Carrboro to county ED leaders: "You just don't understand!"

I thought this was a very direct point about the philosophical divide on economic development (ED) from the Carrboro Board of Aldermen's recent annual retreat.

The aldermen agreed that some organizations just don't get Carrboro's vision, especially the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, and Orange County's Economic Development Commission, and they wondered aloud whether they should seek support from those two groups for the Think Local First Campaign.

- The Herald-Sun - Carrboro wants people to Think Local First, 2/2/2010  

Brian has written about this divide before, but I've never seen it laid out quite so starkly.  Can't we all just get along?

Just kidding - I can totally understand where Carrboro is coming from. In fact, I'm a little surprised that Orange County government isn't more on the bandwagon. (Not at all surpised about the Chamber.) Most of the County Commissioners espouse values that are quite in line with and supportive of the type of success that Carrboro has had. Yet their Economic Development Commission as well their staff (the previous ED directorprobably the new one) seem pretty rooted in the old-fashioned, old economy way.

My question is not whether there is a divide but WHY? What is the County's problem? 



In 2009 I began serving with Brian Russell and several other citizen appointees of the EDC. In fall 2009 I was appointed Vice-Chair. This has given me the opportunity to talk at length with most commissioners and the county manager, as well as most of my EDC colleagues. I got to the EDC because of my concern about housing costs in Orange County. The county not only needs water and wastewater infrastructure to diversify its tax base, it needs it to spur the development of affordable housing. Orange County will significantly improve the affordable housing outcomes for low- and moderate-income households when it links (A) the provision of water and wastewater treatment infrastructure to the three Econ Dev Districts with (B) zoning for moderately- and high-density transit-oriented residential development adjacent to -- and (partially) incorporated within -- the EDDs. This way the residences can access critical infrastructure. Thus resulting in affordable building lots which translate into affordable housing units. But I digress. To compare the economic development philosophy and the emerging policies of Orange County to our three municipalities  without factoring in the different services funded by county and town governments is misleading. Orange County is responsible for public school funding and social services, whereas Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, and Carrboro don't have this financial responsibility and burden. Hence, IMO the "local living economy vs. business as usual" debate is too narrow in scope because it does not account for the different obligations of the units of government and thus their different financial imperatives. Also, I'm very concerned that our local tax base is unsustainable under any scenario other than accelerating the trendline to becoming a socio-economically exclusive bedroom community to the Triangle and eastern Triad. Again, its not apparent to me that the economic development debate currently underway is addressing this unstainable - and tragic -- outcome. Unfortunately, it seems to be advesarial and reinforcing of ideological stereotypes on both sides of the debate.  So my question is not "what is the County's problem?" but are there better ways to frame this debate and incorporate a wider set of issues?  

I fully support buying local first. Personally, I go out of my way to make purchases in Carrboro over anywhere else. But while I support the BOA's economic development theory as important and necessary, I don't see that it's working to achieve the goals of making the community more affordable. Small boutique retail venues, art galleries, and restaurants simply are not sufficient for absorbing the costs of the services town residents expect to receive. Working with Orange County and Chapel Hill shouldn't mean the board would have to give up their local programs, but working together they might be able to bring in some larger businesses that may help supplement the local first campaign. Any business located in Chapel Hill or Carrboro is going to have to do business with/in the county, and probably with the other town as well. So creating a collaborative partnership seems to me like a positive step forward. The partnership should be able to frankly and honestly develop a vision for the kinds of businesses/industries they want to attract without any one of the partners feeling like their values are being ignored. If Carrboro's representatives feel like their values have been disregarded in past interactions with the county ED, I'd like to hear about it. 

These local debates often occur as if local governments are operating in a stress-free stand-alone universe. In the context of the mismanagement of the state & federal government and the predatory economy that has been allowed to flourish, creating affordable housing on any meaningful scale is like trying to put up a tent in high winds.  

The Carrboro Citizen has a story about this same event/topic called Board reiterates focus on local businesses. The most interesting quote in this article, for me, was:

The recent hiring of Gary Shope, a former vice president at the Research Triangle Foundation with international recruiting credentials, as the county’s interim economic-development director shows the distinction, Chilton said.

“In talks with our neighbors, it’s clear that they would really like for us to join forces and cooperate in pursuing some strategies. But fundamentally it’s a group of strategies that run contrary to what we want to do in Carrboro.”

I've thought for a while that we'd all benefit from a citizen-organized event that would attempt to flesh out all the aspects of the economic development issue that seem to be missing whenever we hear statements from the County ED folks, the CoC, the Commissioners, etc.


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