Better Together

A good friend of mine spent some time over the holidays in another college town, where his parents live. We were chatting upon his return to Chapel Hill, and he said something that really struck me: Compared to his parents’ town, Chapel Hill just doesn’t have a real sense of community.

He explained a bit more, specifically mentioning that something exciting had happened at the university and everyone in town was abuzz about it. That’s not something that happens in Chapel Hill, he said. And, after thinking about it, I realized how right he is. There’s a big disconnect in Chapel Hill between the people who live here and both UNC as an institution and the students, faculty, and staff who make up the UNC-affiliated part of our community.

Over at Chapelboro, Matt Bailey wrote an excellent commentary over the holiday break about why he’s excited for the days when UNC students are in town. His sentiment is one I wish more Chapel Hillians expressed. After all, the reason our community exists at all is because UNC is here.

As Matt notes in his commentary, it’s understandable that there are some disagreements between students and other residents, in part because of differing lifestyles. But just as non-student residents expect students to be good stewards of our community while they’re a part of it, we should expect non-student residents to be good stewards of UNC.

To me, that means non-student residents should celebrate the vibrancy that students bring to our community and enjoy the arts and athletic events that enrich our community. It also means that we need our elected leaders to start working more closely with UNC administrators to plan for and design policies aimed at improving the long-term viability and health of our community.

For example, former Chancellor Holden Thorp was a champion of innovation and integrating entrepreneurship across the university. As a result of the university’s commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship and town-gown collaboration, we now have LaUNCh and 1789 Venture Lab in downtown, which are undoubtedly great things for our community.

But let’s think bigger and with a renewed long-term focus. What if our elected leaders and UNC administrators had a closer relationship and worked more closely to find and implement solutions that help UNC students (and graduates) succeed right here at home beyond their time at UNC? Given that over 150 start-ups have come out of UNC and now employ over 8,000 North Carolinians, imagine what the landscape of our start-up economy might look like if our elected leaders had the foresight a decade ago to work with UNC to foster a prosperous and sustainable start-up community in Chapel Hill. That’s the kind of long-term thinking and collaboration we need.

Or, to offer another example, what if UNC leaders and the Orange County Visitors Bureau worked together to develop a strong, UNC-centered branding campaign to increase our tourism economy, as other college towns have done? We have an incredible asset that draws in huge crowds for all kinds of events yearly, so why aren’t we doing more to highlight it?

Because our community is built upon UNC, it’s critical that our local elected officials develop good working relationships with UNC administrators. We’re all on the same side here, and what’s good for UNC is good for Chapel Hill and vice-versa. Building greater trust, fostering relationships, and planning jointly for the future is the kind of approach we need our leaders to take. UNC, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro are better together. Let’s remember that as we look to the future and what our community could be.

With many new faces making up UNC leadership now under Chancellor Folt, our local elected officials have a unique opportunity to take this approach right now, with an eye to the future. I hope they’ll seize it.



I believe that a key problem with Chapel Hill is that it has no center where people can gather, where events can happen, etc. Every successful town or city has a central commons (or several in the case of cities). Carrboro has Weaver St.Market and the farmers Market area. Hillsboro has the Courthouse lawn.

It will be a missed opportunity if the Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment does not include a substantial commons area.

I think the reason is that it was tacitly assumed for a long time -- centuries, really -- that the University supplied that "center."  In the meantime, the Town grew geographically away from the UNC main campus, so that the actual geographic center of Town is (as measured by GIS staff) on the Bolin Creek Trail behind Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen. That's a long way from the main campus and from Downtown.  Occasionally the Library has the feel of a center, with every meeting room in use, and activities spilling out the doors.  The pavement of U Mall parking lots (also geographically near the center) occasionally serves as a center -- currently, the Farmer's Market. Like Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, it's private property, but with less of a feel of public "ownership."  If people in previous decades had realized that the main campus couldn't supply that center, something might have been done about supplying one. 


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