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September 2008

Back to the future in Ann Arbor?

We traveled by plane and by bus, not a trash-powered silver DeLorean, but the Intercity Visit and Leadership Conference in Ann Arbor, Mich., earlier this month sometimes felt like time travel.

The purpose of these conferences, organized by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce through its Community Leadership Collaboration, is to learn from the experiences of a college community like ours. Leaders from the campus and community have taken eight of these intercity trips since 1985, including one to Ann Arbor in 1997.

This was the first such trip for my wife, Patti, and me. We thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality of our Michigan hosts and the opportunity to learn from a place with some of the same issues we face -- growth, downtown revitalization, economic and environmental sustainability. But the most valuable part of the trip was the time we got to spend with the more than 100 leaders from our own community who took the trip this year.

Away from our offices and busy schedules, we were able to sit down and talk about the concerns we share and find common ground. One of the immediate results was the scheduling of a joint meeting of the Chapel Hill Town Council and members of the UNC Board of Trustees held last week to discuss how to proceed with the development of Carolina North.

Since the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor are larger than Carolina and Chapel Hill, the visit seemed like a glimpse into our future as we continue to grow. That future was hard to see on our first evening there because of a blinding downpour, courtesy of the remnants of Hurricane Ike.

But Patti and I listened, carefully, as our Ann Arbor counterparts stressed density of development and mass transit as ways to improve the environment, public health and safety.

The city is replacing buildings four to seven stories tall with 10- to 20-story structures. And even though Detroit, once the automotive capital of the world, is fewer than 50 miles away, Ann Arbor is striving to become a car-free city. These are radical changes in thinking brought about by the need to maximize a precious and dwindling commodity -- space. Running out of space to grow resonated with everyone from the North Carolina contingent.

So how do this university and the city surrounding it handle the difficult issues of growth and development? Even though the University of Michigan doesn't have development on its campus reviewed or approved by Ann Arbor officials (unlike the situation that exists with Carolina and Chapel Hill), the leaders there stressed the importance of collaboration between town and gown leaders.

"Think We" was the theme of our Intercity Visit, to emphasize the need locally to become partners -- not sparring partners -- in the future. It is a call for the Carolina community to take pride in the progressive town that surrounds it and for Chapel Hill to honor and respect the great university that makes its home here. Kudos to Aaron Nelson and the chamber for organizing the trip and promoting the sense of community.

There is much to learn from both the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor, from their successes and from their failures, from where they have been and where they want to go. The university and the city give us a glimpse of where we may be headed.

Maybe it was that "Back to Future" feeling and my optimism for the future of our community that propelled me onto the stage at Zingerman's on our last night to play "Johnny B. Goode" for the crowd.

In the words of Marty McFly, "Your kids are going to love it."


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

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