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UNC and Town of Chapel Hill work together on local economic development plans

Cars wait at the intersection of Franklin Street and Columbia on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020.

A new initiative by the University and Town of Chapel Hill seeks to revitalize downtown and spur economic development in the Chapel Hill community. 

The initiative, announced in late March, is called the Carolina Economic Development Strategy. The executive committee is co-led by Doug Rothwell, executive-in-residence for economic development in Innovate Carolina, and Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger.   

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the economic development plan into full force, Rothwell and Hemminger said. The plan includes cleaning up the downtown area and tending to some maintenance issues. It also lists creating an innovation hub and a parking garage in a centralized location. 

Rothwell said the skills he used as a former economic developer in Detroit, Michigan, have helped him to co-lead the economic development plan as a University representative. 

“I was very grateful for someone at his level and experience to come in and work with the chancellor to identify this opportunity,” said Gordon Merklein, associate vice chancellor of University real estate operations and a member of the executive team of the Carolina Economic Development Strategy. 

Rothwell said he and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz agreed that their biggest goal is to help Chapel Hill and its community. 

“Chapel Hill and Carolina are intertwined,” Rothwell said. “If Chapel Hill is not healthy and vibrant, it impacts the ability of Carolina to attract talented students and faculty.”

Rothwell said there are teams in place to make the community, especially downtown Chapel Hill, more vibrant. The economic strategy includes a variety of plans that the Town and University hope to complete throughout their development of the downtown area.

Hemminger said the Carolina Economic Development Strategy has four parts. 

“A separate council has been formed made up of University leaders to recruit and set up opportunities for students and faculty to make connections through research and studies,” Hemminger said. 

Hemminger said she and colleagues hope to work together on a master plan to grow business and commerce in the downtown area. She said the community should expect the initiative to make progress regarding its cleanup phase as early as spring graduation. 

She also said the community should expect more planning and possible construction, including real estate leasing, over the summer. 

“We are taking steps to be ready for all of this as we are moving forward together,” Hemminger said.

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