Behind closed doors

I was disappointed, but not surprised, to read about the recent closed-door session of the Chapel Hill Downtown Economic Development Corporation. Here on OP we have raised a number of concerns about this new downtown player since it's creation.

Looks like Kirk Ross at the Independent Weekly has joined the skeptics. He writes:

In one quick meeting last week, the [Corporation] managed to alienate a number of the players needed to make new ideas work and raise suspicion among the general public about just what the group is up to. ...

For folks interested in the future of downtown Chapel Hill, the board's action was enlightening, as was the rather imperial response by board member J. Allen Fine, when asked by Epting why he wanted to do things in closed session. "Why not?" Fine replied.

While it's very, very un-Chapel Hill to suggest that anything unethical might be in the works, the fact that the corporation is populated by downtown property owners, university officials and a developer who has already said he might put a bid in on one of the town's downtown projects, requires an open process.

Unless there's a rapid change of heart, it doesn't look like that will come from the development corporation's board of directors. Which leaves it up to the Town Council to restore trust in the process.

The corporation receives 2/3 of it's funding ($140,000 anually) from the Town of Chapel Hill. This is no way to conduct the public's business. The fact that only one board member voted against the closed session - Bob Epting, the Corporation's chair, who went on to resign in protest - gives me serious concerns about how this body operates.

Who are the stakeholders of the Corporation? Why has the Town of Chapel Hill been so eager to put our downtown future in this group's hands - going as far as defunding Chapel Hill's long-standing Downtown Commission? Why the corporate, undemocratic model? Who can restore any trust in this body or their process?

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Downtown group off to poor start

Chapel Hill Herald
Saturday, October 23, 2004

Imagine, if you will, that it is October 2001. Chapel Hill mayoral candidate Kevin Foy has called a news conference in front of the Franklin Street post office. There he announces that, if elected, he will appoint Meadowmont developer Roger Perry to oversee the redevelopment of downtown.

Weird? You bet. Likely to lose him some votes? For sure. Yet, here we are three years later and Foy has designed a downtown development board in which Perry seems to be calling the shots.

The imagined news conference never happened, of course. In actuality, Foy held a news conference at Meadowmont to denounce Perry's bait-and-switch tactics on the housing prices for his massive development. But that was then; this is now.

The newly created Downtown Economic Development Corp. (DEDC) has four board members appointed by the town, two appointed by the university and a seventh appointed by the other six. With that breakdown, you would hardly expect that Perry, a UNC trustee, would get to handpick the seventh position but that is apparently what happened.

Board member Bob Epting told the Herald that he was "blown away by the quality and interest of the applicants" for the seventh spot. Yet he too was convinced to support Betty Kenan, Perry's choice.

Judging by Kenan's application, there was only one reason to support her. The standard Chapel Hill advisory board application has a section that instructs the would-be appointee to "provide a brief statement outlining why you wish to serve." Kenan replied with a scant eight words: "I was asked by Roger Perry to serve." And that was good enough.

Kenan's appointment begs the question of why Perry is on the DEDC board in the first place. In approving the structure of the new organization, the Town Council either overlooked the possibility of conflicts of interest or trusted the university to have the good sense to avoid them.

Of anyone associated with UNC, Roger Perry, because of his significant interests as a developer, probably has the clearest conflict of interest. In a recent radio interview, Perry said his company, East West Partners, is "aggressively looking for projects downtown."

One has to wonder about the wisdom of the town's giving UNC so much influence over the future of downtown. Perry said that UNC sees the downtown area as a kind of "bridge" between main campus and Carolina North. I doubt that many townspeople see it that way.

In fact, my sense has been that the council's concern about downtown, especially East Franklin Street, has been largely driven by a desire to see it serve the needs of a broader population than just UNC students. The hope has been to make downtown a vital center for the entire Chapel Hill community, fulfilling the Downtown Small Area Plan's vision of "downtown as the social, cultural and spiritual center of Chapel Hill."

The mayor's steering committee that recommended the DEDC also came up with the idea that the university should provide its interim director. The man who emerged is business school professor Nick Didow.

Didow is not off to an auspicious start. A few weeks ago, in his first prominent public act in his new position, Didow invited business-owners to engage in a kvetch-fest to come up with town regulations that they think hinder the economic vitality of downtown.

For years, the DEDC's predecessor, the Chapel Hill Downtown Commission (still extant but without significant town funding), was known for its complaints about downtown. Their favorite tune was the claim that there was nowhere to park despite regular town parking-lot reports that show available spaces throughout the day.

It is disappointing to see the DEDC mimicking its predecessor. Surely the eight bright people running DEDC could have come up with a more positive first initiative.

Recently, the Chamber of Commerce honored Foy and UNC's Nancy Suttenfield for their work setting up the DEDC. I'm sure that from the chamber's perspective, Foy's 2001 mayoral opponent, Lee Pavão, a darling of the business party, could not have done better.

A conservative caricature of liberals is that they just throw money at problems, but in this case, it may not be far off the mark. Foy's solution was a new organization with a $210,000 budget, a vague mission and a board of directors with no direct accountability to the town.

The way things are going, the Town Council may need to reel in the DEDC even if it can only do so by tightening the purse strings. It is not too late to flesh out the DEDC's mission statement, to appoint a more diverse board and to ensure that its director is independent of any interested party.

Downtown development will never happen until the busses run on time and the service starts answering their complaints. Mary never returns calls.

 

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