Where is Chapel Hill's "New Generation" of Leaders?

The N&O ran a piece at the start of 2016 about the “new generation” of leaders in the Triangle. Missing from their list? Any “new generation” leaders from Chapel Hill.

But this omission isn’t the N&O’s fault. If you look at Chapel Hill, you’ll find that the town has a shortage of the types of young professionals the N&O was looking for on this list – and a shortage of the kinds of amenities and resources required for young professionals to succeed. How can we have a new generation of leaders without any of the next generation living in town? Why don’t we have that next generation in town? And what does it mean for the future of Chapel Hill if an the next generation is missing from our community?

Chapel Hill has students, but very few young professionals

U.S. Census data tells us a lot about the extent of the problem we have in Chapel Hill with attracting and retaining young professionals. American Community Survey estimates from 2014 show that young professionals (i.e., non-students) aged 25 to 34 years old make up just 7.5% of our total population. Compare this with Durham, where the same demographic makes up 15.6% of the total population or Raleigh where it’s 15.3%.

Non-Student Residents, Ages 20-34, by City
  Chapel Hill % Pop Durham % Pop Raleigh % Pop
20 to 24 years 1,693 2.90% 9,903 4.12% 17,798 4.20%
25 to 34 years 4,381 7.50% 37,351 15.56% 64,816 15.31%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010-2014 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates

And it’s getting worse

An analysis conducted for the town by Spinnaker Strategies paints a troubling picture for the future of Chapel Hill. Not only do we have a tiny percentage of young professionals living in Chapel Hill now, but the growth of this demographic is the lowest for any other age group, except for those over 75 (emphasis added):

Chapel Hill’s population is getting older. During the 2000s, the number of children under 12 grew modestly, but the number of teenagers aged 15 to 18 actually declined. This same decade, the increase in the number of adults aged 20 to 24 and aged 24 to 35 was lower than for any other adult age group under age 75. Chapel Hill does not appear to be holding onto many of its graduates once they begin their careers, and there was only modest growth in the 35 to 44 age bracket. The biggest increase was in those aged 45 to 75. Much of the growth in those 50 to 65 is probably people positioning themselves here for retirement.

Is Chapel Hill destined to be a retirement community that just happens to be home to a major university? This reality is far from the vision of Chapel Hill that you might hear often from residents and others – that Chapel Hill is a vibrant, exciting place with many students, artists, musicians, and innovative things happening. As much as we might like to cling to this image of our town, the data paint a very different picture.

Lack of jobs + housing choices drive young residents away

Here’s a theory as to why the town isn’t retaining UNC graduates or attracting other young professionals: There are far too few economic opportunities here and far too few housing choices for non-students and non-parents. The town has, rightly, added to the student housing supply in recent years, but most of the town remains zoned for single-family development. Zoning restrictions, such as neighborhood conservation districts, limit opportunities for new housing to be built throughout town, effectively freezing most neighborhoods in time. How can the town diversity its tax base and attract new commercial and retail opportunities if the people required to work in these jobs have nowhere to live in town? Quite simply, it can’t.

What does Chapel Hill want to be?

Molly De Marco and I have written about the need for Chapel Hill to decide what it wants to be before. Little progress has been made on determining the answer to this question. If Chapel Hill wants to be a diverse, vibrant city that is home to a major research university, a thriving arts and music scene, and innovative private sector industries, town policies – ranging from economic development strategies, land use planning, transportation planning, and housing policies – all need to be coordinated and targeted to achieve that vision. Currently, there’s a huge mismatch between who we say we are and who we want to be and the local policies that are in place. Correcting this mismatch must be a major priority to reverse course on demographic trends and create the Chapel Hill that people often talk about, but that doesn’t really exist.

Simpler, progressive land use policies + more housing choices + better transit is a better way forward

If you ask me, the way forward for Chapel Hill is to enact a vision for land use development that will first create new housing opportunities to support retail and commercial development to diversify our economy and tax base. The form-based code in the Ephesus-Fordham area is a fantastic example of positive steps the town and its leaders have taken to achieve this vision. Bus rapid transit planning for the MLK corridor currently underway by Chapel Hill Transit is another positive step in planning that can stimulate economic development and help position Chapel Hill as a leader in urban living, which, as is often written about, is what millennials and retiring boomers both want for their future.

But more has to be done – and quickly. Chapel Hill has already fallen behind through its past policies that have driven away young people and attracted only very specific types of individuals. For our economic competitiveness to improve, it’s imperative that local policy change happen today in order for Chapel Hill to become all it can be – and all we want it to be – tomorrow.


Cost of living needs to be mentioned here. What's the greatest expense in everyone's budget? Housing. The financial definition of affordablity needs to be expanded. But sadly we live in a Country and State that's whole concept of wealth generation is around property. Thus laws restrict subsidizing housing for people with greater incomes than median. I mean that would be socialism or something. ;)

The answer to your question, "Where is Chapel Hill's "New Generation" of Leaders?" is Durham.

DOLRT is not helping. It is a economic development plan for.........wait for it......Durham. You want to attract talent here you will need to build reasonably priced middle class housing, not high rent apartments. Park n Ride charges in Chapel Hill but it's free at Southpoint, effectively exporting retail dollars to.....wait for it.....Durham. The transit decisions made over the past 8-10 years have done nothing but enable TTA at the expense of CHT. If you want what you say you want, you had better redefine the "progressive" policies that have only catered to developers been a disaster and get behind some real reform. 

You want better transit? Stop exporting the transit funds for other towns development interests. You want more affordable housing? Stop giving the premiere town parcels away to high rent developers. You want jobs, opportunity and lower the taxes? Start building commercial space and build appropriate commercial parking.

We're not doing enough, not nearly enough, to provide the kind of housing and transportation options to attract and retain young working professionals. It's hurting our economy, our competitiveness with both local and national peers, and frankly, I worry about some of the vibrancy and diversity that attracted me to stay here after graduation several years ago eroding away.

I don't know anyone who doesn't agree that we need to retain our bright young people, but we don't agree on the approach for that retention. However, the Council has approved thousands of new apartments that will be built over the next few years. How much more housing do you want? Are they the type of housing you will live in? Where are these new residents going to work...at one of the new retail stores?

A large percentage of the individuals who have objected to the development approach of the past several years have advocated for improved economic development with creating more well paying jobs as the goal. Those of you who wanted the housing won. So what are you still complaining about? I'm really confused.

so many of Orange County's future leaders are medical researchers like Mugda Gokhale rather than private sector see http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2016/01/forbes-honors-ph-d-student-f... (full disclosure my son's fiancée is UNC MD/PhD candidate so I follow that world)


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