How is Chapel Hill trying to tackle economic development?

Innovative Carolina Junction is now open at 137 E. Franklin St. in downtown Chapel Hill. It houses the central team for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Photo by Michelle Cassell.


By Michelle Cassell
Assignment Editor/Correspondent

CHAPEL HILL — Chapel Hill is looking at several avenues to improve its downtown economy and other business districts with an emphasis on underserved groups.

One avenue is ReVive, a series of recovery grants funded through the American Rescue Plan Act funding.

“This initiative is designed to help ensure our businesses and local economy return to a condition as good or better than before the pandemic,” Chapel Hill Director of Economic Development Dwight Bassett said. 

The Town of Chapel Hill has issued a $162,250 split between 66 grants to local entrepreneurs and small businesses.  For-profit enterprises and qualifying non-profits with employees received awards.  Of the awardees,  70% are women-owned businesses, 44% are  Black, indigenous, and people of color-owned businesses, and 16% are non-native English speakers.

The town is emphasizing support for minority and women-owned businesses.

“We have struggled for years on how best to support that,” Bassett said. “Delores Bailey has been doing cohorts for women and minority-owned businesses.  We have given her financial support and a round of micro-grants.”

Bassett said the micro-grants provide baby steps toward creating a fully-blossomed business.

“We are asking you to take incremental steps and grow your business,” he said.

Bailey praised the support she has received from Chapel Hill.  “We have been able to lend our support to a wide variety of businesses.  We’ve had chefs, we have had cleaning services, we have had all kinds of minority businesses.”  She said that the support they can lend these businesses goes beyond financial.

“It’s not just about the money,” Bailey said. “It’s also about letting me ensure you’re standing on your own legs.  Let me make sure you really are able to go in the direction you’re thinking.”

Bailey’s organization has facilitated weekly meetings with minority businesses to help them network with each other.  Examples of the businesses that took advantage of the meetings include everything from Jamaican cuisine to cleaning services and antique sales.

One of the successes highlighted by Bassett was Basnight Alley.

Another path Bassett pursues is strengthening our Town and Gown relations and working to accomplish their mutual goals.  An example is the continued development of Launch Chapel Hill.

Founded in 2013, Launch has supported the startup community and is now the first tenant in the newest building in downtown Chapel Hill at 137 East Franklin Street.

Launch companies have generated more than $105 million in revenue in less than ten years and raised $63 million in funding.  The town and Orange County split a $150,000 annual contribution to Launch.

“We have provided Launch funding since 2012 and increased it when Launch moved to their new space,” Bassett said.

Their alumni ventures employ at least 802 people, including 684 in North Carolina and 435 in Orange County.  Bassett pointed to these statistics and said that the improvements to the downtown infrastructure would help motivate more companies to stay in Chapel Hill.

“Innovate Carolina Junction along with Launch Chapel Hill and the addition of the Wet Lab should help to ignite the market.”

The Innovate Carolina Junction is now open in the newest building in downtown Chapel Hill at 137 E. Franklin St. Designed and created by Innovate Carolina – the central team for innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – the Junction connects the university and community to all aspects of economic and social impact according to their website.

The Junction also will serve as the anchor for an innovation district being formed, which is being implemented to keep startups created at Carolina in Chapel Hill, helping to strengthen the economy. Although the building is still being completed, the sixth floor is open and currently houses Innovate Carolina and Launch Chapel Hill

For the spring of 2023, Launch has the typical broad range of cohorts they support.  Ten organizations are currently involved, ranging from clothing to vinyl records to funnel cakes.  All organizations working with Launch Chapel Hill benefit from a large list of support, including “a dedicated on-site staff, access to UNC faculty, coaches, mentors, workshop facilitators, alumni and advisors, and access to a large network of funding sources.”

With regard to the future, Bassett told TLR, “Through Orange County Article 46 tax funding, Chapel Hill Economic Development provided Launch a grant of $39,000 late last year to begin implementing a plan we created two years ago.  This plan, by Innovation Collective, seeks to change a part of Launch’s focus to be more about educational offerings and community building, versus cohort acceleration, for the broader entrepreneur community in Orange County.”

Council has approved funding for a two-part enhancement plan. The first part of the plan is a multimodal mobility study that will assess the current design of downtown streets, specifically the high-traffic areas of Franklin, Columbia and Rosemary streets. Toole Design presented a plan that includes an opportunity for public engagement and participation.

The economic development department is managing the project, the planned output from the project is a plan for the future of Chapel Hill, which will focus on smoothing traffic flow and ensuring the safety of everyone traversing downtown, including pedestrians, cars and buses. The plan will also address questions regarding street ownership. Currently, streets like Franklin and Rosemary are owned by NCDOT, which limits the Town’s ability to control streetscapes and street design.

“In the coming week, we will have a website to share the information gathered,” Bassett said.

Parking is another focus. The East Rosemary Parking Deck work is progressing. Bassett said the concrete for the project will begin pouring in the next few weeks, and the precast components of the deck will start to be constructed. The new deck will add around 250 new spaces. A west end parking deck is still a possibility as well, with council expected to discuss the issue in the future.

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1 Comment on "How is Chapel Hill trying to tackle economic development?"

  1. Wonderful story. Very informative. Thank you!

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