New Partnerships for Downtown Chapel Hill: An Interview With Meg McGurk

Molly De Marco's picture

[Meg's Twitter picture]Meg McGurk has taken the helm of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership after five years as its assistant director. I have worked with Meg for four years in the planning of Project Connect, an annual event where persons at risk for homelessness and those experiencing homelessness can receive services. Meg and I recently talked about her goals for the Downtown Partnership now that she is its executive director, including her thoughts about arts-driven economic development, parking, panhandling, vacant buildings, and new development.

What would you like to focus on as executive director?

I’d like to focus on engaging property owners and businesses in what we are doing, helping make connections. We have 300 businesses downtown and probably 100 property owners. That is a lot of people to get to know, and I’ve gotten to know a lot of them in the last 5 years, but I want to make more relationships and also strengthen relationships with UNC and the town, to build partnerships and build on the programs we are also involved in.

One example of a partnership that evolved out of this work over the last five years is Real Change From Spare Change, which we created to educate people about homelessness and also to discourage giving money directly to panhandlers, instead encouraging them to give that money to us [to distribute to homelessness service agencies]. It was rolled out at the same time as street outreach started and the same time as other services coming on line because we needed to address chronic homelessness. It was very well received. It was a time when there was a perfect storm of services. We had the services for before a person becomes homeless and the food program, but we needed to address chronic homelessness.

Five years later, Real Change has been taken on by Orange County’s homelessness program coordinator, Jamie Rohe. Just now, she is meeting with a professor of journalism from UNC, who is having her class take on Real Change for a class project this fall to create a marketing campaign. To me, that shows a real partnership between the Partnership, the university, and the county to address homelessness. Real Change is still a program of the Partnership, but homelessness is not just an issue of downtown, so it is important that the county has gotten involved. I don’t have to be in control of all of this. Jamie is doing a fabulous job. This symbolized what our Partnership is. I can’t do everything everyone wants, but I can help put people together so we can be working together.

What sorts of things are you hoping to accomplish as executive director?

[CHDP] I want to explore more arts-driven economic development. The arts have been a huge economic driver for Orange County, and a recent study shows this. I’ve had great conversations with people about creating this sense of place and this vibrancy downtown by getting buskers and musicians to be downtown. It creates a nice experience for people so that, even if they just walk by, they leave with that in the back of their mind. So, then also really acknowledging that we have downtown what other towns would love to have. We have a planetarium. We have a major art museum. We have the FRANK gallery, which was a partnership with the town and an amazing artists’ community. We have Kidzu and the university art department. When 140 West opens, they are going to have incredible public art on the plaza, and inside they will have permanent displays of 30 artists’ work. There isn’t a kid from Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools who doesn’t go to Morehead and the Ackland. There are amazing cross-promotions that I don’t have anything to do with, but we want to promote them and help make more connections to create that vibrant atmosphere downtown.

We also want to plan more specialized, focused events—events focused on certain downtown hubs like West Rosemary Street, an area that has become a draw. We are hoping to get merchants to work together on promotions and events.

Are you going to have any more art installations?

The art there now [in the former Yates Motor Co. building] is in there indefinitely. I am working with Jeff York [administrator of public and cultural arts in the Parks and Recreation Department] on what could go in there next. He gets the arts economy and that the downtown is a focus for people. And across the street, did you notice that DB Sutton & Co. is expanding into the store next door? So, look what they did: they hired a local artist who is known for her interesting and colorful art installations, and instead of just putting up paper they had her do a piece with colorful duct tape. They saw an opportunity to add color and vibrancy and hire a local artist. I think that speaks to the changing nature of downtown.

Tell us about Locally Grown.

Our Locally Grown concert and movie series has been incredibly successful. It’s a very desirable series of events that the community loves. It appeals to young people and families with kids. I think the music and movie lineups are really great this year. Glenn Boothe of Local 506 and Wes Tilghman [festivals and events administrator in the Parks and Recreation Department] have been key in developing this program. We are having trivia before three of the movies, family activities, and a 1950s prom theme costume contest for Back to the Future. Before and during the concerts, Bandido's, Kildare's, and R&R Grill will be selling food, and the New Belgium Brewery will be selling beer. For the movies, the Partnership pops and gives away popcorn, and McAlister’s will be there selling cookies, tea, and sodas (sorry, no beer). We have businesses coming to us wanting to be a part of these events.

