Margot C. Lester
When I boarded the bus last Sunday morning for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerceâ€™s inter-city visit to Asheville, I was expecting a dog-and-pony show from the host city. After all, the purpose of the trip was for Orange County leaders to see how the Land of the Sky succeeds at economic development and tourism and figure out what might work back home. So youâ€™d expect the Asheville-ites to be at their best. But despite a couple of presentations that were a little too salesy for my taste, in the main the visit wasnâ€™t the cheese-fest I thought it would be.
After two-and-a-half days of presentations by chamber staff, tourism officials and economic-development experts, the mood on the return trip was upbeat. There was something in the air, and it wasnâ€™t just a hint of crisp fall air. I might even have detected a frisson. What had people energized seemed to be a prevailing sense that change was afoot in Orange County. This was my first inter-city visit, but veterans told me something was different this time. It may have been that the host venue was right here in the Old North State (other trips were to Ann Arbor, Mich. and Madison, Wis.). Or maybe it was that Asheville is a lot more like us â€“ or the us we wish we were â€“ than those other places. Whatever the reason, there was a sense this sojourn might result in more actual changes and action than its predecessors. Unlike other visits, this one ended with a commitment to keep the momentum going, to bring the group together again to consider options and propose actions and to have an inter-city visit among Orange Countyâ€™s municipalities for a fact-based discussion of where each is headed. More than one person said to me, â€œI think this time weâ€™re ready to do something.â€
Perhaps former Chapel Hill Town Council member Pat Evans said it best: â€œWe talked about economic development. That wouldnâ€™t have happened five years ago.â€
Of course, thatâ€™s a can of worms most people in Orange County donâ€™t like to fuss with, because it brings up a lot of uncomfortable questions like:
What do we really mean when we say we want a diversified tax base?
Should we grow our own, recruit outsiders in, or some of both?
And if the latter, what kind of businesses could we get behind?
How can we make the various revolving small-business loan programs more effective?
How can we continue to develop our communitiesâ€™ unique features to the benefit of the entire county?
Do we want to be a tourist destination?
â€œThereâ€™s a lot of potential for growth of the tourism industry in Orange County,â€ Mayor Mark Chilton said. â€œHopefully, [Carrboro] will soon have a hotel and the authority to have a hotel-room tax. That would present a new revenue stream for us, which hasnâ€™t happened in a long time. We have to think a lot about how to spend that revenue â€“ not necessarily spend it all on visitor promotion, but what makes sense, whatâ€™s good for Carrboro and tourism at the same time. So thatâ€™s one issue weâ€™ll have to confront at some time â€“ or at least I hope so.â€
One thing that really had people talking was the unified approach to economic development and tourism by Ashevilleâ€™s various government and civic groups. Itâ€™s no secret that here in the OC we donâ€™t always play well together when it comes to promoting our area to visitors or employers.
â€œThe take-away for me is how the various government and private entities are committed to communicating to reach consensus on a way forward without a whole lot of impediments to people working toward that plan,â€ noted Fred Black, senior vice president of Black Star Strategies Inc.
When I asked if we could make that happen back home, Black laughed. â€œIt all depends on the leadership.â€
There certainly was a lot of official leadership on the trip. In addition to Chilton, mayors Mark Kleinschmidt and Tom Stevens attended, along with UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp. Several county commissioners, members of the school and town boards also were in tow, along with town staff. The visiting team of 77 was comprised of 25 percent each of business owners, elected officials, university staff and nonprofit leaders.
Among solutions discussed in both formal and informal conversations were:
* aggressive promotion of the countyâ€™s upcoming food-processing center;
* a joint UNC-Orange County visitorâ€™s bureau center on Franklin Street;
* a small-business support system involving Durham Tech and the chamber and leveraging successful Orange county entrepreneurs and investors;
* revisiting Chapel Hillâ€™s bed-and-breakfast ordinance to spur development of this kind of accommodation; and
* more deliberate promotion of local food and the arts.
The ultimate value of the Asheville trip remains to be seen, of course. But it certainly appears that attendees found some common ground on which to begin moving Orange County forward. Stay tuned!