Is the thrill gone?

I had a conversation not long ago with a musician, a mixed-race man in his Nancy Oatesmid-20s working a day job unrelated to music as he got his career started. At one point he asked where I was from, and I told him I lived in Chapel Hill. His eyes lit up.

“I call it Chapel Thrill,” he said.

I asked why.

First he told me of the music clubs he had yet to land a paying gig in; the closest he’d come to performing in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro music scene was to play at special events in the clubhouse at Governors Club. He lived in Burlington and was equidistant to Greensboro, another college town. But Chapel Hill was different, he said.

There were different clubs and bars on Franklin Street, stretching into Carrboro. Walking down the street downtown felt different from Greensboro. “The diversity,” he finally said. “You see so many different people on Franklin Street.”

And isn’t that a part of what drew all of us here, even middle-aged, middle-class white women like myself?

The man’s comments took me back to my teenage years when I moved from Iowa to New York, leaving behind the constraints of living up to the expectations of being an Oates. As I walked along the crowded streets of Manhattan, I was enthralled by all of these different lives, all taking different paths, even though we were all in the same place. Years later, when my then-husband wanted to leave New York, the one condition I set was that we not move to a place where everyone had the same expectations. We agreed on Chapel Hill.

And therein lies my uneasiness as I see the recent development decisions shaping the town. Our economic development officer and town manager apparently have decided that the fiscally prudent route is to draw more people to Chapel Hill who have more money to spend than the retirees and middle-class families and students on a budget.

We’re already seeing the commercial shift readying for the demographic change. Almost all of the restaurants that have opened on Franklin Street recently are national chains. All of the clothing stores are chains, albeit across a smaller region. The development planned for Obey Creek includes national chain big-box stores. And the redevelopment of Ephesus-Fordham has independently owned stores talking of moving out.

How will we make sure the diversity we value and offer to residents of more provincial towns around us will flourish?
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  June 24, 2014

    Businesses are founded in Chapel Hill, (Southern Season, Cackalacky, Phideaux, et al) in part because they are not overwhelmed and squelched by chains right off the bat. They grow, hire, expand into other markets, and that just isn’t what the town council and its staff define as economic development.

  2. many

     /  June 25, 2014


    Many medical and technical start ups in the area are created by local business school graduates and scientists. They get their start up funds from Angel investors (IMAF, RTP Captial, Triangle Angel) or Venture Capital (Aurora, Cato, IDEA, Hatteras, Golden Pine) etc. A lot of this activity is reliant on public-private partnerships between government, education and private capital.

    It has long been my opinion that this sort of incubation c/should take place on the local level with the same “feed stock” enabling and encouraging local business school graduates and other disciplines to partner with local entrepreneurial people. This should be funded through private capital, and I would think that at least some of the above funds might be interested in such an endeavor.

    Chapel Hill leadership could help orchestrate this fusion by creating a foundry to attract creative people and local private capital.

    Do I think this alone solves the “economic development want”? No, I do not. However as you point out one or two successes could have significant impact on the local economy without the low energy sameness and lack of imagination in strip malls and “big box” stores.