[OrangePolitics is having an OP @ Locally Grown event for Hitchcock’s Vertigo on August 16. Come join us, play Hitchcock trivia (two OP editors won last year’s trivia!), and enjoy the movie and popcorn. The movie starts at sundown (or about 8:00 pm).]

How has Festifall changed?

Festifall is really cool. Wes Tilghman gets real credit for the evolution of Festifall. In its former format, the displays were placed right up against the sidewalks, and this cut down on pedestrian traffic to businesses. Wes listened to the concerns of the merchants and moved the displays. He’s incorporated interactive art and activities for kids and families. Festifall brings in 20,000 people and it is planned by a committee of volunteers.

Are the Façade grants still happening? Sugarland got one for the mosaic at its front door, I believe.

[See the Façade Incentive Grant Program brochure for more information.] There have been others. We’ve done signs and awnings for other businesses. They are all matching grants of $500, so the businesses have to match the funds. For a year there, we were matching funds for the design work. It actually paid for companies to do the design work. Starting July 1, we are reinvigorating the program. It is not just for signs and awnings. It can be for new paint or removal of paint or new landscaping, or cleaning up or fixing windows or doors. We are not just waiting for them to apply. We go to the businesses and offer them the grants and make suggestions of how the funds could be used.

What about parking? That is always a question.

So much more parking has come on line recently. What we need to do is educate the public more. We now have new meters that are linked, and you can add money to your meter at any other meter. Last week, the town and members of the Parking Task Force met to test the use of a smartphone app to pay for parking downtown. We are working to promote www.franklinstreetparking.com. This website includes both public and private parking options, both day and night options, and cost and hours for each lot. We are encouraging businesses and venues like the Ackland Art Museum and Memorial Hall to let their patrons know about this site by linking to it from their sites and promoting it.

How do you think homelessness and panhandling should be addressed downtown?

I have spent five years working on the issue of homelessness in Orange County, and I do not believe that stronger panhandling ordinances are effective. I believe in working from a positive angle to address homelessness and panhandling. I want the Partnership to continue working with our excellent police department on these issues. The Chapel Hill Police Department is already doing great things through their downtown unit to address homelessness. I’d like to see them doing more community policing, working with folks dealing with homelessness by talking to folks on the street, asking them what help they need, and providing referrals. When the downtown merchants have an issue, I link them with service providers like Solomon Gasana [coordinator of housing for New Hope’s Project Assisting Transitions from Homelessness (PATH) for Orange County]. Solomon is great at working with merchants who are having problems dealing with folks experiencing homelessness.

Housing for New Hope and the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness have created new initiatives to address homelessness in our community. Jamie Rohe has done some amazing work. You are not seeing the same faces you once were on Franklin Street. Those folks have gotten into housing, and it’s because of all of these community organizations working together.

The new Rosemary incubator space has been a big effort of yours just as you’ve taken over as the Partnership’s executive director. How did that take shape?

It’s turned out to be a great partnership between the county, the town, UNC, and the Downtown Partnership. This space is so cool. 3 Birds did a lot of work on the space before they moved in. It is exactly the urban office space that is in demand. 3 Birds has been a great addition to downtown. They went from 2 to over 30 employees in 2 years and have paid internships that turn into full-time jobs. They pour a lot of money into the downtown. They didn’t want to leave this community, but they had outgrown the space.

This incubator is a good place to capture the great ideas coming out of UNC. The involvement of the university is key. The university wants to foster these ideas being developed in their community. One of the criticisms of this incubator is that the county and town are contributing significant money, but UNC is not. That isn’t a correct perception, though. UNC is going to be contributing time and money that will be very valuable along the way through programming, mentorships, resources, and more. It is exciting and very interesting. Failure isn’t an option when you have the mayor, the town manager, Chancellor Thorp, key UNC deans and department chairs, and 3 Birds all involved.

