By Laurie Paolicelli
Jim Heavner is Chapel Hill-Carrboro’s first media mogul. He parlayed a small-town radio station into the flagship of a national sports broadcasting network, a cable TV company, an advertising circular, a university phone book publisher, and more. Chapel Hill was much smaller then and WCHL’s motto was “the sound of the village.” That feels quaint now. But if WCHL was the village’s sound, then Heavner was its voice.
His career in media began as a high school student in Kings Mountain, where he worked at the local radio station and as a reporter for the Charlotte and Shelby papers. Upon coming to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he picked up jobs at WCHL, the Chapel Hill Weekly, WRAL and WTVD. He started running WCHL in 1961, and in the late 1960s, station owner Sandy McClamroch offered him the chance to buy stock in the business. Heavner became majority owner a decade later.
In short, Jim Heavner is a Chapel Hill icon. He came to Chapel Hill as a student in 1957, and now he’s retired. It’s what happened in between the then and now that left an indelible mark on our community.
We took some time to ask Heavner about his feelings on a changing Chapel Hill, whether he missed the “good old days” and how he felt about its never-ending growth. His answers might surprise you. Heavner believes that, even as we debate change, disruption, density, and roads, Chapel Hill is still one of the most special places on the planet.
“I cannot think of a time when the university or the town or both were not in the center of some kind of debate about who we are and how we define quality of life,” he says. “But the culture promotes a village atmosphere. It’s not hard to be heard and to find a place to lead.”
Heavner sees Chapel Hill through the lens of his extensive history with it. Change has always been challenging, even when it’s over a tree.
“I can recall the brouhaha over the Battle Lane Elm Tree that had gotten in the way of the need to repave the road to make it safe for a car navigating to Franklin Street,” he says. “It was all over the Chapel Hill Weekly, top of the page, lead story. That single tree was debated for nearly a year, before it was removed early on a cold February morning in 1960 . . . and we got ready for the next big controversy, which I believe was the removal of diagonal parking on Franklin Street.”
Heavner says he has observed that nostalgia for the way things used to be begins to set in about two years after you arrive. But he insists that today’s Chapel Hill is better than it ever has been.
“When I got here, there were only two restaurants where you could go for a nice dinner. And if you wanted to drink, you carried the bottle in a brown paper bag.”
Heavner says he believes that Chapel Hill’s future will define itself according to perceived needs that arise. “So far, I’ve been impressed with how needs that we may not have thought a lot about have been met.”
He cites the UNC Wellness Center and other local fitness facilities as examples of businesses that would never have been supported by the town’s size two or three decades ago. He credits UNC Hospital for building clinics around the community where patients can now park at the front door and see a wider array of specialists. And opportunities for entertainment have never been better.
But what about all these apartment buildings? Longtime residents don’t like them, but he speaks truth when he says that “limiting demand has caused home prices to rise. We don’t have enough affordable housing for people who work here.”
Heavner points out that apartments and mixed-use buildings are taxed as commercial property, at a much higher rate than single-family homes, which provides tax relief for existing homeowners.
“All of us, me included, wince when we see those girders in the air. Then, when done, they look like Meadowmont Village and East 54, with restaurants, druggist and retail services that would not exist or be so convenient.”
He thinks back to the beginning of his life in Chapel Hill. “When I arrived here I’m sure the octogenarians who preceded me thought the Village was not what it used to be. We paved the streets and put in stoplights!”
History never stops happening, but it’s hard to recognize that when you’re living in it. But Heavner has a philosopher’s approach to change, to living through awkward transitions, and to the hard-wired nostalgia that fuels so much of our discontent.
“Those who come here today and who love this place as I do and stay here for another few decades, they will look back on 2023 and think, those were the good old days.”
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.