What we do best

Decades ago, a running coach told me, “The only way to run faster is to Nancy Oatesrun faster.” Pre-empting Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan by nearly a generation, the coach’s advice has proved useful in all sorts of situations in my life. Now it appears I can apply it to Town Council work.

The town has hired, and we the taxpayers are paying for, a consultant to help us think differently about economic development. Rod Stevens, owner of Spinnaker Strategies out of Bainbridge Island, Wash., has met with the town’s Community Prosperity Committee to show us examples of how other towns and communities within cities have identified what they do best and have shopped that around to attract companies that are a good fit with the area. Stevens has prodded us at the committee meetings to define what is unique about Chapel Hill. What do we do better than anyplace else?

We’re looking at the whole picture — the type of buildings and gathering spaces and where to put them; the talent available for hire; even community values, such as the priority we place on the quality of our schools and library and recreation spaces.

At some point we’ll need to move our ideas into the implementation phase, get the rest of the community involved and figure out how to make whatever changes we need to make. That’s where my running coach’s advice comes in.

If we are serious about the ideas we’ve been talking about, or the ideas we campaigned on, we need to do what it takes to get where we want to go. That can take many forms. The town’s economic development officer will need to recruit the kinds of businesses that would be a good fit for the community.

For instance, with the university at the center of town, we have intellectual capital and a supply of young, energetic, innovative thinkers. With a town master plan that emphasizes preserving green spaces, parks and trails, a prepaid bus system and becoming a walkable community, we appeal to companies whose employees want to raise their families in a healthy environment. Politically, we lean left, and that attracts entrepreneurial businesses whose employees aren’t constrained to established norms and traditions.

For those of us on council, we need to be clear about the type of development we want. We may have to nudge developers outside of their cookie-cutter models so we have an environment that works for the employees of the new businesses we want to draw here. Not the least of these concerns for young professionals is affordable housing.

The downside of my coach’s advice is that there are no shortcuts. If I wanted to run faster, I had to put in the time and grueling effort to push myself beyond what I thought I could do. I hung up my sneakers long ago. Looks like now I’ll still be pushing myself, even while sitting on the dais.
– Nancy Oates

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12 Comments

  1. Bonnie Hauser

     /  January 18, 2016

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the entire county worked together on this. Chapel Hill’s assets include its proximity to Carrboro and Hillsborough, and thousands of acres of beautiful farmland. Plus, just outside of town, in the county’s economic development districts, there are thousands of acres that are suitable for larger scale business parks that complement/support town businesses. More possibilities.

    Steve Brantley has a lot to add to this conversation. Is he part of your group?

    There are no shortcuts – but the game gets more interesting when you put all the pieces on the table.

  2. Nancy

     /  January 18, 2016

    Yes, Steve Brantley, Orange County economic development director, is part of the group, as is Gordon Merklein of UNC real estate development and Laurie Paolicelli of the CH/OC Visitors Bureau. I don’t recall seeing anyone from Carrboro or Hillsborough yet.

  3. Del Snow

     /  January 18, 2016

    I hope that there will be Carrboro and Hillsborough members of the group. Development is so much more than what is approved for one specific site. In my mind, real planning looks at the big picture, the inter-relationships and the wider needs of an area.
    Thank you for working to discover how Chapel Hill can retain its character and then build upon it in a holistic way.

  4. Terri

     /  January 18, 2016

    I hope you are including the town’s fiber optic network and Google as part of the asset inventory. In Kansas City, they are utilizing that network to recruit entrepreneurs of all sizes and scale in truly innovative ways.

    I also hope there are representatives from the local entrepreneurial community involved in this planning process. If you don’t have innovative, creative thinkers who will push the envelope, I don’t see this effort as any more promising that the retail study or the form-based code consultant.

  5. plurimus

     /  January 18, 2016

    Methods for enhancing the money flow used locally are changing and the pace of change is picking up.

    The revolutions in creative disruptive innovation have permanently changed entertainment and information. Disruption has just begun in many other areas such as energy, transportation, housing, and retail. The impact is not only on these industries but on tax policies as well. Tension between government goals of job creation and private sector revenue strategies of limiting jobs through automation is growing.

    Preparing for the disruption with a flexible holistic plan is essential.

    Identifying economic sectors where the percentage of total employment in a particular category exceeds or is below averages in comparable places, or statewide can reveal growth opportunities. Considering the amount of investment needed in infrastructure or the loss of jobs through automation may also eliminate or attenuate some opportunities. Assigning relative economic weights to certain categories can help target the “low fruit”.

    My personal opinion is that micro managing economic development through cash or tax incentives generally are counterproductive. Targeting and leveraging policy around certain trends in the economy, especially disruptive ones can also be helpful in taking the place of other incentives. This policy/ordinance incentive could be greatly enhanced by partnering with and leveraging university resources such as the law school and the school of government as well as the excellent education engineering and medical resources.

    I agree that the best course is generally what Del Snow advocates; a big picture view of the assets countywide, focusing on infrastructure and education, enabling and incubating new ideas through policy. In other words, careful consideration of the change you wish to see and then being that change.

  6. DOM

     /  January 18, 2016

    Nancy –

    It might also be interesting to include some property owners of larger open tracts of land in the CH area. I would bet some of them would be open to new/different alternatives to developing their property.

  7. Nancy

     /  January 18, 2016

    Plurimus — Don’t forget UNC’s excellent computer science department. All that automation starts as code written by a software developer.

    DOM — I’m hoping owners of large parcels of land (is there more than one?) will be open to new uses as the innovative companies we hope to attract come calling.

  8. DOM

     /  January 18, 2016

    Nancy –

    The best way to get land owners to be open to new uses for development is to include them in the process from the very beginning. If they have a voice the decision-making they’re much more likely to champion alternatives to traditional development ideas. You wouldn’t want them to claim they haven’t been heard.

  9. plurimus

     /  January 18, 2016

    Nancy, I was thinking of them when I wrote “engineering”. Fred Brooks is a hero of mine.

    The new fibre installations around town should enable a virtual presence between the university and businesses. Working to enable communications, control and data will make possible things we haven’t thought of yet.

    I regret not including the arts and the libraries in my previous post, the possibilities there are as potent as any. Leveraging these resources makes technology more understandable and digestible as well as giving new perspectives.

  10. Nancy

     /  January 18, 2016

    A more efficient way to involve them is for them to recruit the type of businesses they’d like to see on their land. We on the committee can have ideas of what we’d like to see, but we’re limited by whom we can attract. If land owners did some of the screening — saying no to traditional developments that will require a lengthy approval process — and helping us find some of the businesses Plurimus referred to, that would be a win-win-win.

  11. plurimus

     /  January 18, 2016

    I also think that getting developers to think about what kind of commercial space is lacking around the area (a little bird told me that wet lab space is at a premium at the moment).

    Flexibility is important. Many startups and new innovative businesses want their office, design and prototyping/light manufacturing to be co located.

  12. Runner

     /  January 21, 2016

    I really think our elected leaders should focus on infrastructure improvements within Chapel Hill and not just creating another business incubator building.

    Our greenway system is still too disjointed. Many streets still need sidewalks and bike lanes. And, outside of the University, there is no “Central Park” in this town.

    I would like to see our town leaders convince the University to cede several acres of the MLK facing Carolina North land to create a large, passive town park. This park should simply have a great lawn encircled by a paved walking path, trees and benches.

    If our leaders focus on the things that make living in Chapel Hill worthwhile, people and businesses will follow.

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