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Downtown Chapel Hill sees over 1 million person increase in visitation, recovers after COVID-19

Downtown Chapel Hill visitation in 2022 surpasses pre-pandemic high

Downtown Chapel Hill had over 9 million visitors in 2022 — an increase of over 1.6 million from the last year — according to the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership.

Following decreased numbers from the COVID-19 pandemic, the highest visitation day was April 5 — overlapping with UNC's run in the Final Four. 

Numbers are expected to increase in 2023, according to Matt Gladdek, executive director of the CHDP. He said the increase was consequential of many different factors, including UNC sporting events and students returning to classes after breaks. 

“You know, I think that it's a broad mix,” Gladdek said. "I would like to think that more visitors coming downtown during the pandemic helped to change people's perceptions of downtown.”

Additionally, downtown improvements in Chapel Hill that took place during the pandemic, such as expanding downtown sidewalks and adding outside seating for restaurants, contributed to the higher numbers, according to Gladdek. 

“I think specifically for our downtown businesses, these numbers matter, because when you come downtown, you're more likely to spend a little money and support a local business,” Gladdek said. "That helps our businesses stay open and hire more people, and that makes downtown more attractive when you've got local businesses doing well.”

With numbers expected to continue rising, Dwight Bassett, director of Economic Development and Parking Services for the Town of Chapel Hill said his department is continuing to address current issues like parking, traffic safety and public restrooms.

Bassett said restrooms in Wallace Parking Deck are now open 24 hours a day and a new parking garage downtown will also have restrooms available at its east entrance. 

With people driving into downtown and more visitors expected to come in, Bassett said the Chapel Hill Parking Services Department is also going to have to consider how it will manage Chapel Hill's parking resources.

“That's certainly going to affect our policy because we're seeking to be more multimodal, and it's a general balance between keeping economic vitality as we make that transition to be more multimodal in our thinking for downtown,” Bassett said.

Bassett said safety is always a concern. As a result, the department is conducting a study to learn how to better balance cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians on the street. The study will also start to gather baseline information for a streetscape enhancement plan to better improve visitors' perceptions of downtown Chapel Hill. 

“The real goal of those two studies is to increase the feeling of economic vitality downtown and make sure we're incredibly welcoming on our sidewalks and our crosswalks and things of that sort so it's a much better experience downtown,” Bassett said. 

According to the Carolina Coffee Shop's Front of House Manager Oszin Gonzalez, the visitation has impacted business in a positive way. 

Carolina Coffee Shop opened its neighboring cafe, 1922, in 2022 and has seen its business's growth increase as a result, Gonzalez said. 

He added that since COVID-19, people have been going out to eat more which has helped their business. 1922 has allowed them to serve students or visitors getting coffee when Carolina Coffee Shop is closed. 

By expanding its business, Gonzalez said Carolina Coffee Shop is hoping to increase its hours to serve dinner in 2023.

“I believe that we're going to continue to grow," Gonzalez said. 

CHDP is going to continue to gain a better understanding of where and why the numbers fluctuate. Gladdek said he hopes to build off of both their successes and misses.

“I think both the Town and our organization have changed a lot of our programming downtown and our hope is that trying to listen to the community's needs and desires for programming is helping people rediscover downtown,” Gladdek said. 


@DTHCityState | 

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