Chamber of Commerce moves its big, bold ideas into action


By Diana Newton

Members of the local Chamber of Commerce gazed skyward as the Morehead Planetarium fulldome theater filled with the sight and sound of a massive rocket launch to celebrate the public announcement of its Campaign for a Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro. The Campaign is an audacious plan to pull through  the top three “Big Bold, Ideas” that were generated by the wider community several years ago.

Beginning in 2019, the Chamber mounted an intensive effort to draw in as many members of the community from all sectors as possible to solicit ideas. Using seven communication channels in five languages, over 500 ideas poured in. Those ideas were then crowd sorted and 175 volunteer Delegates participated in a Community Convention to select the three top priorities. The outcome yielded three key Big, Bold Ideas: 1) create dramatically more affordable housing 2) increase all students’ performance and close the achievement gap, and 3) accelerate innovation and workforce development.

Research on these priorities and identification of funding partners ensued, but progress was slowed by the pandemic. But last Thursday evening, the Chamber announced the fundraising goal and total funds raised to date. Led by Campaign Co-Chairs Scott Maitland (Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery) and Creighton Blackwell (Coastal Credit union) funding pledges have surpassed $1 million dollars of the $1.4 million needed over five years, including $!00, 000 feach rom UNC and UNC Healthcare within the past two weeks.

Co-Chair Scott Maitland describes the Workforce Development initiative launched by the Chamber’s Campaign for a Better Chapel Hill-Carrboro. Photo by Diana Newton.

The Talent Pipeline Starts with Education

With further input and data, the Campaign’s three initiatives have now been slightly retooled. The first initiative–Invest in Workforce Development—has integrated the Big, Bold Idea of increasing student performance into the broader goal of improving the pipeline of local talent.As Aaron Nelson, President and CEO of the Chamber explained, “Orange County’s number one product is educated children. Fifty cents of every dollar is spent on educating our children, and then they leave! We have to do a better job of keeping well-educated people here with more local job opportunities.”

Janet Hadar, President of UNC Hospitals and Honorary Campaign Cabinet member, underscored in her remarks just how broken the current pipeline in healthcare sector is, evidenced by the current 900 vacant nursing positions she faces locally. To support achievement of this goal the first  employer-led Workforce Council will be created and Talent Development and Retention staff will also be hired.

Stemming the Failure Rate of Small Businesses

The second initiative is to Accelerate Small Business Growth and Improve Business Retention and Startup Support. During the pandemic, Orange County lost numerous small business, both newly established and old favorites. Even in the best of times, only 50% of small business survive five years. The Chamber’s Campaign intends to provide five years of funding support to improve existing business retention. Importantly, it will include hiring a director of minority success to ensure that business growth among Black, LatinX and refugee populations is a critical focus. The projected outcome is that within five years there will be a remarkable 1000 new Orange County businesses and 5000 more jobs.

Addressing the Thorny Problem of Affordable Housing

Can all these additional workers find a place to live that fits a family budget? The Campaign’s third initative takes up a thorny problem–the lack of affordable housing. Local data tell the story of how increasingly out-of-reach housing is for many. According to the Chamber’s State of the Community DataBook, in 2022, the median homes sales price in Orange County was over $450,000 in Orange County, $550,000 in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, and $600,000 in Chatham County. Rent for a two-bedroom apartment averages $1650 per month, up 19% over the previous year.

The Campaign’s goal is to build 3,000 new residential units over the next five years, and projects that 1500 units of affordable housing will be approved and under construction. But as Nelson clarified, “Not all of these will need to be new construction. Some will be infill and redevelopment, and some of these can be subsidized.” Towards that end, a 43-acre development across from Southern Village known as the South Creek project has already been approved for development of 810 units, of which 101 will be permanently designated as affordable housing. In addition, a $10 million Affordable Housing bond has been scheduled in support of this goal. The site of the former Blue Cross Blue Shield building on 15-501 between Chapel Hill and Durham will also be the home of new apartments.

The funding goals, timelines and metrics built in to the Campaign for a Better Chapel Hill-Carrboro are intended to ensure that as these three Big, Bold Ideas take concrete shape in the community, fewer jobs will remain unfilled, more businesses will find their footing, and more people who work locally will be able to find housing with their budgets.

Diana Newton is a coach, facilitator, filmmaker, writer, artist, yoga teacher and general Renaissance woman. Her documentary film, The Ties That Bind, is available for streaming on UNC-TV. She lives in Carrboro and is a UNC alum.

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