I wasn't that impressed with Ann Arbor

I was fortunate enough to be a scholarship participant on the Inter-City Visits to Madison and Ann Arbor. I thoroughly enjoyed both experiences, but I found that I am unable to stop comparing the Madison experience to the Ann Arbor experience.

This exercise, of course, is completely unfair. Mainly because, in my opinion, Madison wins. In everything. Hands down. Period. Ann Arbor doesn't stand a chance.

Madison has an abundance of natural beauty. It had a really great downtown that seemed accessable to both students and other people. It has the Overture Center, which always takes my breath away, and Madision is a hotbed for creativity and technology. It is so much what I want for Chapel Hill.

But Ann Arbor is different (duh). I didn't see anything particularly beautiful or extrodinary about it. Ann Arbor seems much more into function, rather than form. It ain't Madison, but it has its good parts.

Ann Arbor has fantastic elected leadership. Their mayor is dynamic and charismatic, and he seems to be the agent for getting a lot of really great stuff done in Ann Arbor. He has spearheaded Ann Arbor's environmental movement.

He has

  • Cut the size of the City's fleet.
  • Started replacing the city's exisiting street lights with LEDs
  • Converted the city's public buses to biodiesel
  • Installed solar panels and harversting wind energy (I think)
  • Worked to decrease the City's energy costs
  • Gone after LEED certification for city buildings

And all this stuff is awesome. And these are all things that our own elected leaders could do (and should be working on).

We also talked to other city and county officials about development (as in buildings). Ann Arbor has a streamedlined development process, which is DEFINITELY a good thing. Orange County and Chapel Hill officials should take note.

But Ann Arbor faces the same issue that Chapel Hill and Orange County face: getting and keeping citizens engaged without overly hampering progress. They have some things in the works to combat that, such as a new citizen participation ordinance and an on-line tracking system.

After the Madison trip, I raved about how beautiful Madison was, and how clean/full/diverse their downtown was, how is seemed that people lived downtown, how it looked like a real city. I wanted to steal so much of what they had and did and make it all fit in Chapel Hill.

After Ann Arbor, I'm thinking more specifically. I'm trying to brainstorm how to implement different things that I saw in Ann Arbor. All the "functions" seemed that work so well for them. They did have some really cool programs that we could steal. And I'm not saying that they governments should do or take the lead with all this stuff. It will take all of us (as partners) to make our community the best place ever.

We can

  • Encourage entrepreneurship through incubators, co-working, and other stuff
  • Do something new (and faster) with the development process
  • Work regionally in terms of philanthropic support, public transportation (we do this better than Ann Arbor, anyway), ending homelessess, and other social services funding.
  • Recruit small businesses to locate in our area, and not make it hard for them
  • (and a little more vaguely) Don't be afraid of change. Change is good (and inevitable).

As I continue to think about what I learned on the trip, I'll come back and drop some knowledge on you.

And oh, I am speaking on behalf of myself (and not any of my employers) Don't be mad at them :-) or me either, for that matter.

And in the spirit of conversation....what do you think? What do you want to add to the list?



Did you get a sense of what excited the other participants? Any initiatives that you think we will see as a result of the trip?

My main frustration was that the things that did work well in Ann Arbor didn't feel applicable to Chapel Hill. We don't have old industrial buildings, a riverfront, passenger rail, or an architectural school in town.  I think some of small ideas may get applied in Chapel Hill (like LED street lights and better coordination of social services and nonprofits).  One of the most challenging issues for us here - university-community relations - has such different underlying conditions there that there was little of use we could take away except to feel lucky that at least we're not Ann Arbor!

I did enjoy meeting and talking with many of the folks on the trip, but as I've said before, we could do that here in the state of North Carolina if we wanted to.

"We don't have old industrial buildings, a riverfront, passenger rail, or an architectural school in town. "

THAT I think is Chapel Hill and Carrboro's biggest challenge in developing thriving downtowns - we're constructing space that many towns built 50-100 (or in some cases 200) years ago and continued to adapt as needed.



The only river running through Ann Arbor proper has been buried underground since the 1930s. http://arborwiki.org/index.php/Allen_Creek

I suppose you might have been shown the Huron River, which is a good ways from downtown and surrounded by industrial and residential buildings. No "city" as such, except for a few parks, and to be honest I think most visitors to Ann Arbor don't even know it exists except as a drive-by as they head to the Stadium. Given the fact that the fellow giving the tour http://arborwiki.org/index.php/Peter_Allen owns most of the developments up thataways, I think I see where the confusion came from :)

Surely street light technology can be understood without flying all those people to Ann Arbor. How many CoC movers & shakers does it take to change street light bulbs? I think we may already have an answer...

In February 2007, I asked Carrboro's public works director to comment on an N&O article with the following headline: "Raleigh Officials envision 'world's first' LED lit city" (on Raleigh's partnership with Cree] .

