Is money the answer?

At various times in my life, I’ve been comforted to remember that most of the problems I’ve faced so far have been ones that could be solved by money.

The Town of Chapel Hill, on the other hand, seems comforted by the thought that, no matter the problem, it can be solved by consultants. Which, of course, cost money.

At tonight’s Town Council meeting, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt will present the town’s initiatives to support the economic development strategy adopted in June 2008. The strategy was to increase the town’s non-residential tax base.

First up is a plan to absorb an additional 30,000 square feet of office space from that currently on the market. Succeeding in that goal, according to the staff memorandum, “will work to change perceptions of Chapel Hill to being business friendly … .” The cost? A mere $70,000. Another $30,000 is earmarked for guiding retail development in Obey Creek and along Eubanks Road.

Well-intended goals, indeed. But a couple of easy ways to change perceptions of Chapel Hill to being business friendly would be to actually be business friendly. I walked through Amber Alley the other day and saw that no work has begun on the restoration of the Rathskeller. A group of investors has plans to bring back the popular restaurant. Customers are waiting in the wings. The project first needs a green light from the town.

Altridge Group stands ready to open the doors to a new business incubator and reception space in the former sorority house at 420 Hillsborough Road that has been empty for years. All it needs is the town’s approval for a modification of the special use permit.

Franklin West, a group of developers, has plans to pump new life into The Courtyard on West Franklin Street, just as soon as it receives expedited approval for a modification of that special use permit.

Those three projects together make up about 30,000 square feet. The town could hit its absorption goal by the end of the year. In this age of viral marketing, saying yes to these three projects would be a cost-effective way of changing Chapel Hill’s business-unfriendly image and increasing economic development at the same time.
– Nancy Oates

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4 Comments

  1. Steve Brown

     /  November 8, 2010

    I’ve heard of bad ideas before, but “absorbing” (whatever that means-Nancy you should find out) office space is somehow business friendly? If I were sitting on the council and that was brought before me I would summarily fire the person who dreamed that up.

    Reducing office space does NOT improve a Town’s business appearance. It makes less space available to a prospective business, and probably at a higher price (remember the old law of supply and demand?)

    It will be interesting to see how Matt C. responds to this kind of nonsense. It is no wonder that, after years of having an ED department there is absolutely nothing concrete to show for it. I think the council should just shut it down.

    And, Nancy good point about the permitting time. I think they should come up with a list of “time to issue permit” for all projects in the last 10 years, showing application date and approval or final rejection date. That would speak volumes about the Town’s true business-friendliness.

  2. Mark Marcoplos

     /  November 8, 2010

    In addition to “time to issue permit”, it would be useful to take a couple of the permitting processes and detail what held them up at certain points in the process and why.

    I know the county has built-in “turn around times” after public hearings in which both the Planning Board and Commissioners are in favor of a certain project (mostly the small ones). Instead of just voting at that time to allow the project, there is a built-in waste of time whereby the proposal goes back to the Planning Board the next month and then back to the Commissioners. This can add two or more months to the process beyond when everyone knows that it is acceptable.

  3. Nancy Oates

     /  November 8, 2010

    Dwight Bassett, the town’s economic development officer, responds as follows:
    “The goal is to grow absorption of the office market to 100,000 per year. We currently absorb 70,000 SF annually and this goal is to increase that absorption by 30,000 annually. We currently have close to 300,000 SF of Office Space available and another 600,000 SF approved. The approved Office Space might not be built unless we grow the annual amount we absorb.
    The Courtyard is in an expedited process. The Town is expected to approve the SUP amendment in less than 9 months (actually closer to 6 months) after the formal application was received, that is a much shorter process than the past.
    Developing strategic and measurable initiatives was something we heard from citizens as we developed the Economic Development Strategy. Before we could establish such, we needed a better understanding of our market: retail market analysis, office market analysis, Barriers to Small Business Development and a Housing Study that should be complete this month. We are working on a number of issues to improve the Development Review process including adding transparent technology that will link the three key departments and the public with applications. We are also reviewing the Land Use Management Ordinance for changes that can improve the process.”

  4. Steve Brown

     /  November 8, 2010

    Okay, I give up- how does Chapel Hill’s ED guru define “absorption of the office market?”

    Does he mean leased ? How about an english translation, please.

    It would also be interesting to know what Durham’s average permit time is. I have a hard time believing that a 9 month wait is normal for “expedited” approval.

    What a bunch of baloney.

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