There are already start-up businesses that want to be in the space. I don’t think we will have a problem filling the space and recruiting more. There are a lot of details to work out, though. A number of the businesses that have been incubating in Jim Kitchen’s space on Franklin Street are primed to move here.

How has 3 Birds been involved in all of this?

It’s a misperception that 3 Birds was threatening to leave Chapel Hill if they weren’t given access to parking. They are committed to staying in Chapel Hill. They will have access to approximately 30 parking spots on Graham Street for their employees from 6 am to 6 pm, Monday through Friday, once they relocate their offices to West Franklin Street. This has really been a perfect storm of giving and benefit from and for all parties. 3 Birds will provide some funds and some entrepreneurial expertise to the incubator and its clients. The Downtown Partnership already has the relationships with the town and businesses and nonprofits in the area, so everyone was comfortable with us being involved to manage the details of the incubator. There will ultimately be a governing group with representatives from all of these parties. Everyone is on board for that.

How do you think 140 West is going to change the experience of being downtown?

It is going to be the connection piece between the East and West End. There is a study, ages old, that says that people will only go about half a block in an urban environment when there is an empty block before they will turn around because nothing is drawing them further. 140 West will keep people moving; the retails shops and features on the ground floor will draw people in. There is going to be a sculpture by Mikyoung Kim and a fountain [see www.140westfranklin.com/amenities]. The fountain and public gathering space will be a draw. Fountains naturally draw people. The shops will be a draw. There will be a mix of retail and restaurants. The developers know what is going in, in terms of retail and restaurants, but they haven’t made that public yet.

What is the future of Greenbridge?

That is what everyone asks and it remains to be seen. I think we will see activity there soon. And I think that within 10 to 15 years the conversation will be, “Wow, Greenbridge.” It is unique. It doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. It is going to be a draw for Chapel Hill and Carrboro. The retail business in there now, LIGHT Art+Design, exhibits a lot of local artists, and they have a good local following.

What can we learn from the Yates incident about the perception of absentee landlords and property owners and vacant buildings?

The last time we did the breakout, 82% of property owners lived here or close by in North Carolina. It’s a misperception that the property owners aren’t part of the community, and it is a misperception that Joe Riddle [owner of the Yates building] isn’t invested in our town. He owns many other properties downtown that are full, active, and thriving and have businesses that are key businesses for downtown—not to mention the parking lot by Lantern. It’s now a public lot. There is nothing absentee about that. He was very vested in making that happen. There is a perception that he doesn’t play well with the town. He would have never entered into a contract with the town if he didn’t believe in this community. So, I think everyone wants to vilify Joe Riddle, but if he was truly that bad, then the Ackland Museum Store and Top of the Hill wouldn’t exist. I think everyone needs to move past that. Yates is a big building and it is beautifully and colorfully visible with art in the window, and things are happening there.

Are there things the Partnership is doing to put tenants into buildings?

Yes, we’ve always done that. We have an extremely low vacancy rate, something that other municipalities are jealous of. We have a thriving downtown, but people focus on the vacant or papered over window when there are 30 other active businesses that they are shopping and eating in. It is easy to focus on what is coming and going because that is visible. But yes, we get contacts from both ends. Property owners come and ask us if we have any leads and what we’d like to see in the building. Vice versa, we have businesses constantly contact us and tell us that our market demographic is what they are looking for and can we put them in touch with any of these kinds of spaces. We do that constantly.

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1 Comment

Ruby Sinreich's picture

Local leadership

I've known Meg as a fellow nonprofit worker for a number of years, and I was thrlled to hear that she would be taking over at the Partnership. She brings a lot of important perspectives to the position, including extensive experience with downtown and knowledge of the less priviledged side of Chapel Hill, but the very best thing about this hire is that Meg is a local. Instead of coming to Chapel Hill with generic ideas that could be applied to Anytown, USA (as previous DP directors did) she begins with a understanding and appreaciation of what already makes our downtown the envy of other small towns as well as our unique challenges. I'm reminded of when UNC hired Holden Thorp as Chancellor.  Similarly, I probably won't agree with every thing Meg does at the DP, but I do very much appreciate her leadership there.