He replied with the following points:

Traffic Signal Lights:  Chapel Hill has converted most, if not all, of the Traffic signal lights to LED

Vehicles:  Carrboro Public Works is just beginning to use LED emergency lighting in vehicles.  Most of the emergency lights on the new police squad cars will be LED.  More expensive than conventional lights, however, they draw less amperage, have a longer life, and are a better/stronger light source

Town owned or controlled facilities:  The Town may want to consider potential benefits of changing to LED lighting at some Town facilities such as the Town Commons shelter, bike path lights etc.,  if there are bulbs and fixtures available.

Street Lights:  Duke Energy and Piedmont Electric have indicated they are watching the development of this technology and at some point in the future it may be a viable option.  Currently the technology has not proven itself ready to be offered to provide a quality lighting installation that can meet IESNA recommended design criteria for a roadway.

[I have not asked for an update since then]




Prior to this trip, I commented semi-sarcastically that if you're looking for a town with similar population and challenges, you could come to Carrboro.  For one thing, Madison and Ann Arbor have long hard winters and all of the municipal hassles attendant to that.  Culturally and environmentally they have almost nothing in common with Orange County, per Ruby's post above.

De-briefing might better focus on the type of thinking our reps observed in Ann Arbor.  Administrative styles; organizational structure; solutions to problems that don't match ours but could be compared on different levels. 

Because Chapel Hill and Carrboro both invested rather heavily in this inter-city exercise, I would like to see/hear some positive results.  Networking is valuable.  If our people got to know each other better and exchanged contact info, then Orange County will see some benefits. 

I have been silently following the Ann Arbor conversation for some time now with as neutral an approach as possible. 

I have read that these visits are often a glossy official version of what the chamber and many fat cat vip groups want to present about the city. Sounds to me like much of it lacks substance we can really bite down into. 

I heard frustration on the part of many of whom to seem to be the real grassroots influences of Ann Arbor culture that they were never given the opportunity to be heard from by the good folks of Chapel Hill and Carrboro.  

 I have heard that lots and lots of people use lots of jet fuel and money to learn about LED lights for traffic signals and such and that even many of those attending this event seem to agree that it could be done without flying all those people around.

That being said, I am in favor of idea sharing. What I want to ask is: Can someone summarize some tangible outcomes from these trips? I am not suggesting there are none but I would feel better about the dollars spent and the jet fuel used if we could track some real outcomes. It would quell that nagging question that I, and obviously others, keep coming up with about the cost vs. benefit of these trips. 

Take a look at http://www.annarbor2008.com/previous.html

Some of the elected leaders of our four governments and UNC might list other benefits that were important to them.  As Monica indicates, the last two trips were significant experiences for her.  I'm sure many share her view and others may not.  After all, remember where we live!

About twelve years ago for about 2 years I made a number of business trips to Ann Arbor.  My impression was that there seemed to be a lot more businesses as in tech start-ups located around the university than in Chapel Hill.  However it was just an impression as I have no facts to back it up.  And it was a long time ago.


On one of those trips on my return flight I flew with the Michigan ladies' volleyball team who were on their way to play UNC.  Since I am only 5' 8" I was just about the shortest person on the plane.

Since our flight was delayed, I got to have a pleasant conversation with these very tall folks.  At the time my youngest daughter was a fencer at UNC and we got into a discussion how student athletes of non revenue sports are treated at both  Michigan and UNC differently than other students.  I remember the answer was about same.  Both Universities give their student athletes certain perks.  Of course there is a huge difference between non revenue and revenue sports.

Davepr relates his impression that Ann Arbor has more technology-related  start-up companies than does Chapel Hill.  He's likely correct, but that really doesn't reflect poorly on Chapel Hill.  It does recognize that the U of M has both a large, prestigious engineering school and a medical school at the same university.  As an engineer who spent most of my career in our (UNC) med school, I always lament that our two schools are separated by 30 miles.  It's a real barrier to collaboration and to university product development.


I've been finding this thread fascinating.  I was  a long-time Ann Arbor resident and now call Chapel Hill home.  Many people in Ann Arbor believe that the city has gotten a lot of things wrong (see, for example, some lively discussions on arborupdate.com), particularly its adoption of the green belt (which has the unfortunate side effect of encouraging suburban sprawl into former farmland outside of Ann Arbor city limits.  I'd also disagree with the idea that there are more start-ups out of the University of Michigan than out of Chapel Hill, it's just that there aren't places near Ann Arbor like RTP for start-ups to migrate to, so the few that do exist are located right in the town. 

Ann Arbor's biggest problem is that it has fought development tooth and nail, which has had the unintended consequence of driving up real estate costs to the point where the city is prohibitively expensive for prospective homeowners and local businesses.  This means that the city is increasingly dominated by national chains and restaurants all owned by a single set of investors (almost all of the restaurants on Main St. are owned by this group). 

 I also agree that the idea that the Huron River is hardly a central focus of AA residents' attention.  People are aware that it exists, of course -- it runs through two of Ann Arbor's biggest parks -- but it's dirty and not deep enough for serious recreation.

Anyway, I too doubt the usefulness of this cultural exchange trip.  I think the same -- and maybe even better -- information could have been gathered by checking out Ann Arbor's thriving blog scene. 


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