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September 2010

Looking at the Hill from the mountains

The Inter-City Visit and Leadership Conference is all about gaining a new perspective. Earlier this month, our vantage point was from the mountains as 75 of us spent 2 ½ days in Asheville, learning about the community we were visiting as well as the community we call home.

So how did the Hill look from way up there? The consensus of our group – which included the mayors of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough and the chair of the Orange County Commissioners as well as university, business and community leaders – is that we’re growing closer together, with more cooperation and mutual consideration.

It looks like we might have learned something from the last visit – in 2008 to Ann Arbor, Mich. – about improving town-gown relations. We talked about how the university and local governments have moved out of our silos and begun to work together. UNC Athletics and our community partners have teamed up to develop TouchDowntown to promote game day on football Saturdays. The commitment to downsizing a downtown Halloween celebration that had gotten out of hand and the signing of a 20-year-development agreement for the future of Carolina North are also examples of how we can work together successfully.

This year, though, the focus was on economic development and the destination chosen by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce was Asheville, a city with a newly revitalized downtown and a robust tourism industry. We already have much in common with Asheville – natural beauty, four pleasant seasons, a vibrant arts and cultural scene, and smart, creative residents.

So what can we learn from our friends in the mountains? First, it’s clear that Asheville is a place where creating jobs is valued. When they talk about sustainability, they don’t just mean preserving the environment. They’re concerned about sustainable economic development.

Also, they have embraced tourism as a key piece of their economic development. Their support of tourism creates a win-win situation for the community. The improvements they make to attract visitors, like their new soccer center and the wayfinding system that was just installed, also benefit Asheville residents.

We heard from planners and government officials about how they are streamlining their downtown zoning regulations to encourage development while maintaining the city’s historic scale and walkability.

We drove by some of Asheville’s 55 bed and breakfast inns, homes away from home that enhance the character of their neighborhoods. And we began to talk about the neighborhood stability and vibrancy that could come if bed and breakfasts were permitted in Chapel Hill.

Here’s something else we thought about: While our Chapel Hill Orange County Visitors Bureau puts out the red carpet for visitors, how welcome can visitors feel when all they hear from us is complaints about traffic, parking, overcrowded restaurants and laments about our lost “village” atmosphere?

As I said in the opening session of the conference, Chapel Hill might be moving beyond being a town. Just maybe, we’re a city. We are not as big as Asheville, whose population of 80,000 makes it a little larger than Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough combined, but we are quite a bit more populous than when my parents came here as college students in the 1950s or when I did in the 1980s.

Yet, we are still a place that values and supports education at all levels, that is deeply committed to social justice, that firmly believes in the promise of the future and the bright, innovative people who will lead us there.

So why are we surprised when more and more people want to visit us in the Southern Part of Heaven? Perhaps we should take a cue from our friends in Asheville, where everyone seems pleased to be part of the tourism experience, and invite them in.



Holden Thorp is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Readers can contact him at

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