focused mainly on affordable housing. She said she wanted to make the Town balanced and make sure those working in Chapel Hill could live in Chapel Hill but said the Town has not made much progress on that front.
“We’ve lost our balance if the people who work here can’t live here,” she said. “That has other ramifications on traffic with people commuting into town and people commuting out of town because we don’t have a plethora of high-paying jobs that people who can’t afford to live here would be working at.”
She said there are a number of expensive projects the Town is going to have to address, such as moving the police station — currently situated above a coal ash deposit — and increasing the amount of downtown parking.
Oates also said there are some initiatives that the Town has not taken advantage of, such as giving land rights to charitable organizations.
“We’ve had some opportunities that we’ve had that we have not taken advantage of or seized the moment on,” she said.
Oates said a major goal of hers coming into office was to increase the number of businesses to shift the tax burden from residents, and she said the Town Council accomplished that goal. She said the future additions of Wegman’s, Google and a light industrial zone, among other newcomers, will lead to more innovation in Chapel Hill’s business sector.
Going forward, Oates said the Town has to find a balance between the noble causes of fighting climate change and greenway overdevelopment and business innovation and economic growth.
A changing political landscape leads to one citizen seeking office
Council member Hongbin Gu originally came to Chapel Hill to pursue graduate degrees from UNC. Afterward, she focused on just her career and her family.
When her children started attending public school, she became involved in school organizations and other community leadership positions. She eventually became the principal of the Chinese School at Chapel Hill, where she remains on the board’s chair.
The election of 2016 was the event that ultimately convinced her to consider running for office. She hadn’t often thought deeply about immigrants’ rights, but the election concerned her. After some encouragement, she decided to run for a seat on the Town Council in 2017.
“At the time, there was lots of push back from people who feel uncomfortable with an immigrant running to be a leader of the town, especially with some of the comments and posts on social media,” she said. “It’s brought heated debate about what is the identity of the town of Chapel Hill and what is the direction of America.”
She said she was surprised by the pushback, especially with what she thought to be the accepting and diverse identity of Chapel Hill. However, she felt encouraged to fight for that identity when she won the election.
She said one significant change she has seen in the town has been its demographic makeup, with a growing immigrant population. She said the next step for the Town is to carve out an intentional identity that fits the vision of the community and the requirements of investment and innovation.
“Even though there are some parts of our community that would like our town to remain in this small college town character, we need to reinterpret that or reinvent that in terms of regional growth,” she said. “That’s not something we can resist.”
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