Building the "Chapel Hill" Brand

This commentary, written by me and fellow OP editor Molly De Marco, originally appeared in the Chapel Hill News on July 26, 2015.

Chapel Hill has a branding problem. There, we said it – and we said it because it’s time for us to have a frank and honest discussion about just exactly what Chapel Hill is and who we are as Chapel Hillians.

Far too often these days, it’s common for people to compare Chapel Hill to Durham or even Raleigh. But the fact is that we’re not Durham and we’re not Raleigh – and more importantly, we’re not competing with Durham or Raleigh.

Rather, as one of the nation’s leading and most desirable college towns, we’re competing with towns and cities across the country with major research universities, like Ann Arbor, Bloomington, Athens, and Austin.

Acknowledging this is the first step toward developing a Chapel Hill brand and using it to attract the individuals, businesses, and opportunities that will make Chapel Hill a unique regional and national leader.

Discussions about how Durham has the next cool new thing and Chapel Hill doesn’t won’t move us forward. Instead, remarks like these just lead to wrong conclusions about our competitiveness and concerns about how Chapel Hill is nothing more than a bedroom community for Raleigh and Durham. We need to leave these comparisons behind.

Chapel Hill is unique. Rather than trying to attract businesses and residents from Raleigh or Durham, we need to look nationally to recruit businesses that aren’t yet in the Triangle. We need to find our niche, regionally and nationally.

To build our brand, we need to acknowledge the strengths and assets our community has. The most obvious asset we have is right in the center of town and right at the center of our local economy: UNC.

UNC is an economic powerhouse, not only because of the people it employs, but also because of the research and work of faculty and students that lead to business startups and UNC spinoffs. As of January of this year, more than 150 startups have come out of UNC and now employ more than 8,000 North Carolinians and bring in more than $7 billion in annual revenue (bit.ly/unc-startups).

Yet, many of these businesses are not located in Chapel Hill or even Orange County. UNC spinoffs like Quintiles, Bronto, and Rho have been forced to leave Chapel Hill because we have not built the infrastructure and office space to support their growth. Building a brand that makes Chapel Hill attractive and competitive also means that we must develop the needed infrastructure so that companies like these can stay, grow, and prosper in Chapel Hill and so that businesses who want to locate near a university to partner with academic researchers can find a home and success in our town.

Developing a Chapel Hill brand is equally important to retaining the incredible talent that cycles through our community. As a recent analysis conducted for the town by Spinnaker Strategies (bit.ly/1IP6jOH) emphasizes, Chapel Hill does an abysmal job of retaining UNC graduates.

Instead of remaining in Chapel Hill and contributing to our local economy, most UNC graduates pack their bags and head off somewhere else, because Chapel Hill’s brand has failed to attract the kinds of jobs UNC graduates want and need – and also because Chapel Hill has failed to build adequate housing for recent graduates. Part of revitalizing our brand requires that we work to retain young talent that startups rely on and seek when building their businesses and working toward success. That means building housing and amenities for the next generation of Chapel Hillians instead of the current one.

The Triangle is growing as a region. We know this. But what we don’t know is what Chapel Hill’s place is in the Triangle. Who are the people and businesses we want to attract here, and how are those people and businesses different from who is being drawn to Raleigh, Durham, Cary, and other places in our region?

This is the fundamental question we need to answer to establish our brand, find our footing as a regional leader, and to adequately plan for our future. Chapel Hill’s and Orange County’s potential is great. We just need to have a vision for our future to start building the infrastructure, relationships, and strategies for us to be a stronger competitor nationally and globally.

Travis Crayton and Molly De Marco are editors of the blog OrangePolitics.org and live in Chapel Hill.

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