The Daily Tar Heel

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Tuesday March 28th

Town Talk

Orange County leaders travel to Georgia for Inter-City Visit 2014

From school officials to city planners to council members, almost a hundred Orange County leaders gathered Sunday through Tuesday in Greenville, South Carolina, and Athens, Georgia, to talk ideas with other leaders and each other — and even do some improv.

The Inter-City Visit and Leadership Conference is sponsored every two years by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce. Attendees travel to a city or county similar to Orange County to compare their experiences and strategies to those of the destination town and its government.

“Particularly the topics I thought were very relevant, hearing from the school guys, from tourism, from the development side,” said Tom Stevens, mayor of Hillsborough, following the event.

Big issues discussed at the conference included streamlining development in Orange County, creating walkable, green space in Chapel Hill and Hillsborough and confronting issues of poverty and affordable housing.

From bike sharing to water supply to minority representation in local leadership, conference participants covered a range of topics in three days of presentations, tours and discussions.

The conference was also a time for leaders to network with one another — and even bond over a night of improv during the group’s final night at Hotel Indigo in Athens.

The purpose of the biennial conferences is for community leaders to see how other towns have dealt with the situations that Orange County face.

“I had to get on a bus and go to Georgia to find a superintendent who was like-minded,” said Thomas Forcella, superintendent of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

“The changes they're trying to create here, even though they’re demographically very different, we're doing the same thing.”

Day 1: Green space in Greenville

The downtown of Greenville, South Carolina is lush and green, featuring at its center a sprawling park along the city’s river and waterfall and narrow streets lined with trees and packed with apartments and local businesses.

Greenville Mayor Knox White spoke to conference attendees about the town’s decision to increase the density of the downtown space, encourage walkable, mixed-use development and take advantage of Greenville’s river, which he said had previously been a dirty and unattractive part of town.

Amy Ryan, vice chair of the Chapel Hill Planning Commission, said Greenville demonstrated something for which Chapel Hill could strive.

“Greenville was an eye-opener for me,” she said.

“They took risks, but they also identified what their assets were that they had. They took a good look at that, and they brought that forward with them as they changed.”

Greenville’s downtown mirrors Hillsborough’s recent construction of Riverwalk, an urban greenway along the Eno River, and Chapel Hill’s recent talk of putting a grocery store on or near Franklin Street. These projects echo a national trend of town centers transforming into dense, walkable and natural urban spaces.

“The thing I looked at in Greenville — nothing's changed with the physical part of the main body of Chapel Hill,” said D.R. Bryan, president of Bryan Properties, a major developer in Chapel Hill.

“Doing nothing is its own risk.”

Day 2: “Concierge treatment” for Athens developers

Chapel Hill’s application fees for developers can cost tens of thousands of dollars more than similar fees in Athens-Clarke County in Georgia.

“We try to provide the concierge treatment for businesses coming in,” said Brad Griffin, planning director for Athens-Clarke, in a presentation Monday to conference participants.

Craig Benedict, director of planning and inspections for Orange County, said exorbitant fees and a lack of infrastructure and incentives keep developers from investing in the area.

“If someone comes in the door and wants to buy a site, to have everything ready so they can put their shoes on and walk out of the store — it’s hard to get there,” he said.

Griffin explained that getting developments off the ground in Athens-Clarke County takes a period of months, as opposed to the years it can take in Orange County.

Aaron M. Nelson, president and CEO of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, said Orange County should be setting standards before developers come up with proposals.

“We've had a defensive posture rather than an affirmative strategy. We let the developer tell us what they want and we beat at it until we can say ‘This is what we want,’” he said.

“Let's just say out loud what we want rather than what we don't want. Let's be pro-vegetable, not anti-meat.”

Day 3: Back to the grind — now what?

After hearing from Athens Technical College and the service learning side of the University of Georgia, conference participants spent the last day in Athens discussing how to impact policy and practice back home in Orange County.

“There seemed to be here a willingness to take risks,” said Sylvia Black, president of Black Star Strategies, Inc.

“I don't quite feel that in Chapel Hill. In Chapel Hill and Orange County, it seems like there are more people who are willing to say, ‘No, we can't do that.’”

But conference attendees also took issue with aspects of the Athens-Clarke County government, specifically its failure to involve minorities in leadership and create programs that impact the most needy sectors of the population — a population that is one of the poorest in the country.

“It's not a healthy community if it's not healthy for everybody,” said Aaron Bachenheimer, UNC’s director of Fraternity and Sorority Life and Community Involvement.

Chapel Hill Town Council members emphasized that in order for real change to happen faster, Orange County government needs support from business leaders, developers and residents.

“I think we’ve done a lot in the last five years that I don’t think anybody could ever have predicted,” said Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt.

“But people are afraid of this change. We do this because we're passionate about it, but we're not going to be around to do it for very long if we don't have advocates for this entrepreneurial approach to local government."

Kleinschmidt said if Chapel Hill and the county want to transform, change is inevitable.

“If you're taking risks in Chapel Hill, we say it's okay to trip — we have Band-Aids for your knees.”

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